Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters by Wendy Burt

I'm so pleased to welcome Wendy Burt to Something She Wrote! She's the author of over 1000 published pieces and three books, the most recent of which is The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters.

Today she shares some great tips about query writing, her new book and more. This is important stuff for writers, and she's so great to share her knowledge.

Be sure to leave any questions you may have for her in the comments section; she plans to stop by and interact!

1. Can you tell us about your book?

The book was a great fit for me because I’d been teaching “Breaking Into Freelance Writing” for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I’m a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn’t require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as “good” examples in the book. I wrote all the “bad” examples myself because I didn’t dare ask for contributions that I knew I’d be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer’s Digest let me keep all the humor.

2. Why are query letters so important?

Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious “in” of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they’ll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don’t like your query letter, you’ve got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you’ve blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they’ll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it’s not fabulous, don’t send it until it is.

3. You’re also a magazine editor. What is your biggest gripe regarding queries?

Queries that show that the writer obviously hasn’t read our publication. I’ll admit that I did this when I was a new writer too – submitted blindly to any publication whose name sounded even remotely related to my topic. One of the examples I use was when I submitted a parenting article to a magazine for senior citizens. Oops! A well-written query pitching an article that’s not a match for the magazine isn’t going to get you any further than a poorly written query.

4. There’s an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won’t even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes and staff better than you ever could.

5. You’ve been a mentor, coach or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don’t get published?

Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when the write “the end” but writing is only half of the process. I’ve always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I’d rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.

6. What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?

That they’ll be rich overnight, that they don’t need to promote their book once it’s published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you’re prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn’t possible, there wouldn’t be so many full-time writers.

7. What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?

Christina Katz (author of “Writer Mama”) has a new book out called “Get Known Before the Book Deal” - which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King’s “On Writing” and David Morrell’s “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” Anything by Anne Lamott or my dad, Steve Burt.

8. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a full-time writer?

Seize every opportunity - especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, “Wow. You have the best luck!” I thought, “Luck has nothing to do with it! I’ve worked hard to get where I am.” Later that week I read this great quote: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” It’s absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you’re prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you’ll be successful.

9. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Writing the “bad” query letters. I’ve read – and written! – so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

10. What do you want readers to learn from your book?

I want them to understand that while writing a good query letter is important, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can break it down into parts, learn from any first-round rejections, and read other good queries to help understand what works. I also want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don’t bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.

Wendy, thanks so much for contacting me. It was an honor to have you here today, and you're quite an inspiration. Best to you with all your endeavors!

You can visit Wendy at her blog, Ask Wendy, or find out more about The Writer's Digest Guide to Query Letters and other works here.


Stonefox said...

Very infomative. Thanks for having Wendy on your blog today.

Jewel Allen said...

Janna- awesome interview. Thanks Wendy!!

Terri Tiffany said...

WOW! Great thoughts and information here:) I love that she says if we don't write a good query letter, many good writers will never be found. SHows how important that really is.

Lori said...

I like what Wendy says about eating hot dogs and lobster. I guess we all need to make that decision at one point or another. I have no marketing skills whatsoever and I keep asking myself if I really think I can make it in this business. I guess I can try to learn.

Jessica Nelson said...

What a great interview! Sounds like a good book and she's completely right. If our query is no good, then who will want to read the book?
Thanks for having her!

Joanne said...

Great interview Janna and Wendy. Wendy, I especially like your thoughts on luck - I'm a believer on consistent effort leading us to our goals, and like to give credit for the hard work that gets people to their place. It's important to recognize others' efforts, a certain respect goes along with it. Congrats on your writing successes and thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

Kristen Painter said...

Great interview!

Melanie Hooyenga said...

This is especially interesting on the tail of reading Nathan's Agent for a Day contest. I read through all 50 queries last night and they make the point for Wendy that a good query letter will make or break you in your quest for publication.

Great interview, and it looks like an invaluable book!

Wendy Burt-Thomas, Ask Wendy - The Query Queen said...

Hi everyone,
Thanks for the nice comments!
Lori, you probably have a lot more marketing skills than you think. When my first book was published in 2001, it was much more about "press-the-flesh" (getting out and networking in person, doing booksignings in stores, etc.)

Today, if you can write a book (or article), you can market yourself because it's mostly done online! You can create a blog, email people to host a blog tour, leave comments on Web sites, etc.

My good friend Christina Katz (author of "Writer Mama") just published a book called, "Get Known Before the Book Deal" which is all about building your platform. I much prefer today's online marketing to in-person marketing. I'm not shy and I enjoy public speaking, but I like to work in my PJs. Plus, I have two little kids (1 and 3) so it's hard to travel as much as I used to.

I think you'd be surprised at the marketing skills you already have!

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Thanks so much for the interview. Good information!

Kelly said...

Fun stuff-- how is it that you are so cool?

Ask Wendy-The Query Queen said...

Brian and Kelly,
I'm not sure if that comma was for me or Janna, but I'm going to pretend it was for me because I haven't felt "cool" since I had kids. ; )

Janna Leadbetter said...

I'm glad everyone is enjoying the interview! I can't take any credit; Wendy did all the work. :)

Thanks again, Wendy!

Ask Wendy-The Query Queen said...

I have a blog myself and can tell you that just posting stuff is sometimes quite a bit of work! I try to host a new author every single day but it can be hard to keep up with. So take some credit here!

By the way everyone: I list writing contests on my site. Some are even free!

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview! Thank you.


Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. Very informative. Will keep my eye out for this book.

Ask Wendy-The Query Queen said...

Thank you so much for having me today. I really enjoyed it!

All my best,

Janna Leadbetter said...

Wendy, you are so welcome! Come back anytime. :)

And I realize now, I should have added the hyphenated part of your last name. My apologies!

Ask Wendy-The Query Queen said...

No problem. Most people know me as just Wendy Burt anyway. I only added the Thomas recently because my husband and kids' last name is Thomas and the hospital had written Baby Burt on everything when my daughter was born. My husband was not happy, so I promised to hyphenate before baby #2.

Men can be so....well, MANLY sometimes! ; )

Amy Mullis said...

Wonderful interview! I learned a lot, which is good even though it hurts my head!

DanielleThorne said...

Great interview. Writing query letters can be more stressful than the actual manuscript!

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading the interview! Great questions, Janna, and very informative answers, Wendy. :)

(--"stormie" at AW)

Melissa Amateis said...

Great interview, Janna! Thanks so much. :-)

Kathy said...

Very interesting and helpful.
I know how important a good query letter is. I followed someone's advice back in 2005 and managed to get a greeting card article published in Writer's Digest.

I guess my question would be this: I've always read that editors want to see published clips before giving a writer an assignment. But Writer's Digest gave me the assignment without asking for clips. Was my query that good that they didn't need to see samples of my work?

Angie Ledbetter said...

Great post. Thanks to both of you.

Janna Leadbetter said...

Thanks, everyone for your comments!

Kathy, maybe she'll come back and see your question today.

Anne! - :Hug2:

And Danielle - Still looking forward to your guest post for the 29th! :)

Ask Wendy-The Query Queen said...

My guess is that A) your query really was that good (in terms of outlining a great article) and B) you made them believe you were the person to write the piece.

By the way, I've written greeting cards for about 10 or 12 companies and love it! I think it's one of my most favorite types of writing to do. Especially the humor.

Rock on with the fabulous queries!!