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Wednesday, March 5, 2014

How Diet Mountain Dew Helped me Sell a Story: Another Query That Worked

Hate writing queries and pitches? You're not alone. I get more questions from freelancers about queries (and contracts) than about any other topic. I've found that queries from new writers fail for two primary reasons--they're either too short and lack detail, or they're too long and lack focus. Finding the right balance and giving enough detail so that the editor can say "yes" without going overboard takes time and practice. Having a template always helps! 

I'll be speaking at the Illinois Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic's Spring Assembly on Friday, April 4, 2013. I've been asked to show dietitians how they can write about diet and nutrition--and get paid for it--and as part of that, I'll be emphasizing the importance of a strong query. Here's a query that worked for me that I'll be sharing with my audience, with my comments in blue:   

Dear Ross:

Your eyes don't even open until after your second cup of coffee? No sweat, right? Think again. If you're hooked on Red Bull, Redline, or just the ever-popular joe, your caffeine addiction may be hurting your health. Research presented last fall at the American College of Emergency Physicians' annual meeting found that over three years, more than 250 people reported symptoms of caffeine abuse to a Chicago poison control center. Thirty-one were hospitalized from medical complications due to caffeine intake. Other studies have found that caffeine intake increases the level of cortisol and other stress hormones. [I like this lead. It's timely, mentioning the recent research, and shows that I've done some background reporting to write this query.]  

Yet athletes have long realized that caffeine has performance-boosting effects, and a slew of studies support it. In the last year alone, published research found that caffeine boosts speed during short-term, high-intensity exercise and the amount of weight (for a 1-rep max) you can lift during a bench press trial. And a survey of 140 elite athletes competing in the Ironman Triathalon World Championships found that 9 in 10 planned to use caffeine-containing substances before or during the competition. [Where did this research come from? I'd just finished a piece on using caffeine for athletic performance for a fitness magazine. I include it here to show the editor that I'm already informed about this topic.]

If you're competing in a 5K or want a lift before a demanding workout, how much caffeine should you take for optimal performance? And how do you determine your "safe" upper limit for caffeine consumption? In other words, how much caffeine is just right? [Here's the question that my article will answer, and I believe that readers of this publication--in the case, The Chicago Tribune--will want to know that answer! My editor agreed, and assigned the piece.] 

“The Caffeine Conundrum: Performance Boost or Health Risk?” will address this issue, describing the growing problem of caffeine abuse and its related health dangers. It will also describe caffeine's fitness-related benefits, and help readers determine how much caffeine is right for them, depending on their fitness goals, lifestyles, and other factors. I plan to interview experts such as Danielle McCarthy, MD, at Northwestern University (lead presenter of the ACEP caffeine abuse study) for this story; a possible sidebar will include a sidebar of caffeine-containing foods and beverages, with the amount of caffeine each contains. While I estimate 1,000 words for this piece, that's flexible depending on your needs. [I've provided a working title, and suggested possible experts and a sidebar. I've also described what my article will include.]

Ross, I hope you'll find this important topic a good fit for your "Health" section of Q. I think the popularity of caffeinated drinks and the fitness aspect of this subject make it a great fit for your readers, and hope you'll agree that it's a topic worth exploring. I've been a fulltime freelancer for the last decade; my work has also appeared in magazines including Redbook, Self, Health, Continental, Fitness, Woman's Day, and Shape. (And as a Diet Mountain Dew addict, I think I can bring a unique perspective to this story!) [This is what I call the ISG, or I'm-so-great. Play up your background, experience, even your caffeine addiction if it will help you sell a story!] 

Let me know if you have any questions about this pitch, and I'll be in touch soon with another story idea as well. 

All my best,

I think it's clear why this pitch sold. Yes, the query is a little long--usually my queries are just four paragraphs--but I wanted to show the depth of my knowledge of this subject. Do the same with your pitches, and you'll boost your chances of getting a sale. 

**Want to see more queries that sold, and why? Check out my two latest books from Improvise Press


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