Queries vs. Articles: Which Is Best?
by Moira Allen
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Q: Which comes first, a "query" or an article? You
could wait 6-8 weeks for a response to a query; why not devote
that time to writing an article, and submitting the completed
article instead of a query? I don't understand the benefit of
waiting so long for a nonbinding indication of interest -- or
perhaps I don't understand the purpose of a query.
A: When trying to make this decision, it may help to remember
that "query vs. article" isn't so much a question of
what you should write first, but how to best market what
you write. In some cases, writing the article first may be your
best choice, either because you risk losing enthusiasm for the
idea if you wait, or because you aren't sure exactly how the piece
will turn out.
Even if you do write the article first, however, that doesn't
mean that you should ignore the query process. Think of the article
as your product -- and a query letter as the marketing tool that
will help you sell that product. Simply put, a qury letter is
a sales pitch for your article.
To be an effective sales tool, a query should contain the following
- A "hook" -- perhaps the opening sentence or two
of your article -- to grab the editor's attention and indicate
why the article would appeal to the publication's readership.
- A concise summary of the article. I usually provide a title,
then four or five bulleted point. Don't tease; give enough information
to help an editor determine what the piece will be about (and
to prove that you know what you're talking about).
- An indication of why the article is appropriate for this
particular audience. (Avoid phrases like "Your readers will
love this story;" be specific about audience benefits.)
- Your qualifications for writing the article -- e.g., credentials,
education, writing experience, personal experience, etc. If you
don't have any writing experience, don't say so; instead, describe
some other qualification that will demonstrate your knowledge
of the subject.
- A suggested word count and delivery date (e.g., 30 days after
receiving the assignment).
- Needless to say, it's also essential to make your query look
as neat and professional as possible; typos in a query are the
kiss of death (as are cliches!). Keep it to one page if possible,
and don't forget the SASE.
But if you've already written the article, you may ask, why
bother sending an advance sales pitch? Why not let the article
There are several reasons:
- Most editors prefer queries -- so why not give them what
they want? From a query, an editor should be able to learn the
following things without having to wade through a 10-page article:
- Whether the material is appropriate for the magazine. Does
it address a relevant topic, from an angle or slant tailored
to the magazine's audience? Does it sound interesting or useful?
(Nine out of ten queries don't; similarly, nine out of ten articles
aren't. The folks who wrote the queries, however, saved themselves,
and their editors, a lot of time.)
- Whether the topic has been covered recently or is in the
works. This is a key reason for writing queries: You don't know
what articles the editor has on hand or has contracted for. Why
waste weeks writing an article just to discover that someone
else had a similar idea first? (And no, this doesn't mean that
editors read queries and then rush to assign "your"
ideas to "their" writers.)
- Whether you are capable of presenting a well-developed, well-written
proposal, and by extension, a well-written article. A query helps
an editor assess a writer's abilities quickly. Besides issues
of grammar and professionalism, an editor will also look at tone
and style, so polish your query as you would a finished article.
- Whether you have the qualifications to write the piece. Some
magazines won't accept technical articles from nonprofessionals.
Others are willing to work with writers who can interview professionals.
Use your query to develop a convincing argument as to why you
should be given this assignment.
- Many publications now accept queries only, due to the time
and cost involved in reading unsolicited submissions. Consequently,
a query may be the only way to be considered at all.
- Many publications pay more for assigned articles than for
unsolicited articles. Thus, while you might be able to sell the
piece "cold," you might also be able to get more for
it if you query first.
- Queries save you time and effort. Compare the amount of time
involved in researching and writing an article to the amount
of time required to write a query. Can you seriously afford to
spare valuable writing time on material that may not sell --
especially when research is involved?
The Question of Commitment
Chances are that even if you receive a positive response,
it will be "nonbinding" -- e.g., "go ahead on
speculation." Is that worth waiting for?
Yes. Although "on spec" isn't a promise, it is a
commitment on the part of an editor to give your article careful
consideration. Most editors won't give such an assignment unless
seriously interested -- and though we've all heard horror stories,
most won't reject an on-spec piece unless it is seriously flawed.
Those flaws, however, are the reason for on-spec assignments.
Every editor has been burned at one time or another by a writer
who made glowing promises but didn't deliver. New writers, therefore,
are rarely given "firm" assignments. Instead, they are
given an opportunity, on speculation, to prove that they can deliver
If you can prove this, you're well on your way to "real"
assignments. Better yet, editors may start calling you with their
own ideas. You'll also need to spend less time on queries to editors
who know your work; you don't have to dazzle them with your style
or your credentials, but can simply pitch a brief summary of your
article idea. (Such as: "How about an article on the basics
of query letters?") But don't try this in the beginning!
Unless a magazine's listing says e-mail queries are OK, don't
use this method to approach an editor for the first time. Instead,
wait until you have a relationship (or permission) before e-mailing
queries or submissions.
Ten years ago, it was much easier to approach the market with
an unsolicited manuscript. Today, queries have become an industry
standard; they are expected of the professional writer. Rather
than viewing queries as a time-consuming "middle step"
between writing and selling, think of them as a tool that will
help open doors to your writing -- doors that might otherwise
remain firmly closed.
Find Out More...
- How to Write a Successful Query, by Moira Allen
- Sample Query
- What to Do if You Don't Have Clips, by Moira Allen
- Preparing E-mail Queries and Submissions, by Moira Allen
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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