Mark Terry

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 5

February 3, 2008

Today, Part 5, concerns the query letter.

We're talking about magazines here, not corporate work. That's a different tennis court entirely and I can't speak to it a lot, but I'll deal with my thoughts and experiences there on Tuesday.

As for magazines, newspapers, etc., as we talked about earlier, you've analyzed the market, their writing style, and if you've gone through Writers Market and/or the masthead of the publication, you even know who to contact and how (ie., e-mail versus snail mail).

Just a comment on this e-mail versus snail mail queries. Once upon a time I did snail mail queries (once upon a time, what choice did I have?). Now, I do NO snail mail queries. The only thing that I do that uses the U.S. Postal System are contracts and checks. And I've got at least one client who wishes I'd get with the 21st century regarding contracts and do it via the Web, and I've considered the idea of direct deposits and/or Pay Pal accounts for paychecks as well. I figure it's only a matter of time for both, although I like actually having the money in my greedy little hands for a moment, sometimes checks are large enough that the credit union I use puts a freakin' 10-business-day hold on the money. Anyway, my philosophy is that in the year 2008, any magazine publisher who still relies on the USPO for queries (I personally feel this applies to agents, but there are someLuddites out there) are hopelessly behind the times.

Here's the good news and the bad news when it comes to queries. I sort of suck at them and I don't really do them the way the writing books always tell you to.

Books on this typically tell you to write something that resembles the lede (or lead if you're not a journalist and otherwise speak English) of your story. So, a recent piece of mine, if I had actually queried it this way, would have read something like this:

Dear Stephanie (the editor):

Irving, Texas-based Caris Diagnostics is moving into high gear, opening a new facility in Phoenix, Arizona and merging with Cohen Dermatopathology in Newton, Massachusetts. It’s all part of a strategy for strong growth based on what President and Chief Executive Officer Gail B. Marcus says is a three-pronged strategy: quality, technology, and service.

 Then I would say I would like to write a piece on Caris Diagnostics and probably explain why we should bother.

Then I would have a paragraph explaining who I am if they don't know. Then I'll close with something along the lines of:

I look forward to working with you.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with that approach. In fact, there's a lot right about it. I just don't choose to (usually) take that approach.

Here's what I would do, depending on if I had worked with this editor/publication before.

If I Had:

Dear Stephanie,

Are you interested in a piece on Caris Diagnostics? They're opening a new facility in Arizona and running a joint-venture/merger with Cohen Dermatopathology. I'd interview Caris CEO Gail Marcus and talk to Fred Coohen at Cohen.


Mark Terry

I would also like to point out, that if it's a publication I work with often, and they're not assigning pieces (often they do), I might pitch 3 or 4 story ideas at a time.

If They're New:

Dear Stephanie Munster:

My name is Mark Terry. I'm a full-time freelance writer and editor specializing in health, clinical diagnostics (business, technical and regulatory) and biotechnology. My work regularly appears in Laboratory Industry Report, Biotechnology Healthcare, ADVANCE for Medical Laboratory Professionals, Podiatry Management, and numerous others. I am the long-time editor of the international trade/technical journal, The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists, and a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. I am also the author of several book-length business market reports for Washington G2 Reports including Laboratory Market Leaders Report 2007 and Laboratory Industry Strategic Outlook 2007.

Would you be interested in an article about Caris Diagnostics? A leader in clinical diagnostics and pathology in the southwest, they have recently expanded their operations into the national market by opening a second laboratory in Arizona and by merging with Massachusetts pathology lab Cohen Dermatopathology. I would interview Caris CEO Gail Marcus and talk to Fred Coohen at Cohen Dermatopathogy, as well as one or two of their clients to discuss the impact of this merger on the pathology market.

I have attached PDFs of my resume and three relevant clips.

I look forward to working with you.


Mark Terry

Here's the difference in a nutshell:

With a new publication, I'm trying to sell myself as much or more than I am the idea. With my credentials and portfolio, I feel that the idea is almost secondary to the fact that as a pro, I can deliver whatever the hell they need.

