Use 5 W’s and H to Write Queries That Work

For better or worse, the query letter is one of the most important keys to a writer’s success–especially for the unknown writer. The reason is simple: queries act as a sort of interview for prospective writers with future partners, who may be paying the writer in question money or, at the very least, devoting a lot of time to the writer’s work.

The manuscript and writing ability may be amazing, but most editors and agents don’t even request the manuscript or make assignments until they get interested in the query. So what brand of magic should writers be stuffing into these query letters?

Actually, it doesn’t require any incantations or hocus pocus. Rather, a writer should think like a journalist and handle the query process by using the 5 W’s and H.

Here’s how to use the 5 W’s and H to write queries that work:

  • Figure out who. Who do you need to contact? This might include the name of the magazine or book publisher, but you also want to learn the specific name of the editor if possible. Websites may hold the answer, and you may be able to call into the office (or send an e-mail) to ask. When in doubt with magazines, just grab a current issue and find out who the managing editor is on the masthead.
  • Figure out where. Once you have a name, search for where to send your query. It may be an e-mail address or online submission form. Some places may even want the submission sent via post.

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  • Figure out what. What do the editors or agents want? What do you have to sell them? If the two don’t sync, then your chances of success plummet. Agents that handle nonfiction animal books do not want fantasy trilogies (even if it’s Lord of the Rings times eleven). That said, your odds of success improve dramatically when you find a match between what you’ve written and what the editors and/or agents want.
  • Figure out when. Many places have rolling submission periods. This means they review submissions year round. However, there are also several markets that only consider submissions during specific reading periods. For instance, a publisher may only read submissions one month out of the year, or a magazine may have certain periods in which they will allow submissions for upcoming issues. Submission guidelines often include this information. If nothing is said on the issue, it’s usually safe to assume they have a rolling submission policy.
  • Figure out how. How does the market want you to submit your material? This goes back to where, but also, how do they want the query written? How do they want their book proposals put together? Don’t get cute here. Follow the guidelines.

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Improve your query!

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  • Figure out why. This is maybe the most important element of the actual query letter. You need to find the right market, connect with the right person on the right project, and submit in the right way… but you also have to answer the question: Why? Why this project? Why you as the author? Why does (or should) anyone care? Why will they read more magazine issues as a result? Why will they buy the book? Watch the movie? And so on. Figure out the why and spell it out in the opening sentence and then back it up throughout the query. If you can do that, then you will find more success with your queries.

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Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

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