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Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Month of Templates: The Essential Query

Let's launch this month of templates with a query letter. Starting out as a freelancer, I wrote some of the worst queries ever. But query-writing is a skill, and one that can be (thank goodness) improved. Fourteen years later, I've written at least 1,200 queries and edited more than 1,000 for other writers, and I know what works.

Queries don't have to be complicated; I use a simple, four-section query for nearly all of mine:

  • The lead. Here I catch the editor's attention, usually with a recent study or other time peg, a startling (or at least interesting) statistic, or an anecdote.
  • The "why-write it" section. Here I make the case for the piece, providing more details adn basically explaining why readers will be interested in the story.
  • The "nuts-and-bolts" section. Here I explain how I'll approach the story, suggesting word count, possible sources, and format (i.e. will the piece include a sidebar? A quiz?). I also like to include a working title, and I always suggest the section of the publication to let the editor know I've actually read her magazine.
  • The ISG, or "I'm-so-great" section. Here I demonstrate that I'm uniquely qualified to write the piece and highlight my relevant background and experience.

Pretty simple, right? Here's one of my recent queries that sold; my comments appear in blue.


Dear Pam:

Thanks so much for your response to my recent pitch; while I’m sorry you can’t use it for Oxygen at this time, I have another for you to consider: [Usually I open with a lead. But I've been in contact with her before, and want to remind her of that fact.]

It’s a common conundrum. You’ve actually stuck to a regular workout routine, but you’re still not seeing results. While “lack of time” is the number one excuse for not exercising, what’s even more frustrating is making the time to hit the gym—and seeing no change in your body. What is the deal? [Here's my lead. It's not bad, but I could have cited a recent study to back up my "number one excuse" for not exercising. However, this lead is aimed at the readers of Oxygen--they're women who are serious about their workout regimes and their physiques.]

The culprit may be multifaceted. Driven by a desire to burn calories and get ripped, women commonly overlook (or deny) the importance of refueling their muscles with glycogen by consuming carbs (and protein, too) within the “magic window” that closes 45 minutes after intense exercise. Without adequate refueling, your regular routine may leave your muscles chronically depleted, which affects your energy level, motivation, and workout quality. [My "why-write-it" section is pretty good. Note the amount of research I've done here--yet again, I could have cited a recent study to strengthen the query.]

“Dumb Fitness Mistakes Even Smart Women Make” will examine some of the most common mistakes, how they impact (or prevent) desired results, and most important, how to overcome them. I plan to interview experts such as Tom Holland, MS/CSCS sports performance coach, and author of The Truth about How to Get in Shape, and Nancy Clark, RD, author of The Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Fourth Edition, for this story. While I estimate 1200 words for this story, that’s flexible depending on your needs. [My nuts-and-bolts section is pretty good, too. Note I've told her the types of experts I plan to interview and provided a working title and word count. She can assign something different, but this gives her an idea of how I plan to approach the piece.]

Interested in this informative piece as a coverline fitness feature? As you know, I haven’t worked with you before but have written for Oxygen in the past and have been a fulltime freelancer for more than a decade; my work has also appeared in magazines including Redbook, Self, Health, Continental, Fitness, Woman's Day, and Shape. I’m also an ACE-certified personal trainer, which will help bring a unique perspective to this piece. [My ISG is strong--and note that I let her know I've written for her pub before as well as for other major fitness and health magazines. And I'm an ACE-certifed personal trainer, too. Even if I had no clips to my name, that fact and a strong query would give me a good chance of getting my foot in the door.]

Please let me know if you have any questions about this pitch, and I'll be in touch soon with another story idea as well. [Standard close--and note that I tell her I'll soon be in touch!]

All best,


Readers, what do you think? Any questions about this query format? If you're new to magazine freelancing, you'll find 20 queries that sold (including those from inexperienced freelancers!) in Ready, Aim, Specialize! Create your own Writing Specialty and Make More Money.

Stay tuned for more templates!


  1. When I started freelancing three years ago, your book was my guide. Six Figure Freelancing led the way to my success in obtaining gigs - your example queries were spot on. Thanks, Kelly!

  2. Hi Kelly--

    Great query, thanks so much for sharing! I love your format for all pitches, you really cover everything without sending an overwhelming amount of information. If Oxygen had decided to pass on this, how much would you change the query when pitching to a new pub? Thanks!


  3. Thanks, Kate! I do try to keep my queries to one page. If Oxygen had passed, I would have tweaked the query for another market (e.g. Fitness), but I wouldn't have changed that much--although I def would have changed the section of the magazine the story belonged in. I could have also tweaked this to send to a men's fitness magazine or a woman's magazine (in fact, I wrote a similar piece for Family Circle on "Dumb Exercise Mistakes").

  4. How much time do you spend on each query? How much time do you spend researching and where are the best places to find sources?
    I am struggling to use my time efficiently and queries really challenge me!

  5. Hi, Kimberly--
    It d├ępends on the topic. Now I can research and write a query in 20 minutes or so (often less) but starting out, I'd say at least an hour. Source-wise, it's going to depend on the topic you're pitching. I might check Medline for recent studies for a health, nutrition or fitness pitch. If you're querying a business or tech topic, you may be better off citing a recent news peg tied to your subject. In Ready, Aim, Specialize, I have a chapter devoted to 10 different specialities; each lists possible websites, orgs, etc to find resources, too. And remember query-writing is a skill. The more you do it, the easier it will become--and the stronger your queries will be, too.