Writing Queries That Work by Don McKinney

The most important element in any magazine article sale is not the idea, or even the skill with which the article is written, but the query letter you send to the editor. It seems obvious, but I’ll say it anyway: If you don’t impress that first person to read your letter, you’ll never get a chance to impress anyone else.

So who do you send this query to? And how do you know that anyone will even read it, let alone offer you any encouragement? To answer to second question first, magazines are hungry for good ideas, and they will encourage a strong and suitable query letter no matter what the background of the writer proposing it.

What is a good query letter?

Very simply, it is one that catches an editor’s attention, suggests an article that fits the magazine’s format and gives enough information about both subject and writer to persuade him or her that you can produce a publishable piece.

Who do you send a query to?

But let’s get back to my first question. To begin with, you don’t send it to “The Editor” or even to the editor by name. Manuscripts sent to nobody in particular end up reaching nobody in particular. They pile up in somebody’s office, or maybe even an empty space next to the water cooler, where they are known as part of the “slush pile.” Slush isn’t something you want on your sidewalk and, for the post part, editors don’t want it in their magazines, either.

Some magazines don’t read unsolicited manuscripts at all and simply return them with a brief form letter to that effect. In most cases they pile up until somebody is embarrassed enough by the stack of dog-eared material to sit down and go through it, usually with little or not expectation that anything publishable will be found. Expecting nothing, they find nothing; the main goal is to get rid of the stuff before somebody complains. Sometimes “slush” pieces do sell; I’ve bought some myself. But the odds are not far from those of winning $5 million from Ed McMahon.

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