For the last two years, I’ve been Senior Editor at WOW! Women On Writing, an online magazine written by, for, and about women in the publishing industry. During my editorship, WOW! was selected for the Writer’s Digest list of “101 Best Websites for Writers” in 2008 and 2009.
This month, I announced I’m stepping down from the position to focus on my own projects: marketing my book The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir, increasing my speaking appearances at writer’s conferences and organizations, and working one-on-one with writers enrolled in my workshops and coaching programs. (And yes, starting my next book.)
But I wanted to share with freelancers a few tips I’ve compiled after reading thousands of query letters that have crossed my cyber desk.
I’ve taken a couple questions I’ve been asked and used them to present my tips:
Q: What do you consistently see that bothers you most when reading submissions?
A: My biggest irritation is when writers query without taking the time to read the publication and familiarize themselves with the content. WOW! is very obviously a women’s writing magazine focused on the craft; yet, I received countless queries about health, beauty, and fashion. Don’t submit fiction and personal essays when you see WOW! only publishes how-to articles and interviews.
Freelance Market Research 101
- Study every section of the magazine to see what type of content they publish BEFORE you query.
- Check the word count.
WOW! articles are content rich and more like print magazines in length. The standard 500-600 word online article is about 1500 words too short.
- Request/review the submission guidelines of both online and print magazines to find out what the editors expect.
- Check the editor’s desk section or masthead for the name of the person you should address in your query.
WOW!, a publication FOR women, clearly run BY women, often receives queries addressed to “Dear Sir.” It’s an immediate pass because it shows the writer is lazy and careless.
Query Submission 101
- Run spell check, especially if you are sending an e-query. Don’t let the informal feeling of email keep you from sending a polished, professional query.
- Read your email query aloud before you send it. You’d be surprised how much the spell check misses.
Do whatever you need to do to make sure your query is clean—correct spelling, solid grammar, and proper punctuation. If a writer doesn’t take the time and effort to make sure her query is immaculate, editors know she’ll be just as careless with her submission.
- Bring something to the table.
WOW! often receives email from writers who say they would like to write for the magazine, but have no idea what they have to offer. Telling an editor you are a writer who wants to write is not the same thing as showing an editor you can actually do it. Know your expertise or figure it out, so you can bring something to the table. Editors are always looking for fresh voices, but you must be able to provide content that has value to the publication’s readers.
Q: After a day spent delving into the slush pile, can you tell us what compels you to accept one piece of writing over another?
A: At WOW!, there isn’t a slush pile. All queries and submissions are given equal attention and considered on their own merit. No matter which publication you query—online or print, you will be competing with freelancers who have queried on the same topic. The writer who best conveys how she will execute the proposed idea gets the assignment.
Questions an editor asks herself during your query evaluation:
- Is the topic of interest to our readers?
- Does the freelancer have the chops (expertise/ability) to write the article she is proposing?
- Does she have a great hook and a fresh spin on a familiar topic?
- Has she fully fleshed-out her idea with an overview or outline of her intended article?
- Has she listed her sources, or prospective sources for quotes?
- Does she have a strong voice?
- Has she come up with a unique title?
The magazine may choose not to use the title of your submission for the published article, but if it’s memorable—like “How to Hog-tie an Agent”—it keeps the query on our minds, rather than it getting lost in the mix with all the other queries titled: “How to Get an Agent.”
Queries should include clips or some sort of writing sample. At the very least, a link to a blog post written like an article. If you are serious about freelancing, you should have a blog that showcases your writing ability and includes a page of links to your published clips.
Show us that you know how to structure an article for the web:
- short paragraphs
- bullet lists
- content-rich article with no excessive wordiness
Don’t send out anything less than your best work. If you expect to get paid, make sure what you write is worth the money.