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Notes from PWAC Toronto Seminars



Notes from PWAC Toronto's  
Query Lab...

Notes taken by Martha Breen

Thanks to Leslie C. Smith for organizing this event

Query Letter Seminar Speakers/Facilitators: Heather White, features editor, Homemaker's; Angela Lawrence, senior editor, Style at Home; Bonnie Reichert, former editor-in-chief, Today's Parent; Randall Scotland, former editor-in-chief, Canadian Retailer

About 25 PWAC Toronto members gathered for a hands on, intensive Query Lab organized by PWAC Toronto president, Leslie C. Smith. Each speaker addressed the full audience on the Art of the Query group for several minutes, then we broke into working groups and our speakers became facilitators as we work-shopped our query letters. Martha Breen, note-taker extraordinaire,  captured the opening remarks, and then circulated from group to group jotting down highlights. Paul Lima turned it all into a page for PWAC Toronto's web site

Opening Remarks:

Homemaker's features editor Heather White, who says she gets approximately 40 queries per week, thoughtfully provided us with the following tips for successful querying. 

"What I like to see in a query letter and other matters of query etiquette."

  1. A brief synopsis of the salient points. Tell me why I should care about the story and-this is frequently missed-why now? Highlight a timely hook. Also, provide easy entry points with lists, etc.

  2. An appreciation of the content of the magazine. I assume that it's because I work for a magazine called Homemaker's that I frequently get queries for stories regarding kids. Kids' new learning tools, kids and violence, the kids are OK. The reality is that Homemaker's doesn't have any kid content.

  3.  An appreciation of the magazine's lead times (three to four months). So the story not only needs a timely hook three-plus months down the road, it also has to have an angle that will not have been done to death in newspapers in the meantime. Which leads me to...

  4. An idea that's thought through. It's technically my job to think ideas through, but the better you make me look by doing it for me, the more I'm going to use you. Seriously, presumably you have some familiarity with the topic you're suggesting you write about, so you're the best person to know where the story can go and what questions to ask. Apply your knowledge.

  5. Provide angle options: this is the story; here are two possible approaches. Example (from press release): Any issues coming up that deal with the topic of domestic violence? If so, I'd like to tell you about: Frederick Wiseman's Domestic Violence and Domestic Violence 2. The two-part series, premiering nationally March 18 & 19, 2003 on PBS...There are a couple of ways to approach this story, directly, as a topical piece about domestic violence, OR a piece on the female judge in Domestic Violence 2. This lady presides over countless domestic violence cases on any given day, and has a unique perspective on the subject. What's it like to be in her shoes for a day-balancing a tough, high-profile job with a personal life?

  6. E-mail rather than snail mail. I'm always in front of my computer; my in-box is more than an arm's length away. Moreover, electronic story ideas are easier to track. If I pass an idea on to another editor and she files it somewhere, it's quite possibly gone. Along these lines, if we've had previous correspondence about a story, please use that as a base to forward on from, so the context is in front of me.

  7. Timing. In an ideal world I'd get back to you promptly. In reality, I might get back to you in anywhere from a week to six months. Note that a lot of times the editors you're dealing with aren't making the final decision about your story, and they know how far they can push a higher being in terms of making that final decision. If you're not getting a response in the time frame you had hoped for, suggest taking the idea to another publisher. Occasional follow-up is OK; incessant follow-up doesn't help.

Q: Do you accept finished manuscripts?
Heather White
: Yes, but start out with a query as with any other story.

Bonnie Reichert, former editor of Today's Parent and now a freelance writer herself, has been on both sides of the querying process, and said in her initial comments:

"It's very worthwhile to write queries; a good query pops out in a pile of mail, so give it all you've got, sketch out a story."

  • From a writer's point of view, the query will not only get work, but also help you later as you write.

  • One benchmark: the harder it is for you to describe the story to a friend, the more you know you need to tighten the idea, go back to the query to define your focus-"write your own assignment letter".

  • It should be tight, snappy, give a bit of tone and flavour of the story-should be thought-out, show you know the magazine.

  • Look at back issues-go back 6 months or so, to ensure the idea hasn't been done.

Randall Scotland, formerly of Canadian Retailer:

  • Keep 'em short --1 or 2 pages.

  • It's a good idea to do a little research ahead of time, to see if there's a story there and where you might take it, etc.

  • Include full contact info, including the URL if you have a website.

  • Send the letter to the right person--if there's more than one editor, probably it's the senior or features editor.

  • Look at the magazine's website. You'll find correct spelling, editorial calendar, sample articles (check the number of interviews an average article contains, e.g.).

