And I understand this dynamic, intimately.
If, before I’d actually written the pieces, I’d had to query The Curator for all the weave-it-this-way-and-that musings I crafted for them over the years, I’d have been sunk. How do you say, in a way that enamors an editor (plus, makes sense), “I will write about feeling the pressure of cabbage, as a way to discuss writer’s block. It will be poetic and meandering. I’m thinking you’ll like it.”
Or, how do you encapsulate yet another vegetable angle, that, in the middle of things claims, “It could have been ten lima beans or it could have been twenty-seven or maybe a hundred and four. I never counted. That is the measure of comfortable love—those numbers we cannot remember…”
You might be hard pressed to find a way to cut to the chase, especially before the piece even exists. I feel your query letter pain.
You may want to write the piece first. Then craft your query letter. This will take longer. You will have written a piece, which might feel “wasted” if the editor doesn’t accept it or if they want you to change it more than you’d be happy with. But at least your words won’t be crushed before they even have a chance to poke their way out the earth. And, if you have a blog, you can always publish the piece there if it’s not a fit for the venue for which you crafted the piece.
Depending on the type of writing I’m attempting, I sometimes use this approach—write first, craft the query later.
Crafting a query honors an editor’s time, so even if they don’t require it from me, I try to provide one instead of sending along a finished piece for them to consider. (Exception: Once you become a Contributing Writer somewhere, you might get to act almost like your own editor, deciding if a piece will be a good fit for a venue—topic-wise, style-wise, and timing-wise. This is marvelous, though it’s still a good idea to query your editor if you think a piece might be controversial or represent a risky departure from the venue’s usual fare.)
If I’m going to write a more journalistic piece, I rarely write the whole thing before crafting a query. Instead, I play with ideas until they feel like they’re bursting with energy and possibility. Then I craft a query and send it off first. This is good discipline. It compels me to think things through and encapsulate them. It can also save my time and mental bandwidth, since, if a query isn’t accepted, I often choose not to write the piece and instead move on to other things.
But you want to see what worked, yes?
Here’s an example of a query I sent, that resulted in this published article:
[Editor’s Name], hi there.
Here’s an idea that I thought might work for Edutopia for the upcoming end of the school year. It’s especially applicable at the K-3 level.
“5 Great Reasons to Make It a Fairy Tale Summer”
The phenomenon of summer slide is well established. At its core, it relates to a number of factors that are not always simple to reverse or handle. Making it a “fairy tale summer” is a great way to deal with the issue—whether you’re a classroom teacher, a librarian, or a parent.
For this article, I’d like to explore 5 ways choosing a fairy tale focus for summer reading helps handle summer slide, including:
-a strong and simple way to help students continue to develop their sense of narrative structure (this sense is so vital for story-reading in general, but also for contributing to the ability to persist when facing longer texts during independent reading)
-a way to connect the generations, through texts that are familiar in structure and partial content, which creates and easy “in” for parents and grandparents to read and discuss and extend the stories; the easier the “in,” the more likely it is that shared reading will happen
-a way to preserve reader confidence (so important for developing independent reading), as familiar themes and language conventions create a dependable scaffold
-with the dependable scaffold in place, the fairy tale also presents a great opportunity for new learning to occur, by using fairy tales that add a slight narrative twist or use new and interesting vocabulary
-a way to keep students engaged (many, many students enjoy a sense of magic or enchantment), which helps ensure that more shared and independent reading will occur
Thanks, [Editor’s Name]. I look forward to hearing if this is something that would work for your team. 🙂
As you can see, Edutopia likes to have a fairly specific query. They evaluate queries on a weekly basis and they’re an extremely busy team, so they want to know exactly what’s coming before they agree to let you write a piece. It’s got to be a fit. And it’s got to be something they really, really need.
Compare this to a query I sent to Jane Friedman, who I have a long and trusting relationship with and who has always been happy to share my work with the world via her venue. The query, which is less extensive and specific, still makes a promise, which I (mostly) kept and she published the result, here.
Happy Friday, Jane. I hope you are well this lovely spring day. 🙂
I was thinking it might be a nice followup to the introversion focus of my last piece at your place, to maybe do an article something like “The Introvert’s Guide to Launching a Book.”
As an example, I’d use The Golden Dress, which is publishing next week.
I’m thinking of maybe a “What I’m Doing/ What I’m Not Doing” format, the way I’ve seen some of the articles at your place do. As always, I’d include the useful and a little of the unexpected.
The timing would be basically open, though I think it would be good if a Shelf Awareness piece I’d like to link to is published first, which I’m guessing will be sometime not too long after May 15.
Let me know if this fits your needs (and, if not, of course I understand). 🙂
The Query Bottom Line
Do you have to write a query?
Many editors prefer it. Some require it. I recommend it—even if you’re the kind of writer who has to write his or her way into a piece, instead of planning it up front; you can always craft the query after-the-fact. Either way, the editor will be none the wiser.
When you write a query, even for an editor who doesn’t strictly require it, they’ll most likely thank you for it. And? You might thank yourself. Besides strengthening your thinking process, it’s a practice that can pave the way to a richer working relationship, notwithstanding an editor’s taste for cabbage, lima beans, or golden dresses.
Photo by Shawn Campbell, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Post by L.L. Barkat, author of Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.
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