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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Good-looking Queries that are Really Crappy: Why This One Didn't Sell


I've said before that if you want to write for print and online markets, you cannot underestimate the importance of your query letter--especially if you're a new writer. The query represents your first (and possibly your only) chance of impressing an editor who's new to you. It showcases your ability to conceptualize an idea, demonstrates your knowledge of her market, and highlights your unique qualifications to write this particular story for this market. 

I've written more than 1,200 queries at this point in my career and edited and given feedback on hundreds of others for freelancers. I've found that while some are clearly strong, and some are clearly horrible, there's a third type of query that new writers often submit. It's the crappy query masquerading as a solid one. At first glance, it looks fine--there are no spelling or grammatical mistakes, and the idea sounds like it might work for that market. But a closer look reveals that it is in fact, well, crappy. 

Here's an actual query I sent early in my freelance career. Read through it briefly before we move on. 

Dear Ms. Cook:

Most pregnant women are afraid that after the baby, their bodies will never be the same. They dread losing the fitness they have worked so hard to achieve but they don’t want to risk their babies’ health to keep up their workouts.

Most obstetricians agree that regular moderate exercise is beneficial to pregnant women as long as they were in good physical condition before pregnancy. However, mothers-to-be are advised to exercise at or below a certain heart rate to protect the baby’s safety. Using a heart monitor allows these women to keep up their fitness program and reassures them that their child is safe.

I am interested in writing a short article for Fitness on the use of heart rate monitors while exercising by pregnant women. I will interview mothers who successfully employed monitors through pregnancy and several physicians for their recommendations on exercise during pregnancy. This piece will also remind readers of the value of using heart monitors for working out even if they are not pregnant or planning on becoming so.

I am a freelance writer interested in health and fitness issues and have enclosed two recent clips for your review. Please call me at your convenience to discuss this idea further.  

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon. 

Very truly yours,

Kelly K. James

So, what'd you think? Not bad, right? That's what most writers say when I use this query in class. Many think I'm using it an example of what to do, as though it's a good query. 

Well, it's not. It stinks, and let's look at why. My comments are in red: 


Dear Ms. Cook:

Most pregnant women are afraid that after the baby, their bodies will never be the same. They dread losing the fitness they have worked so hard to achieve but they don’t want to risk their babies’ health to keep up their workouts. [Ok, first problem is that this idea is  much too general. My lead starts out with an assumption that nearly anyone could make—that “most women” are afraid that pregnancy will irrevocably change their bodies. This is along the lines of saying something like "most parents want their children to grow up to be happy, well-adjusted adults" or "most of us want to avoid getting a horrible disease." Duh, right? This lead is a dud.] 

Most obstetricians agree that regular moderate exercise is beneficial to pregnant women as long as they were in good physical condition before pregnancy. However, mothers-to-be are advised to exercise at or below a certain heart rate to protect the baby’s safety.  Using a heart monitor allows these women to keep up their fitness program and reassures them that their child is safe. [Here I make the the sweeping assertion that “most obstetricians” say that “moderate exercise” is beneficial as long as women keep their heart rate at or below a certain heart rate. How about some specifics here? It's clear I haven't done any real research on the topic, so I look lazy, or at least uninformed. Probably both. If I would have done any background research, I would have discovered that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists long ago rescinded its blanket recommendation that pregnant women exercise at or below 140 beats per minute. Instead, pregnant women are supposed to monitor their exertion levels and not push themselves too hard. If this editor knows anything about prenatal fitness, she’ll catch this oversight immediately and know that I didn't spend any time researching my subject.]

I am interested in writing a short article for Fitness on the use of heart rate monitors while exercising by pregnant women. I will interview mothers who successfully employed monitors through pregnancy and several physicians for their recommendations on exercise during pregnancy. This piece will also remind readers of the value of using heart monitors for working out even if they are not pregnant or planning on becoming so. [In addition to being, well, boring, I have misread the market. Think about it—how many women who read Fitness are pregnant or trying to become so? I’d guess maybe 1 or 2 percent. Yet this query is directed at that tiny subgroup although I do mention that the piece “will also remind readers of the value of using heart monitors for working out even if they are not pregnant or doing so.” If I was pitching a magazine like Fit Pregnancy, this wouldn’t be an issue. But I’m pitching a general women’s fitness magazine, so I need to keep its (mostly non-pregnant) readers in mind.]


I am a freelance writer interested in health and fitness issues and have enclosed two recent clips for your review. Please call me at your convenience to discuss this idea further. [My ISG, or "I-am-so-great," paragraph is kind of lame. Although I mention my interest in health and fitness, I don’t do a very good job of convincing the editor of my qualifications to write the article, do I? I'd been using a heart rate monitor myself--I was recovering from an injury--and should have mentioned that in this query. That kind of firsthand knowledge could have helped me get this assignment, assuming I tuned up this pitch.]  

Thank you for your time. I look forward to hearing from you soon. 

Very truly yours,

 Kelly K. James

So, do you see that a closer analysis of this query reveals how bad it is? Trust me, any editor will be reading your query just as closely, so make sure your query is compelling, well-researched, and geared to the market you're pitching. Next post, we'll take a look at how I turned this crappy query into a compelling one--and one that sold. 

**Hi, readers! Want to know more about queries and how to write better ones to get more assignments, even if you're a brand-new freelancer? Post your questions here, and check out Dollars and Deadlines: Make Money Writing Articles for Print and Online Markets or Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer's Guide to Making More Money, Second Edition. For a limited time, you'll get half off both titles when you order directly through ImprovisePress.com and use the discount code CHICKENS.