The Query Letter, Part 2: How to a Write Query Letter for a Nonfiction Article

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Previously, we discussed the best manner in which to present a piece of fiction to an editor with a query letter. This week, we will look at how to write a query letter for a nonfiction article.

Wait, some say. Why not write about querying for a novel? Isn’t that the logical next step for creative writers? Why go on with details for query letters for the “small stuff”?

There are two reasons. One, this author does not enjoy the idea of following up on a previous post about querying for fiction with another piece on the same topic. Writing careers include a multitude of disciplines, and it is good to have some experience with more than one of them if you truly desire to make a living with words.

Second, submitting a novel to a publisher and expecting them to snap it up on the spot is similar to thinking one is going to win the lottery after buying one’s first ticket. It happens, but it is rare; the odds are not in a beginning writer’s favor. That does not mean giving up on your dream novel, future authors, but it does mean you have to step outside your comfort zone and make connections. Writing short stories is one very good way to do that.

Another way is to write nonfiction articles for magazines, journals, or even your local newspaper. Not only does this expand your portfolio, giving you a proven track record of success, it helps shore up your platform. We will go into what a platform is in more detail with the next post, but the fact is that most publishers expect that the writers they contract with will have an established presence on the Internet, both because it makes them easier to find and because it will allow readers to develop a rapport with the author.

From collective, modern experience with a multitude of fictional franchises, most people realize that fans invest heavily in their favorite stories. Keeping an up-to-date-online presence where the author is approachable is a good way to build up and maintain that support. Book signings and other events help as well, but with so much interaction taking place in the electronic ether, most writers cannot afford to stay offline. Even Dean Koontz*, a relatively reclusive author, has a website and blog where fans old and new can interact with him.

Now you see how writing nonfiction article(s) for a publication would help pad an author’s resume and build their platform. With many magazines “going digital” these days, readers will often stumble across new entertainment that piques their curiosity while surfing the web. So submitting nonfiction essays to publications – online and in print – is usually a good idea for the neophyte author.

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Of course, this will raise the question of what to write about. The answer to this question is the same one a writer would receive for fiction: write about what interests you. Find a magazine, journal, or even a regular newspaper column that deals with a subject familiar to you. Look up the word count requirements and other submission details, then check the publisher’s backlog to see what format others used when submitting to the publication. Thanks to the Internet, doing this for nonfiction short publications is fairly easy.

Before anyone complains that I did not offer this guidance for short stories, remember that anthologies tend to be a luck-of-the-draw business. And magazines can be picky about what they will buy. Studying back issues can be more of a hindrance than a help with fiction magazines, as a writer might try to combine the voices of several other authors to tell an “acceptable” story rather than write his own tale in his own voice. It is often better to simply write the short story and then go about searching for a home for it, while setting the next adventure down on paper to begin the process anew.

Nonfiction publishers tend to be more scientific and rigid in their acceptance preferences for the simple fact that they are dealing with established information. Even opinion pieces require their writers to have a grasp of real events, items, people, places, and the like. If an author wants to write an article on the moon landings, he must have some idea of how the astronauts got there – which means he has to do at least a modicum of research. Or, if he is arguing why one movie is better than another, he has to actually watch said films. If he submits a piece to the editor without doing the requisite work, then he is wasting his own time as well as the editor’s.

The field of nonfiction writing covers everything from fun anecdotes to interviews to opinion essays to book reviews. If you feel unqualified to submit a piece in one or a handful of these categories, it is still possible that you will be able to write an article in one or more of the others. Yes, you may have to practice a bit before you can submit an article to a nonfiction publication. But once you narrow down where your nonfiction strengths and weaknesses lie, you will have enough self-knowledge to step into the world of nonfiction publications.

And that means you need to know how to query the editors for these publishers.

Going back to the ever-handy Writer’s Market *, we find this example of a good nonfiction query:

 

Jimmy Boaz, editor

American Organic Farmer’s Digest

8336 Old Dirt Road

Macon, GA 00000

 

Dear Mr. Boaz,

There are 87 varieties of organic crops grown in the United States, but there’s only one farm producing 12 of these – Morganic Corporation.

Located in the heart of Arkansas, this company spent the past decade providing great organic crops at a competitive price helping them grow into the ninth leading organic farming operation in the country. Along the way, they developed the most unique organic offering in North America.

