Get Published Using a Cereal Box and a Tube of Toothpaste to Improve Your Query Letters: Part 1
By Freelance Writer and Copywriter John Forde in Paris, France
You’re writing a query letter. You’ve slaved over every syllable. It’s smart. It’s dramatic. It’s genius. You drop it in the mail and wait.
Any editor who reads this masterwork, you reason, is going to trip all over himself to get to his checkbook.
But weeks later, nothing has happened.
No phone calls. No emails. No interest. What gives?
Let’s face it, Cupcake …
You didn’t get the gig.
But don’t feel so bad. First, it’s a fact – even many great writers have no idea how to write a good query letter. Second, there’s competition. A lot of it.
Says talent agent Marcie Wright, “We get 50 to 100 query letters every week … and we’re not even on the list the Writer’s Guild of America mails to writers.”
What most writers don’t understand, though, is that it’s not the good stuff you’re up against. It’s the junk.
Terrible queries with terrible leads, dead ideas, punctuation mistakes, and peanut-butter smudges – those are the queries that really stand in your way.
There are so many like this that editors get tired of reading them. So they learn to weed them out. As fast as possible. Even the slightest clue that a query isn’t good – and within microseconds, it’s fluttering into the trash can. Is there any way to help your letter rise above the muck?
In fact, it’s a simple, subtle formula. And you can find it right now, locked away in your medicine cabinet … stuffed in your mailbox … even printed on your tube of toothpaste. It’s on the back of every cereal box. It’s printed in living color on the inside cover of every magazine. You can even find it on the back of Coke cans.
This formula made Bill Gates a billionaire. It’s the secret formula that helped make “Star Wars” a blockbuster success. It is, in fact, the secret to an industry that is the cornerstone of the entire American economy.
I’m talking, of course, about advertising.
Your Query: Just a Sales Letter in Disguise!
Sales copy – the writing that sells products – has a lot to teach query letter writers. Because, whether you realize it or not, a query letter isn’t just a letter at all. It’s really an advertisement in disguise.
You see, advertising doesn’t sell products. It sells ideas.
Ideas about a soap that gets you extra clean … about a soda that refreshes … about a show you can’t miss on Thursday-night TV. What’s different about query letters?
In practice, not much.
Like ads, query letters are also designed to sell ideas. And if they’re truly written to sell, you increase your chances of getting published.
It’s that simple.
Let’s start with the basics …
The Secret of the Four-Legged Stool
Remember … we’re going to start treating your query letter like an “ad” for your article idea.
At the Great Escape Publishing, we teach copywriters that every great ad works like a footstool with four legs.
The first leg is the Core Idea. It needs to be big. It needs to be simple. And it needs to be easy to explain. The second leg is a Big Promise. Without it, there’s no incentive for the reader to read on.
The third leg is Credibility. Readers need a reason to trust you.
And fourth, every ad has got to have a powerful Close to the sale.
How does this compare to a query?
It’s an almost perfect analogy. Take a look at the first leg below. We’ll delve into the other three in future issues:
***Query Leg 1, THE BIG IDEA***
How fast can you sum up the very core of your article idea? Can you do it in 10 words or less? The faster and more succinctly you can sum up the idea at the heart of your query letter, the better.
In publishing, vagueness and uncertainty don’t fly.
Prospective editors need to know immediately what you have to offer. Ad copywriters have a powerful technique for finding their core ideas.
How to Find Your Most Powerful Hook
The headline does at least 80% of the selling in a print ad. Which is why clever ad writers devised this headline-writing technique.
But it works for much more than just ad headlines. In fact, you can apply it to anything that needs to persuade.
Like the opening line of your query letter.
Here’s how it works: To really grab attention, a powerful opening line that “hooks” should have most, if not all, of the following characteristics.
It must be…
Actually, three out of these four could be enough. However, any less and your opening line is sure to miss its mark.
Let’s see how this works in practice:
Let’s imagine you’ve just been to France. During your trip, you toured the Champagne region.
Now you’re back home and you want to write an article for a travel magazine about the many fine but local French champagnes.
How do you begin your pitch to the magazine’s editor? Here’s one approach:
“I would like to write an article for you about the many champagnes in the champagne region of France…”
Read it again. Where does this opening line go wrong? To start, it doesn’t offer anything particularly “unique.”
Any editor who plucks this from his inbox would most likely think “seen it, done that, been there before.” And into the trash it goes.
Now let’s consider another approach. Same topic, different lead line: “Dear Editor,
“On rue de la Verrerie in Paris, you’ll find a wine shop that sells one of France’s best and rarest champagnes – for just $23 a bottle.”
Aha! Can you see the difference?
First, the letter starts right in the middle of the action. Always a momentum building technique. But the real power of this new lead is that it’s… well… different.
How likely is it that there’s another letter in the editor’s inbox that starts the same way? Right. Not very.
So that’s “Uniqueness” nailed down. Next test. Is the same opener “Useful?” To an editor, here’s what that means. Imagine a reader who travels to Europe. He doesn’t want to feel like a tourist. He wants to feel like an insider. Informed. In the know. An original.
This is precisely the kind of information that fulfills that need. Editor’s know this. They’re on the lookout for it. So bingo… you’ve just upped your chances of getting the editor to read on.
Next, we ask, is this line “Urgent?”
Not directly. But it’s at least implied. A $23 bottle of rare champagne isn’t the kind of thing that lasts. That alone is newsworthy. And newsworthy is good.
But I’d like to increase the urgency a bit more. Adding “urgency” creates dramatic tension. And dramatic tension makes editors pay attention.
So let’s dig deeper into the story and see what we can find. For this example, I happen to know that the champagne in question is sold at only three Paris wine shops. And that the vineyard produces only 3,000 bottles a year.
Let’s see what happens when we add this info to our letter:
“On rue de la Verrerie in Paris, you’ll find a wine shop that sells one of France’s best and rarest champagnes – for just $23 a bottle.
“I’d like to write an article for your magazine that tells the fascinating story of Frances many local champagnes.
“For instance, only three shops in Paris sell ‘La Rose de Jeane.’ And only 3,000 bottles are produced each year. And this is just one of many unknown but excellent bargains in the local market…”
It’s not perfectly polished, perhaps. But you can see the letter – and the article that will back it up – has already started to take shape.
Suddenly, it’s more compelling. The information feels valuable. And it’s starting to sound like nothing we – or the editor – have heard before.
Here’s the last and most important insight. Pay attention. Because this is part of the “Four U” technique that pulls everything else together.
The most effective way to improve the pulling power of your hook is to make sure it has… are you ready… “Ultra specificity.”
In short, details sell.
Not all details, mind you. Like a painter’s canvas, if you try to put in TOO many details… you just get a mess. But if you’ve got details that are relevant… by all means, put them in.
Give a statistic. Describe a taste or a smell. Dab it with color. Name an interview source. Do anything you can to make your reader feel like he’s right there, inside the image you hope to present.
Do this, and all the other things – uniqueness, usefulness, and urgency – will almost take care of themselves.
[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.]