You Wouldn't Want to Publish This
Article, Would You?
by Allen Cox
Have you ever sent a query letter proposing an article to a magazine
or newspaper editor, and waited for a response, and waited, and
waited? A month passes, then two. Ever wonder why a response never
If so, try to step into the skin of the editor who opened and read
your e-mail after opening a dozen other e-mails that day, all of
them queries from writers whose work she doesn't know. And only one
of those queries grabbed her attention. But it's late, and all she
can think about is picking up her kids from soccer practice,
throwing dinner together, pouring a glass of wine, and settling in
to edit a few articles for the next issue. She'll get to the query
responses tomorrow. Good intentions. But tomorrow it starts all over
again with an inbox full of new queries, an editorial meeting, an
assistant who called in sick, and…
Well, you get the picture.
Now that you're in the skin of that editor, read the opening line or
two of your query. Did it call out to you? Did it invite you along
on a journey? Did it leap off the page, sweep you up in its arms and
carry you away? Do you want to read more of what the writer has to
Your Story Does Not Meet Our Editorial Needs at This Time
If you have any experience sending queries, chances are you've
received a reply in the form of a Xeroxed slip, copied so many times
that it's askew in its margins, offering the ultimate in vagueness:
"Your story does not meet our editorial needs at this time."
The brush-off? Most certainly. But it doesn't necessarily mean that
you've written a bad pitch or targeted the wrong publication.
You don't know what it means. Maybe the publication's editorial
calendar is full for the next two years, or perhaps they just
accepted a story on the same topic from another writer. You can
second-guess a form rejection slip or a non-responsive editor all
day, but you'll never know the reason. You can only control what
happens up to the point that you hit the send key or drop the query
letter in the mailbox. After that, forces that writers can only
imagine rule the universe.
Even well-known, widely published writers with a list of credits to
envy still receive rejections. If you've done all your homework and
know that your pitch is well-written and well-targeted, but an
editor doesn't go for it, it's no cause for despair. You must
persevere. Your story just might be what another editor has been
Have You Actually Ever Read Our Publication?
The most eye-opening reply I ever received from an editor inquired
whether I'd actually read a copy of their publication.
When the pain subsided, I realized that the editor's question was
not an insult, but valuable feedback. I had missed the mark, and by
a long shot. I was not in tune with their editorial needs, or the
publication's tone or style, or something. I un-crumpled the
editor's reply, took a deep breath, and thought back. Of course I
had read the submission guidelines. I even glanced at a few excerpts
of articles posted on their web site. But did I actually get my
hands on copies of the magazine and read the stories they published?
Researching the right markets for your article is a crucial step in
selling your work. But this aspect of the sales process doesn't have
to be miserable drudgery—it can be as simple as heading to a
well-stocked newsstand and spending a few hours browsing the
Not only must your pitch reflect the tone and style of your finished
article, but both your pitch and finished article must align with
the tone and style of the publication you are targeting. Even
editors whose Writer's Guidelines state, "Surprise us. We won't know
what we like until we see it," tend to have preferences in theme and
an author's point of view.
Before you construct the first sentence of your query letter, you
need to have a basic sense of the tone and style of the finished
story (assuming you haven't written it yet). There is no need to
over-analyze this aspect of writing the pitch. If your story will be
humorous, the pitch had better elicit a chuckle. If your story will
be written in a literary style, the pitch must meet the same
literary demands. If the piece will be scientific or
technical, you might open the pitch with a relevant statistic or
fact. The tone and style of the pitch (especially the opening)
should be a microcosm of the tone and style of the article.
So, once you know what your story will be about, and have a solid
sense of the tone and style with which you'll write it, and
researched what publications you'll target, and crafted the best
pitch you can, you're not quite finished.
You need a sanity check, another set of eyes. You need to find
someone other than your spouse, partner, or mom—someone who doesn't
love you—to read your pitch and give you objective feedback. Of
course, it's helpful if that second set of eyes knows its way around
a query letter; don't give it to the cable guy unless he's an
aspiring writer too.
This is where a writer's critique group comes in handy, whether
face-to-face or in cyber space. Before your query shows up in an
editor's inbox, show it to at least one other writer. Listen to
their feedback. Consider their suggestions. Tweak your pitch if
necessary. You probably won't have to do this step forever, but
until you build confidence in your pitch-crafting skills it could
make the difference between acceptance and rejection.
Sorry, I Didn't Fall In Love with It
freelance writer who has ever pitched an article hasn't seen the
words, "Sorry, I didn't fall in love with it," or something similar,
scrawled hastily across the margin of the returned query letter? If
your attention-grabber fails to grab, your article (no matter how
noble in purpose) is doomed.
As writers, we have a full assortment of resources at our disposal
on how to construct a query letter. With few variations, the
prescribed format is a three-paragraph structure: an opening that
grabs attention, details about the story (title, main points,
sidebar, availability of photos or illustrations, etc.), and a
conclusion that includes a bio. The opening paragraph is your
opportunity to demonstrate that you can capture a reader's
interest. The accepted assumption is that if your pitch fails to
hook readers, your story will as well.
Here is an example of the opening of a successful pitch, written by
Toronto writer Katherine McIntyre, for Herb Companion
"Not every party
invitation comes tucked in its own pot of cherry tomatoes. Mine did.
More than intrigued, I followed the directions: 'Take an elevator to
the 16th floor, and then up two flights of iron stairs.'
Passing through a heavy steel door, I discovered, floating above
Toronto's downtown core among chrome and glass office towers, a
party in a green oasis—a rooftop herb garden on top of Toronto's
Royal York Hotel."
Katherine's approach is
simple and effective. She creates a journey of discovery and invites
us to accompany her as she follows the directions in her unusual
invitation. We want to discover, along with Katherine, what's at the
top of the iron stairs. She creates a vivid setting and a bit of
magic with few words. "Sixteenth floor," "iron stairs," "heavy steel
door," and "chrome and glass office towers" are all cold, urban
images. And then, the sudden contrast that delights: a rooftop herb
garden. We are on the roof with her in an oasis of green, and the
contrast leaves us wishing to remain, wanting to read more.
successful pitch I penned for Northwest magazine for a
feature entitled "Wood Transformed," I strived to capture the
editor's attention through the senses of smell, sound, and sight:
"When you step through the doors of Madera, a mix of sensations
greets you—the strong but inviting scent of freshly cut cedar, the
high-pitched whine of a saw from somewhere out of sight, the exhibit
of works in a variety of media from Northwest artists. Madera,
Spanish for "wood," is a fitting name for Carlos Taylor-Swanson's
fine woodworking studio and art gallery tucked in an alley just
south of Tacoma's Museum District."
Not only do the opening
lines of these two pitches reveal the subject matter, but they
create setting and mood through the senses. And they attempt, with
an economy of words, to place the reader in that setting, to make
the reader part of the journey.
An editor, in reading an
engaging, well-crafted query, is able to understand what the article
will be about, gain a sense of the tone and style with which you
will write it, and can determine if the piece would fit her
publication. With a pitch like that, you elevate your credibility
and tip the scale in favor of acceptance.
Allen Cox is a freelance travel and
lifestyle writer whose work has appeared in magazines, guidebooks,