This article is from the misc.writing Writing FAQ, by Wendy Chatley Green email@example.com with numerous contributions by others.
First of all--the correct editor's name. Query
letters are sent to specific editors or agent *by name*. Do
not send them "To whom it may concern:" or to "Editor:"
Look up the names in the Literary Marketplace, then call the
magazine or publishing house to see if the editor still
works for them; editors move around frequently. Ask the
secretary to verify the spelling of the editor's name; this
slightly sneaky trick ascertains if the editor still is with
the magazine since, if the editor has left, the secretary
will say, "That person is not with us anymore." At this
point, you ask for the name of the editor's replacement,
then send your query to that person.
(Yes, the spelling trick is hard to pull off if the
editor's name is "Joe Jones" or "Sue Smith.)
While you're doing this research, also make certain
that the editor or agent handles the sort of writing that
you want to sell. Do not pitch a sailing article to a
needlepoint magazine or a romance to an editor who handles
Like cover letters, query letters are pithy and
to-the-point. For a novel, the letter states genre, word
count, and a very short description of the plot--no more
than three sentences. Pretend that you're pitching it to
someone in an elevator; you have only as much time as it
takes to get to the next floor, where the editor will either
escape or will stay to listen for more. Do not bore or
distract the editor; it spoils your sales pitch.
For a non-fiction piece, the letter gives subject
and brief outline--again, no more than a couple of
Many successful writers recommend including the
"lead" of your article in your query letter (a lead is the
first sentence or paragraph; it tells your readers what to
expect and "hooks" their attentions, making them want to
read the rest of the piece.)
A lead should be a short attention-grabber. Opinion
varies as to what is "short." Some say "two to four
sentences" while others will use a two-paragraph lead. The
important thing is brevity--do not weary the editor. If
your lead is boring, editors assume that all of your writing
will be not worth their time and money.
Whatever its length, the lead must convey much
information in as few words as possible. Craft your lead
carefully--open with a good hook. Tell what your story or
article is about, then wrap it up with a strong close. This
is your opportunity to show the editor what you can do; make
Both types of letters should include pertinent
information about you--important writing assignments or
sales, applicable experience, training, or education. For
example, if you are pitching an article about dugout canoes,
highlight your trans-Atlantic trip in the canoe that you
made from a cedar log with a ice cream scoop.
If the editor does not know your work, including a
few "clips" (examples of your work) is acceptable. Of
course, these should be professional sales to established
publications, not in-house newsletters, letters to the
editor, or other non-paid or vanity publication.
Don't include information that doesn't pertain to
the article or book. If the book is a historical romance,
the editor or agent will not care that you are a Mechanical
Engineering professor at Whassamatta University. Again,
don't bore or distract the agent.
However, if you have ties to the subject of the
article (you work for them, you wrote their advertising
campaign, you ran a recent PR campaign for them), this must
be mentioned in the query letter. Otherwise, when they find
out (not 'if they find out'), you're toast.
Note that sending out simultaneous queries is *not*
the same as sending simultaneous submissions. You are one
step removed from publication and everyone has less invested
at this point. If one editor expresses interest in your
completed work, then another responds to your query, simply
inform the second editor that someone else is considering
the work and ask if you may send it on if it returns to you.