As a seasoned writer with access to Richard Banks, the founder and president of Morganic, I propose writing a profile piece on Banks for your Organic Shakers department. After years of reading this riveting column, I believe the time has come to cover Morganic’s rise in the organic farming industry.

This piece would run in the normal 800-1,200 word range with photographs available of Banks and Morganic’s operation.

I’ve been published in Arkansas Farmer’s Deluxe, Organic Farming Today and in several newspapers.

Thank you for your consideration of this article. I hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,

 

Jackie Service

34 Good St.

Little Rock, AR 00000

jackie.service9867@email.com

 

For the most part, this sample nonfiction query is similar to the one proposed for fiction writers. You will find as we progress in this series that there is very little in the way of variation in the format for query letters. Business letters tend to follow the same structure mostly because it works; it is easy to read, easy to write, and requires a minimum of effort to adjust when dealing with a different aspect of the industry. In that respect it is rather like the wheel, the screwdriver, or the saw. There are dissimilarities or variations in design for these items, but their main purposes do not change.

Conversely, the ways these letters can be poorly written are unending. Just take a look at this sample “bad” query letter for a nonfiction publication from the same Writer’s Market:

 

Dear Gentlemen,

I’d like to write the next great article you’ll ever publish. My writing credits include amazing pieces I’ve done for the local and community newspapers and for my college English classes. I’ve been writing for years and years.

Your magazine may not be a big one like Rolling Stone or Sports Illustrated, but I am willing to write an interview for you anyway. I know you need material, and I need money. (Don’t worry. I won’t charge you too much.)

Just give me some people to interview, and I’ll do the best job you’ve ever read. It will be amazing, and I can re-write the piece for you if you don’t agree. I’m willing to re-write 20 times if needed.

You better hurry up and assign me an article though, because I’ve sent out letters to lots of other magazines, and I’m sure to be filled up to capacity very soon.

Later gents,

 

Carl Bighead

76 Bad Query Lane

Big City NY 00000

 

Can you see the problem with this example? Not only the ones which it has in common with the bad short fiction query in the previous post, but the errors this fictional author made that are specifically unhelpful to his intended query? The big mistake he made in this case is that he expects to be made part of a nonfiction publication’s regular freelancers or staff based on nothing more than a few vague promises.

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Becoming a staff writer or preferred freelancer for a nonfiction publication is quite possible, but it is not the purpose of a query letter. A query letter such as the good example offered above is meant for either freelance writers – those who write articles for various magazines without becoming part of the staff – or for people interested in submitting one or two articles to nonfiction publications in-between their regular work, no matter what that might be. Only regular, quality submissions from a freelancer will earn them a magazine’s continued interest. A freelance writer may not ask for it in his first query letter.

If someone wishes to become an employee for a particular nonfiction magazine, journal, etc., he does not write them a query letter. He seeks to be hired directly by the publisher and/or its parent company. Query letters are for written items – short stories, articles, novels, or for a partnership between an agent and an author. They are not applicable to a standard job search, and to treat them as such is to earn a ticket straight to the editor’s trash bin.

Some might say the above illustration of a poor query letter is unfair, and they would be right. It is unfair to the editor, who has a limited amount of time on this Earth and can only stay at his desk for a certain number of hours. And it is not fair to the author, either, for the simple reason that it provides him with a facile excuse to give up on writing completely. If the editor is unwilling to accept the submitting writer’s genius, then what is the point of continuing down this path? No one wants to read what he writes, so why should he write at all?

Perhaps that seems a touch over-dramatic, but the fact is that it happens. Maybe not in so many words, nor with such a sense of self-aggrandizement, but it does happen. And editors do have to deal with this type of written behavior rather frequently. There are some big-name fiction publishers who explicitly state in their guidelines that prospective authors may not send handicrafts, baked goods, or other “bribes” along with their submissions in an attempt to convince editors to give their novels, articles, et al a “fair” look. For these warnings to be present means people have attempted all these things in the hope their submission would be published.

