Crack the Nationals:

How to Write Queries That Work

By Kelly James-Enger

I started my freelance career woefully ignorant. My first sale was to a national magazine--Cosmopolitan. My second was to Bride's. When I quit my fulltime job as a lawyer to freelance fulltime, I had no experience, no journalism background, and no contacts, but I did have two national clips. I built my career with their help.

Six years later, I've written for more than forty national magazines, and make a six-figure income. I speak frequently at writers' conferences now, and am often asked why I started with national magazines instead of with local or regional publications.

The honest answer? I didn't know any better. But in the process, I learned how to crack national markets with solid, well-researched query letters that proved I was uniquely qualified to write the articles I was pitching.

You can do the same. Make your queries stand out from the pack, and crack national magazine markets with these tips:

1. Pick up the Phone

The world of magazine editing is like a continual game of musical chairs. Magazine editors come, go, change positions, titles, and responsibilities with alarming speed. Don't rely on guidelines to tell you who the appropriate editor is--pick up the phone and ask, "Would you please tell me the name of the editor of your 'Healthy Kids' section?" Double-check the spelling and title and you'll make a good first impression and make sure that your query makes it way to the right person immediately.

2. Understand the Market

Editors at national magazines receive hundreds of queries every week, but the competition isn't as bad as you might think. At least 80% of the queries they receive simply aren't targeted to the magazine's readership. Pitch an idea that will interest readers--and show why they will care--and you're halfway there.

3. Demonstrate Familiarity

You've pitched an idea that's perfect for the mag; now slam-dunk it by letting the editor know you've read her publication by saying something like, "Interested in this idea for your 'Today's News' section?" Or mention a recent article in your query--for example, "I noticed you published a piece on easy ways to save money last month and thought my piece on garage-sale strategies might interest you." You're not just another writer trolling through Writer's Market for a quick sale--you've done your homework, so let her know it.

4. Make Her Job Easy

When I pitch a story, I suggest possible sidebars, quizzes, resource boxes, and other pieces to complement the main piece. I give her an idea of who I plan to interview, and suggest a word count. If she likes my idea, and my angle, all she has to do is pick up the phone and assign the piece. Think like your editor, and offer her a package that will make her job easier. You're more likely to get the assignment.

5. Move to the Front

If you haven't written for national magazines before, your editor may be a bit wary. She may not want to risk a full-length feature with a writer who's unknown to her. Pitching shorter pieces for the front-of-the-book section of the magazine is a great way to get your foot in the door, and prove yourself for longer assignments.

6. Catch her Attention

When I read queries I wrote early in my freelance career, I cringe. I started most of them with language like, "I am a freelance writer who is interested in writing for your magazine." Not exactly compelling stuff. Now I start my queries with a lead--usually the lead I'll use for the article itself. You want to intrigue your editor the same way you'll intrigue readers of your story.

7. Make it Look Good

OK, you already know to double-check your spelling and punctuation. But print out your query and read it out loud before you submit it. You'll catch more errors that way. Remember, your query is your first and most important writing sample you'll submit to this editor. If you write a poor or sloppy query, your chances of getting an assignment are slim.

8. Use a Template

While there's no "magic" query letter, using a similar structure every time makes it easier to write your queries. I use a four-paragraph format. The first paragraph is the lead, designed to catch the editor's attention; the second is the "why-write-it" paragraph, where I briefly explain the appeal of the story; the third is the "nuts-and-bolts" paragraph where I include information about who I plan to interview, suggested word count, appropriate section of the magazine, possible sidebars, and the like; and the final one is the "I-am-so-great" paragraph, where I demonstrate why I should write the piece. (More about that in a bit.) Using a template saves time and reminds you to include all the necessary elements in each query you write.

9. Strut your Stuff

Remember the I-am-so-great paragraph? Think like a two-year-old. Highlight your relevant writing experience and demonstrate to the editor that you are "uniquely qualified" to write this article.

If you're pitching a gardening piece and grow award-winning cucumbers, mention that. If you want to write a piece on parenting and are the dad of triplets, include that. If you have easy access to your story subject, let the editor know. You want her to read your query and think, "Wow--I may not know this person, but the writer sounds like just the person to write this piece for me!" Keep that in mind as you write your query.

10. Don't Give Up!

It often takes time and effort to break into national magazines. When you get a rejection (what I call a "bong"), follow up immediately with a new query. Start off saying, "thank you for your response to my query about [fill-in-the-blank.] While I'm sorry you can't use it at this time, I have another idea for you to consider." Then include your new query. By doing this, you'll prove that you're persistent and professional--and eventually nail an assignment. Case in point: it took me a half-dozen queries to crack markets like Woman's Day, Redbook, and Fitness, so don't give up. The next query you send may be the one that nets you an assignment!

Freelance journalist Kelly James-Enger is the author of Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create Your Own Writing Specialty and Make More Money (The Writer Books, 2003.) She can be reached through her website at:

© 2007 Kelly James-Enger All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.