How to write a good query letter

1. Start with your story idea. Hit them with it in the email subject line, ensuring the angle is clear and the idea is seductively packaged. In fact, your best bet is to write it magazine coverline style: for example, ‘Why computer games are making us smarter’; ‘Couples: Live together, work together, stay together?’ Your first line must be fresh, interesting, tantalising, provocative, promising – what journalists call ‘grabby’. Because features editors all share one quality – they’re very, very busy – you need to grab them by the, er, neck hairs from the first word. They should read your email subject line and think, ‘I must read the rest of this’.

2. Write ‘Dear (name of editor)’. Make sure you’ve spelled the name of the editor/commissioning editor correctly.

3. There are many ways to introduce your story idea, and each query you write may differ from the last. But one of the most effective methods is to start with what you envisage as the introductory paragraph of your proposed feature.

4. Next, give a brief outline of the story you want to write. Think of this as a summary of the finished article, including the story highlights, type of research and format you intend using. You may need to do a spot of light research to write your story summary. Just don’t invest too much time and energy in something that may not get the green light.

5. Make sure you involve the reader. As with any good feature, a query should hook the reader at the first sentence and compel him or her to read the next sentence, then the next, and the next, right to the end. Ask yourself, ‘What will make the reader care about this story?’ and ‘What’s in it for the reader?’, and answer these questions in your query.

6. Package your story idea well. A solid story idea can flop if it’s not packaged in an appealing way. An editor probably won’t respond enthusiastically to a query entitled ‘Refugees: What can you do about the growing problem?’ (yawn: too negative, too worthy, too dry.) But flip your piece around, package it more attractively and imaginatively – say, ‘Refugees: Adding Value to a City Near You’ – and an editor may think, ‘Now, that’s different….’, and pick up the phone.

7. Mention which section of the magazine you feel your story would fit into. Look for the ‘flag’ on the top corner of the page, the mini-title denoting a distinct magazine section: for example, ‘My story’, ‘Health essentials’, ‘Profile’, ‘Real life’, ‘Good ideas’. This shows an editor that you’re very familiar with the publication.

8. Keep the tone of your letter professional and respectful yet relaxed. This is a business proposal after all – you’re offering your writing services in exchange for their money. Don’t be too chatty, and don’t go all awkwardly formal either. Feel free to add a personal touch or a splash of humour. Use exclamation marks sparingly, or avoid them altogether – they’ll make you sound too gushy.

9. The tone of your query should reflect the tone of the story you’re proposing to write. A serious, gritty investigation needs a hard-hitting, serious pitch. A query for a light piece must include some humour, to demonstrate your ability to write humorously.

10. Use Standard English. That means good, proper, grammatical English. Remember, you’re trying to show that you can write professionally and understand the nuance of language, so email- and chatroom-speak (writing everything in lower case, sans punctuation; using abbreviations like ‘rofl’, ‘imho’ and ‘lol’) and text messaging abbreviations such as ‘c u l8er’ and ‘2nite’) are unacceptable. Although slang can be used effectively for certain markets, it’s best to minimise or lose it completely until you’re a confident, well-known writer. By the way, writing good English doesn’t mean being frightfully formal and using poncey words like ‘inasmuch’, ‘thusly’ and ‘heretofore’. Get the balance right.

11. Add a brief biographical paragraph at the end, listing any relevant work experience, titles you’ve written for (especially if they include the magazine you’re querying, under a previous editor), and writing-related studies. List your areas of writing interest and any specialities you may have – for example, health, fitness and medical, lifestyle and food, technology trends or business writing. In general, it’s useful to be able to rattle off the topics you want to write about: editors will sometimes ask for your preferences so they can send stories you’ll love your way.

12. Never lie. You may be tempted to, um, embellish your experience in order to get a toe over the magazine threshold, but even little lies will come back to bite you. It’s always safer and better to be honest, but please don’t overdo it and mention all the other magazines who’ve rejected your ideas. Leave that bit out.

13. Don’t talk money. Editors prefer discussing payment after they’ve expressed an interest in a story, or, even better, commissioned it outright. So keep money out of your query, and check the magazine’s entry in Writer’s Market to see what you can expect to be paid.

14. Always include your phone number(s) at the end, below your name.

15. Keep your query brief – the shorter and snappier, the better.

16. Follow up. When following up, be polite. Resend your query and request a response. Or you could phone, briefly outlining your story idea and asking whether your email has been received, and politely request a response by the end of the week.

17. Query one at a time. Preferably, don’t send out simultaneous queries (pitching the same story idea to a number of magazines at the same time). Editors take offence at this. Query one at a time. If you don’t get a bite from your first target magazine, move on to the next on your list of possible markets, and query them (don’t mention your previous rejection). And so on. But do send out different story ideas to appropriate magazines simultaneously – a freelance writer needs to be continuously finding new work.