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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Query Critique Week: Rites of Passage Query

Welcome back to Query Critique Week! My comments are in green:

Dear Ms. Kovacs and Ms. Bickle,

Like lots of women, Teresa Barile still remembers her first pair of earrings. And it’s no wonder –they weren’t ordinary store-bought posts. “The day I turned twelve my mom took me and my best friend to have our ears pierced. The best part was that I got my Grandmother's earrings from Italy. I felt so grown-up and proud to be receiving a part of our family history.” [Nice anecdotal lead, but I'd include Teresa's age. ]

In every child’s life there are moments like this. For my seven-year-old son the big day came this past summer when he learned how to build a campfire. As his parents, we made sure that Jason didn’t just learn about matches and fire safety; he also learned about responsibility. The next time we go camping, he’ll be in charge of making the fire, with his dad’s help, of course. [Nice. I actually think the writer could cut the first paragraph and open the query with this anecdote.]

Family educators and youth experts know that rites of passage like Teresa’s and Jason’s are essential for healthy youth development. Says Ruth Ettenberg Freeman, licensed social worker and founder of Positive Parenting, “Kids need to feel that they are a part of something larger than themselves. Parents can help by identifying every day rites of passage and creating family rituals to celebrate them. This helps tremendously with kids’ self-worth, with peer pressure and with keeping them from engaging in risky behaviors.” [Good job of showing why readers will care.]

Trouble is many families today are caught up in what amounts to a game of “rites of passage Monopoly” where all a kid needs to do is “Pass Go,” hit a milestone birthday and collect a privilege. But instead of basing privileges on age, “Parents should communicate their expectations clearly and set up a system of things that kids need to achieve that will tell everyone – the parents and the kids – that they’re ready for the privilege,” says Ruth Ettenberg Freeman. [I like this concept, but I think I'd use the word "prize" or "award" instead of privilege. The quote is a little awkward; if I were writing this query, I'd take it out of quotes, revise, and attribute to Freeman. She needn't repeat her full name.]

For your “Behavior” department I propose an article about rites of passage and their importance in healthy youth development. Drawing on current literature and expert advice, Moments That Matter: Creating More Meaningful Family Rituals, will show parents how family rituals and rites of passage help children develop and exhibit personal responsibility. The article will also include family-created rituals and modern twists on traditional rites of passage. For example:

Celebrate everyday accomplishments When it comes to milestones, parents and kids usually think of the big-ticket items: starting kindergarten, turning thirteen, getting your driver’s license. But, the seemingly insignificant triumphs matter just as much. Did your six-year-old finally learn to flip a pancake? Celebrate with a special “all-you-eat” breakfast cooked by your young chef.

Have clear expectations “In our house,” says Clare Koontz, we have a rule: No lace-up shoes until you can tie them yourself. We let the kids practice on our shoes. Once they’ve learned how, they get to pick out a pair of sneakers.” For Linda Stephens, mom to two tweens, communication is essential. “My son was eight when he first brought up the subject of dating,” says Linda. “He giggled when I asked what he meant by date. I told him that when he’s able to have a serious conversation about dating that’s when I’ll know he’s mature enough. Until then, no dating.”

Link everyday rites of passage to service Is your middle schooler pining for the latest gadget? Then make sure she uses her tech skills to contribute to the family’s well-being. “We told our daughter, now that you’ve got an iPad, you can use it to create our weekly grocery list,” says Sharon Siegel, mom of three. “She feels great about helping me out and I can make sure she’s using technology responsibly.”

Share your legacy Passing on a treasured heirloom – Dad’s boyhood fishing pole, Grandma’s secret recipe, Uncle Will’s catcher’s mitt, Grandpa’s pocket knife – is one way to celebrate your child’s new status in the family. “I have a box of keepsake clothes that I plan to give my daughter when she’s older,” say Eimear Harrison. Objects like these not only acknowledge a child’s accomplishments, they also show you value your family history. [The writer has done a great job showing the editors how she'll approach the piece and that she's already down plenty of legwork--but I think she has too many examples. I'd cut several.]