There is, however, something else I think you should take away from this, especially if you don't already have clips and are trying to break into the business.

One of the most important things I try to do in a query letter with a new client besides show them I'm a pro, is to indicate to them HOW I will write the piece. In other words, you need to do a little bit of research before you query a publication and dig up the names of a couple people you'll interview for the article. (Rule of thumb: 3 sources per article, depending on the length of the article. A one-source article depends on the article, like if it's a simple profile;  or 5 or 6 sources if it's a long article or the subject is very complicated, but more than 3 can get unwieldy unless some of those sources are examples, like you're writing an article about insurance, so you interview 3 insurance agents, but then you interview 2 people whose houses were destroyed by a hurricane as examples). I'm convinced that doing a little bit of research by showing the editor what sources you're going to hang the article on, goes a long ways toward selling the piece. (And if those people don't want to talk to you for the article, that's okay, find somebody else. The editors won't mind as long as you deliver the article they want; unless you're promising to interview, say, a politician, celebrity or something like that and you can 't deliver on it, in which case you're screwed).

Having said all that, I also want to add that every editor and publication is different. I'm working with a new editor at a publication I worked with for a year or so, and my casual approach worked well with the old editor, but this new editor wants me to fully round out my story ideas and really provide details of what types of questions I will ask and who I will interview. He's being patient with me, but he clearly wants me to flesh out my queries/pitches more than I do. Other clients, I send them a query with 4 story ideas in 4 to 8 sentences total and they assign all of them to me with a, "These sounds good, when can you get them to me?"

I'm guessing some of you will ask: "But what if I don't have any writing clips?"

First, try to get some by volunteering for something. Local newspaper, newsletter of an organization you belong to, church newsletter, whatever.

Two, you might write an article on spec, which means for free. We all do it from time to time and sometimes it's the only way to break into a new market. Just make sure it's good. Make sure you interview people for it. Also, keep in mind that in many cases, they won't buy that actual article, but you might be able to use it as a foot in the door. Say you write your spec article and they read it and say, "It's pretty good, but not quite for us." Then e-mail the editor back and say, "May I pitch you other story ideas?" Or just go ahead and pitch some.

Just a few points.

I've got a standard writing resume, which I suppose I should post here sometime. It's essentially a list of all the clients I've worked with and the type of writing I did for them and when.

But you may notice in my bio up above, that it's tailored to the type of publication I'm trying to break into. I'm fairly lucky, I've written a lot of different things. Most writers do over time. But if I was pitching a story idea to a publication focused on say, travel, I would have to bring up publications that are less medical and/or technical oriented--things like The Oakland Press, Traverse Magazine, Mystery Scene Magazine, International Thriller Writers Report, Lowe's for Pros, etc.

That's why, although I think it's good to specialize, I also try to occasionally write things different. Because my specialty might dry up or I might get fed up with it and it would be nice to have the option of branching into some area. Hey, after my kids grow up I might want to take up travel writing. "Islands" Magazine, anyone?

Oh, and one more point: Find out the name of the appropriate editor to send a query to. It's in Writers Market or on the publication's website or on their masthead. And if worse comes to worse, call up the publication and ask. I've done it and it's well worth the 30 seconds.

One last, very important thing: proofread. No typos or errors in your queries, doofuses!


Mark Terry


Blogger spyscribbler said...

What a great series you're doing.

Paypal takes a cut, by the way. It's significant enough that's it's starting to irritate me. Maybe I'm miserly, though. :-)

3:34 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I didn't know that. It's probably possible to have monies paid directly to your bank account (it ought to be). It's something I should probably look into.

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This series is awesome. I just wish there was a link to them in the sidebar...

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Blogger Clara said...

Mark this series about freelance writting is pure gold! I´m trying to publish some short stories, and this is all just perfect. Now I know how to dully query magazines. Thanks a bunch! =D

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