Life is not fair, readers. It is good, but good does not entail or require fair. Expecting editors to accept poor work or airy-fairy promises in lieu of a concrete premise or a written article is akin to believing that dangerous storms only happen in places where other people live, not where you do. The rules established by publishers are meant to make certain that everyone who is capable receives a just hearing. If a prospective author is unable or unwilling to abide by the rules, then the editor is entirely within his rights to save himself and his employer valuable time by ignoring a bad query letter.

I will include this article by showing a second variation on the good nonfiction query letter. Also from Writer’s Market, this alternative format is somewhat longer than the one seen above. It may not serve as well for some as the prior example, but it is something to keep in mind nonetheless:

 

John Q. Writer

123 Author Lane

Writersville, USA

johnqwriter@email.com

(323) 555-0000

 

Jan. 30, 2009

 

Jane Smith, managing editor

New Mexico Magazine

4200 Magazine Blvd.

Santa Fe, NM 87501

 

Ms. Smith,

According to the Bible, it took two days for God to create all living creatures. The Way New Mexican Regina Gordon sees it, the 48-Hour Film Project involves the same amount of time – with only a slightly less complicated task.

“Every second counts, when you have 48 hours to make a film.” That’s the motto of the 48-Hour Film Project (www.48hourfilm.com), a nationwide event that challenges local filmmakers to form teams and create four minute movies – from script to set design to finished product – in 48 hours or less. Albuquerque is no stranger to the fray, and will again participate in the competition in 2009.

Also returning in 2009 is the city’s area producer: Gordon. More than 20 area teams competed in 2008 – with all of these guerrilla filmmakers reporting to one woman – Gordon – who must substitute passion, adrenaline, and insane amounts of coffee for sleep she certainly won’t get. So what drives her and other participants to exhaust themselves like they do? I propose an 800-word short profile on Gordon and, with it, New Mexico’s involvement in the project for New Mexico Magazine. (I’ve already touched base with Gordon.) I believe that a Gordon feature would be a great fit for the “Introducing” section of your magazine. To give readers a feel for what a kinetic, exciting, shoot-from-the-hip experience this is, I would interview Langston to hear anecdotes from last year and discover what lies in store for this year – as a sense of community for the project continues to build in the area.

In 2003, I covered Philadelphia’s involvement in the project for Artspike magazine. Thank you for considering this piece. My resume and clips are enclosed.

Respectfully,

 

John Q. Writer

Encl.: Clips and resume

 

Both of these good samples focus on proposals for interviews, not on other types of articles. You will not need to modify them very much if the piece you are pitching has a different focus and/or has already been written. The above illustrations are models, formats you can adjust to fit the requirements of the publisher and your work. All you need to get started is the pattern of the letter; once you have that, crafting the letter itself is easy.

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Again, if you have no credentials that would help boost your suggested article, do not mention them. Just let your pitch rest on the strength of your idea, or on the finished product you have submitted along with the query letter. Some magazines, journals, and the like will prefer a pitch in a query letter to an actual article, but that is not the case across the board. Look carefully at the submission’s page for the publication you plan to query, then write your letter (and/or your article) accordingly.

It is not a guarantee of success or acceptance. Nothing in life is certain, even in the best of times. But a good set of tools can take one a long way.

These sample letters are tools which all writers who are intent on making a living with their words ought to have in their arsenal. Even if you only use them sparingly, it is better to have them to hand than to be left wondering what the proper next step ought to be. At the very least, they will come in handy for your other writing projects.

Remember the Boy Scouts’ motto: “Be prepared.” When life throws you a surprise or an opportunity (or both), you will have something to fall back on and of which you can make some use. On that day, you will be very glad to have the right tool for the job within easy reach.

Even if said tool is nothing more than the proper arrangement of words. 😉

If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna and Uranus. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue. Her most recent piece is available in Planetary Anthology: Sol. Order them today!

*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through it, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer. If you want more insight on the craft of writing and storytelling, take a look at Pulp Era Writing Tips by Bryce Beattie. Taking the advice of great writers from the past, the author collects seventeen (17) articles on writing penned by pulp era authors in their own words and times. Order it today and start learning from these giants of the craft!

One thought on “The Query Letter, Part 2: How to a Write Query Letter for a Nonfiction Article

  1. Pingback: The Query Letter, Part 3: How to Write a Query Letter for a Novel | A Song of Joy by Caroline Furlong

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