  • A brief query should contain the name and title of contacts and a synopsis of their relevance.

  • 1 or 2 ideas in one letter are much better than half a dozen.

  • If you're new to the publication, include some clippings similar to your idea or point the editor to your web site.

  • Spell and grammar check! If I see a query with my name spelt wrong, into the wastebasket it goes.

  • It helps to have a trusted advisor or friend who can vet it for the bullshit factor.

Angela Lawrence, senior editor, Style at Home:

  • Because Style at Home is a specialized magazine, it's important to have a sense of how our magazine is put together when you query.

  • We're very visual, and the content is targeted; we are only-and always-interested in homes and home design.

  • A picture is worth a thousand words, of course; if you have a house that you'd like to do an article about, send scouting shots of it-a good description usually isn't enough.

  • I really like things that are meant for a specific column or issue, e.g. Trends or Small Spaces; querying from our editorial calendar is great. But do try to avoid suggesting an idea meant for a column in our competitor's magazine!

  • Don't take it personally if we don't respond immediately; we look at pictures in batches, so it may take some time before you hear from us. But I have no problem with you calling up and inquiring.

  • Professionalism is great: presentation, proper spelling, clips that are easy to read. Don't send me oversize photocopies!

  • Queries, again, should not be long. Get to the point of why it would work in the magazine. I don't need a lot; for me, pictures are everything. If a designer was involved, a couple of words about them are good.

  • I'll tell you another reason why it's great to send queries: if you send a great query, even if I don't use your idea, if it's well-presented and shows enthusiasm, I may assign one of our other stories to you.

Notes from the Query Workshop/Lab: 

Angela's table: 

  • Don't forget, a query isn't only about a specific idea, but about developing a relationship with the editor.

  • What to do when you don't hear from an editor: from Angela's side of the desk, editors are very busy and might not have time; also, not just Angela, but the editor-in-chief must approve an idea. But perseverance is worthwhile, especially by e-mail; phone is less effective. 

  • For your first query, though, especially if you have clips etc., snail mail is best. Think long-term--be flexible in general.

  • Don't forget if the editor likes the writing just as a read, it helps. Try putting your prospective lead right in the query--to give the editor an idea of the article and your writing style.

Randy's table:

  • Make sure your query has a sense of urgency or a hook--an expert who will be in town and can be interviewed, or has a book coming out, for example.

  • Perhaps have an expert ready--have names of people you can talk to. 

  • A killer opening line is crucial.

  • Mark Witten had a long (>1000 words) query that was in effect a précis of a 4000-word piece; it breaks the rules but is an exception.

  • The idea, to begin with, has got to be a strong one; get that right first. Mark agreed, saying his original quarry, a scientist named Tak Mak, failed to connect with him, but another scientist kept turning up, which began to intrigue him (resulting in a new focus and a new query).

  • Another query regarding a strike by a film crew union: the problem was focus; perhaps the idea was not as controversial as the writer would have liked.

  • Randy said it had all the ingredients: tension, drama, newsworthiness, but it was fuzzy around the edges. If it had a single focus-following a single Teamster around all day, for example, it might work.

  • Also, look for the hard news in a story like this--are things going to explode (in violence) soon? Editors just see too many fuzzy ideas.

  • Mark Witten: You want to see if you're getting excited about the idea--if you are, you can sell it. 

  • One tip for finding story ideas: ask people you meet in business, what's the big untold story in your business? There almost always is one.

  • How much research should you do for a query? Enough to give you a clear idea who you'll talk to, the lay of the land, but not so much that you're working for free.

  • Editors love sidebars! Suggest a sidebar, especially with bigger stories; shows the editor you have a handle on how to package it.

Bonnie's Table

  • On multiple submissions (sending the same query to multiple editors): NO.

  • Why? It's dangerous, especially in competing markets. Sometimes, in life, they don't call you back; after a decent interval, take it elsewhere.

  • Bonnie showed her query letter--an e-mail with the subject line "I kissed a girl!" which was a follow up to a phone query, that ended up being a longer-than-average query on a very specific subject.

Heather's table:

  • Before writing your query, think about what the reader will get from this idea.

  • What about format? It doesn't really matter, but I do like it broken up, rather than a long narrative: subheads or bullets work better

  • Anne Marie Aiken had a query for Chatelaine with a first-person focus; Heather suggested using the first person to get an informed perspective on the article.

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Please see PWAC Toronto's list of Evening Seminars and workshops conducted by PWAC members.