Query eye from a straight guy

You hear a lot about query letters in journalism school. These one-page teasers are supposedly your entree into the pages of the world’s most prestigious magazines. Professors typically assign students to write at least one query letter as practice for their future careers — one told me that, as

an editor at Toronto Life, the queries were sometimes more tantalizing than the article itself.

The weird thing is, once I actually became an editor, I didn’t get any query letters. Most of the freelancers who pitch me do so by sending a press release with something along the lines of “”interested?”” at the top of it. These are, in most cases, the same releases I see on the newswires or receive directly from a PR agency. This is probably because, to make a living writing freelance articles, you have to churn so much out that you can’t afford the time to craft a carefully worded precis of your masterpiece. Another likely explanation is that many writers don’t have a clue what they plan to write about until they’ve done the first couple of interviews.

What we get instead, of course, are pitches from PR people. Some of these pitches are so well done that assigning them is practically a given. Others are so bad we can’t believe we received them. The worst of the bunch are reprinted in this newsletter, in a feature called “”Last Pitch Effort.”” I created that LPE not to be cruel but to show account representatives why we sometimes don’t get back to them about their story ideas — we’re too busy sorting through the useless stuff first. I’m sure somewhere there are some truly awful query letters from freelancers to the New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly or Harpers that would make an equally entertaining book.

I realized recently that the PR pitches were closer to query letters than anything I’d ever received, and that perhaps the best way to help flacks connect with editors would be to suggest they think more like freelancers when they send them. The problem with the bad pitches is that they are not really written with editors in mind, but clients. I can picture some of these firms nodding eagerly as they read a pitch suggesting we cover their latest router launch (“”Now that’s a story idea!”” they might say to themselves), but editors have the opposite reaction.

One of the best guides to effective queries made up the endpapers of the 1988 copy of Writer’s Digest my mother bought me for Christmas in Grade 8. It structured the elements of an effective pitch by using the reporter’s famous “”five Ws.”” An editor should see in your query WHAT you propose writing about — a one or two-paragraph outline of the story and its angle. They need to see WHO should be interviewed, of course, and PR people usually manage at least to suggest the client, if not their client’s customer. But editors must also know WHY their readers would be interested in this story, and many PR pitches simply skirt this issue. “”I thought your readers would be interested”” suggests a generic approach that puts no thought into the publication or its audience. U.S. agencies also ignore the WHERE factor, assuming Canadian CIOs will want to know about reseller agreements in Japan. Of course, if a pitch is that bad, it answers the question of WHEN an editor would run the story — never.

If PR professionals spent more time imagining a story the way the best freelancers do (and they should, since they hire away enough journalists), they would not only gain the respect of the editors they deal with but achieve more exposure that ultimately serves their clients better. As always, I’m willing to talk more on this subject or send an e-mail about it to anyone who’s interested. Consider this my query letter.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

Shane Schick is the editor of IT Business Pipeline.

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