I see this as a 700-word piece, but that is flexible, according to your editorial needs. Possible sidebars include Pivotal Moments, a timeline of important, yet often-overlooked milestones for each age and stage of a child’s life, and Risky Rituals, tips for helping kids avoid negative rites of passage, like teenage dieting among girls. [Good but I'm wondering how she's going to get all this into just 700 words? I'd cut the sidebar ideas--or better yet, pitch a related idea to another market at the same time.]

By way of background, I’m a freelance writer and mom of two boys. I am a contributing writer to Washington Parent and have published pieces (clips and links to three of my stories are attached) on parenting and education in over two dozen magazines, including Language Magazine and New Jersey Monthly. [Nice.]

Every child grows up eventually. Moments that Matter: Creating More Meaningful Family Rituals will help families create rituals to celebrate the big and the little rites of passage along the way. [I'd cut this; writer's already covered this.]

May I have this assignment for Today’s Parent? [Nice.]

Thank you for your consideration.

Overall, a strong query; however, I'd do some cutting/editing and tighten it overall before I sent it out. Readers, let me know if you agree. The best thing about the query (other than the idea, which is compelling) is the amount of legwork/research the writer has done. Even if this idea doesn't sell, she's demonstrated her professionalism and has a good chance of being considered for other assignments. Don't you agree?


  1. Seems like a long query for a 700-word assignment. Maybe using bullet points to relay the ideas might help? Just a thought. Query letters are so tough.

  2. Thanks for your comment; I think the writer may have planned on using bullets instead of subheads, and I like that idea. I do agree it's a bit long.

  3. With this being a shorter piece, couldn't the writer send the completed piece, along with a cover letter, rather than a query? It seems like she's a long way toward having a completed article that could work for more than just this particular magazine (perhaps multiple regional publications).

  4. That's a good point, Musing Mom, but I still believe in the power of queries; it shows the editor you "get" the business and lets the editor decide how you'll handle the piece instead of guessing at what she wants and sending the piece in. Make sense? Of course, once she writes the piece for one mag, she can send out as a reprint to other mags.

    Thanks for your comment! :)

  5. I have nowhere near the amount of experience as Kelly, but thought I'd throw a couple of comments into the mix to give you a little more feedback.

    I love the idea and as a parent myself, would love to read this article (I read TP regularly.)

    I agree with most of Kelly's comments, with the exception of the first and second anecdotes. Personally, I'd keep them both. The first one shows that the topic matters to someone else (and has the quote to prove it) and the second shows the writer's personal experience as a parent, also a plus to the piece.

    In addition to Teresa's current age, I would give just a little more description of the earrings (i.e. type of gold or what they meant to Grandma ("Nonna"), etc.) - not too much - just a couple of words to make the reader understand the significance of them and that they're not just a standard piece of jewelry (even if they came from Italy.) It means a lot to "Nonna" to pass these earrings on and I'd try to convey that sense a little stronger.

    Overall, it's a little long and can be tightened, but I think it's a strong and well-researched query.

    Great job!

  6. Thanks, Kelly and everyone, for the feedback and suggestions for tightening up this query. I like the idea of pitching the side-bar as a separate story. I know that writing the full piece and submitting it to regional pubs. is an option, I am hoping this query will help me break into TP or another national publication. Family Circle has already passed on the idea but I'll tighten it up and keep shopping it around. Thanks so much!

  7. I just cut & pasted this into Word. The query is 823 words long--yes, I deleted the green comments! I don't think a query should be longer than the finished piece. But that's just me.

  8. Yup, it's long, Denise! Tightening it will help, for sure. :)

  9. Hi Kelly! Just wanted to circle back and let you know that, after tweaking the query a bit, I eventually sold this story idea to The article just came out this week and you can read it at this link

  10. That's awesome, Justine! Congrats and thanks for letting me know! :)