Arguably the most important writing you’ll do when you’re working on an article isn’t your text at all — it’s the query letter you write to sell it.
You’ve got about five seconds to catch an editor’s attention.
That means you must use your first two sentences wisely. Don’t waste them by introducing yourself, telling the editor how much you like her publication, or explaining that you’ve never been published before but have this great idea…
The truth is, even if you’ve done all your homework — read a publication’s Writer’s Guidelines, familiarized yourself with back issues, defined your article narrowly and targeted it for a specific department — if you don’t make all that clear to an editor immediately in your query, you can very quickly undermine your success.
Your letter must grab an editor’s attention fast.
That was the message Adrienne Stolarz, Associate Editor at FamilyFun magazine, pounded home at the Northern Colorado Writers Conference two weeks ago. She and I were both speakers there, and I had the good fortune to catch her presentation.
She offered up five surefire query approaches to consider — all designed to use those first few sentences effectively and make an editor take notice.
Now, Adrienne was concerned not just with travel, but with all variety of articles — from cooking pieces to personal essays — targeted for all sorts of consumer publications. But in fact, you could use any of the five approaches she defined to successfully sell a travel article. Here’s how:
** 1. The Problem/Solution Hook
You define a problem and, in your article, offer a solution. For example:
“In this post-9/11 age, when you can’t get through airport security with more than 3 oz. of liquid or gel and airlines have all but stopped serving food, traveling by plane with a baby or toddler can become a real logistical headache. What to do about the diaper ointment… sippy cups… applesauce…? And what about feeding the kids lunch at 30,000 feet when the only thing coming out of the wheeled cart is pretzels?
“In my article, ‘Five Proven Carry-on Strategies for a Smooth Trip with Kids in Tow,’ your readers will learn… “
** 2. The Information Hook
You’ll need an astonishing statistic or an arresting fact to make this hook work. But with one, you can snag an editor’s attention easily. For example:
“One of the most popular pastimes in Dubai — where the temperature regularly hovers above 100 degrees — is snow skiing. And that’s just one of the many astonishing facts about this worthwhile travel stop I discovered there recently and reveal in my article, “Surprising Dubai: Window to a Middle East You Never Knew Existed.”
** 3. The Question Hook
Did you know? What would you do if? Have you ever wondered?
Asking a question can prove very engaging… if, that is, the answer interests the editor. So craft yours carefully.
You wouldn’t, for instance, want to ask the editor at International Living (which does not cover U.S. destinations) “Did you know you can still travel by narrow gauge rail into the Rocky Mountains?”
But a provocative question targeted to pique your reader’s interest can provide a great way into your query.
How about this to tease your humorous account of your recent travels in Africa: “What would you do if you woke up on a train in Kenya to find your backpack gone and a family of eleven piling into the seats near you, carrying with them mounds of baggage, a steaming pot of goat stew, and a box of live chickens?”
Or how about this question to hook an editor on your article about the best ways to experience and enjoy…
French food in France: “Have you ever wondered why the French don’t eat peanut butter? It’s because they don’t do “quick lunch.” And neither should you when you’re in France. That’s the premise of my article, ‘A Good French Lunch: How to Find Authentic, Good-Value Fare in Tourist-Laden Paris.'”
** 4. The Personal Anecdote Hook
By revealing a snapshot of your travel tale, you can effectively grab an editor’s attention. This can work well when pitching a first-person account. For example:
“Six-hundred thread count sheets, a Bose surround-sound system, a mint-green cloth ribbon tied around the small stack of washcloths on the bathroom vanity… at the Rose Inn — a new establishment opened surf side in Bethany Beach, DE, — no detail has gone neglected. I was sitting on our private balcony, feet up on the rail, when a knock at the door brought a steward offering a complimentary cocktail. ‘Can I offer you a glass of wine, or a gin and tonic?’ he suggested.
If your Washington-based readers are looking for good-value pampering close to home, they’ll not find a more satisfying excursion than the one I describe in my article, “Affordable First Class Pampering at Bethany’s New Rose Inn.”
** 5. The Attention Grabber
I call this “painting a picture.” It’s a wonderfully effective way to open a travel article, and it works just as well for queries.
You should aim to take the editor to the place you write about in your story. Like this, for example:
“It’s 11 degrees Fahrenheit. The wind is whipping blade-like off the St. Lawrence River. Locals, shoulders hunched into the blow, keep warm under fur trapper hats and long, black wool overcoats. On snow-dusted cobblestone streets, against a backdrop of 18-century stone buildings with ceiling-high windows and gargoyled porticos, we might as well be in Europe — in a Victor Hugo novel.
“You could argue Montreal wasn’t the most prudent choice in a two-night getaway in March. But it turns out the cold lingers only on the streets. In the candle-lit cafes, the hearth-toasted restaurants, the steamy-windowed coffee shops, the welcome — always offered in both French and English — is unfailingly warm.
“In winter, Montreal is all about ducking into tidy retreats where you can thaw your ears and eat well. We did both with grand success, and I explain how in my article, ‘Warming Ears and Eating Well in Canada’s Frigid North’ which describes a weekend getaway (toddler in tow).”
[Editor’s Note: Learn more about opportunities to profit from your travels (and even from your own home) in our free online newsletter The Right Way to Travel.]