Q&A with “The Query Queen,” Wendy Burt-Thomas – freelance writer, non-fiction author, editor, copywriter, and PR consultant…whew, this woman is busy!
In the first question (from your site), you address the humor in your book and I’ll let your answer speak for itself:
Can you tell us about your book?
The book was a great fit for me because I’d been teaching “Breaking Into Freelance Writing” for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I’m a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn’t require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as “good” examples in the book. I wrote all the “bad” examples myself because I didn’t dare ask for contributions that I knew I’d be ripping apart!
In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.
It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer’s Digest let me keep all the humor.
You wrote the “bad” query letter examples for the book and said on your site that you’ve written some bad ones yourself over the years. How did you improve – was it “practice, practice, practice” or did you have someone say to you, “Wow, you could really use some help!”
I’d say more “trial and error” than practice. By that I mean that my initial query letters weren’t necessarily poorly written, they were just too broad or too boring. For example, I might have (stupidly) pitched Shape Magazine an article on “Why exercise is good” instead of “17 Ways to tighten your butt muscles without getting off the couch.” And sometimes I actually had a good idea for an article but didn’t get the editors’ attention because it started with, “Dear Ms. Smith, I would like to write a 1,200-word article for your magazine.” No spelling errors, but no pizzazz either.
You’ve been on both sides of the business – writer and editor. When you first started as an editor, did it change your perspective or approach to query writing?
Oh yeah. The biggest lesson I learned as an editor is that the majority of people pitching you don’t even read your publication. (In fact, I’m pretty sure some of the people had never even seen a copy.) We’d get tons of queries from business owners that wanted us to run a profile (read: advertorial, not editorial) of their business – which is something we never ran. The people that had the best shot were the ones who said, “I really enjoy your publication and think this would be a good fit for your regular section called such-and-such.” Those writers not only read our publication, but also demonstrated that they knew it well. It reinforced my belief that the more I could tailor a query to a publication, the more likely it would get picked up.
Electronic querying has become much more common – many places actually seem to prefer it. How has the ease of e-queries helped or hindered your career (as a writer and editor)?
As a writer, email has been one of the best advancements in the industry. I used to have to pay for postage, SASE postage, envelopes, paper, printer ink, and gas to the post office – not to mention time. It’s also wonderful because you usually get a much faster response than snail mail ever offered. Even if it’s a rejection, I want to know immediately so I can submit to another publication.
The upside as an editor is that I get a lot less calls and requests for meetings. When I worked at the business newspaper, people used to just drop in and ask if I had a minute (note: it was never a ‘minute’) or they’d call to see if I got their query/article and then ask if I planned to run it.
The downside is that because it’s easier, faster and cheaper to send an email, I get hundreds a week from writers, businesses and PR agencies. About 99 percent have no relevance to the magazines I currently edit.
In one of the (good) magazine query letters in the book (p.13), you mention your mom, a registered dietician, giving the final review on your food/nutrition articles. Do you think a lot of new writers make the mistake of not looking in their own backyard for ideas or for people to use as sounding boards? And if so, why do writers shy away from this?
Yes, I think writers forget that they know a nurse, a dentist, a dog groomer, etc. – or they think they need to find someone in NYC to make the quote more legitimate. I’d say, as long as the professional has a different last name from you … (I use my mom’s maiden name.) I think everyone likes to feel important and what better way than being cited as an expert in an article? The trick is to let them know that A) the piece may not get published (if you’re still in the query stage); B) they won’t get paid but you can provide them with a copy of the article if it does run; and C) they don’t get to review the final piece.
Here’s another question from your site where I had a follow-up question.
The original Q&A is: What do you want readers to learn from your book?
I want them to understand that while writing a good query letter is important, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can break it down into parts, learn from any first-round rejections, and read other good queries to help understand what works. I also want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don’t bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.
My follow-up is: How do you keep that “original voice?” Any tricks, tips, advice? Or is just a matter of practice?
I’ve found that my best queries are those that reflect the style I use (or will be using) in the article. A serious 3,000-word feature on animal abuse is going to require a different voice in the query letter than a humorous 600-word piece about wrapping your baby in paper towels when you ran out of diapers.
Unless you’re plagiarizing, your voice will automatically be original. Your job is to make sure that the query is representative of the article. It’s a big reason I’m not a fan of someone else writing a query for you. It’s the padded-bra of the writing industry. ; )
And another question from your site where I had a follow-up question.
The original Q&A is: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a full-time writer?
Seize every opportunity – especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, “Wow. You have the best luck!” I thought, “Luck has nothing to do with it! I’ve worked hard to get where I am.” Later that week I read this great quote: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” It’s absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you’re prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you’ll be successful.
My follow-up is: I liked that you talk about the hard work that goes into being a writer. Do you find that people often disregard or downplay the work that goes into being a successful writer?
Is there such a thing as saying, “I agree 1,000%”?
Two major issues come to mind:
1. Some of my other friends who are professional writers will attest to this common request: “I’ve got a great idea. How about you write it and I’ll split the profits with you!” Everyone wants to be a writer but no one wants to write.
2. I pay $1,000/month for daycare. I write for a living. When I worked 9-to-5 jobs my friends wouldn’t dream of calling me at work “just to chat” or to ask me if I could leave work to babysit their kids for the day. Yes, sometimes I have flexibility in my schedule so I can chaperone a daycare field trip, go to the dentist or stay home with a sick kid. But what you don’t see is that I pulled an all-nighter to meet a deadline so I could enjoy the trip to the museum with my kids.
Straying from the book and process: Do you remember your first assignment/interview? If so, did you have fun with it or were you anxious, nervous…a whole lot of emotions at once?
I think the first assignment I had was for a tiny arts publication in Burlington, Vermont. I had to write blurbs about upcoming theater events and I was not a theater fan. I was nervous that all the “artsy” people would immediately see me as a fraud (e.g. not a ‘real’ writer), but they treated me like a V.I.P. journalist. They were just happy for the coverage!
After all these years in the writing business, does the “YAY” feeling of landing a great assignment or putting out a great publication diminish, or is each assignment/publication still as exciting as it was when you were new to the business?
Each project is different. As an editor, when a magazine finally goes to print I feel a big sigh of relief (and a twinge of worry that I’ve misspelled “pianist” or something!). As a writer, there’s a sense of pride when I get a check for almost anything I write. Sometimes I just think, “Wow! People pay me to write. How cool is that?!”
And finally, just for fun and in honor of Professor Schoew at ODU, can you sum up what a query letter is in one sentence? (I promise not to diagram the sentence!)
A query letter is your first – and possibly last – chance to impress an editor.