Why editors accept or reject query letters

When you submit a query to an editor, the editor will respond in one of three ways: yes, no, maybe.

The editor says “yes” for these four reasons:

  1. Your idea your article appeals to her publication’s audience. That publication could be an off- or online magazine, newspaper or newsletter, among others.
  2. Your idea is solid. It has depth, scope and significance.
  3. Your writing is stellar. It’s engaging and succinct and, as should go without saying, it is well written.
  4. Your name/title, experience or knowledge makes you an authority on your subject. Or — and this is important — the quality of your writing proves you can deliver. After all, most of us are not experts on the topics we write about.

The editor says “no” for these four reasons:

  1. Your idea misses the mark. It isn’t in keeping with readers’ interests or needs, however broad or narrow they may be.
  2. Your idea isn’t timely. The topic is no longer relevant or its tie-in has passed (e.g., a Mother’s Day article proposed in June). Or, as often happens, another writer has been assigned to a similar piece.
  3. Your writing is sloppy, disorganized and boring. First impressions count, and you won’t get a second chance to make one.
  4. You lack expertise. As noted above, the quality of your writing establishes your expertise. Having said that, an editor may let you slide if you’ve got “curb appeal”; namely that your name, rank and experience override the quality of your writing (e.g., you’re the first person to climb Mt. Everest with a dog).

The editor says “maybe” for these three reasons:

  1. The editor is not convinced your idea is relevant and/or interesting, at least as presented. Nonetheless, the potential is there, which is why she may ask you to rework your query or to focus on a specific angle.
  2. The editor may want to hold your idea for a special issue (the operative word being may), or because she has to run it by other powers-the-be.
  3. The editor simply can’t decide whether or not to accept the piece. Frustrating as this may be, you can’t compel her to explain her position or even take one.

Bottom line:

Keep the above points in mind from the get-go; namely, as you begin to develop your article idea.

Anticipate your editor’s reaction to your work as you write your query to ensure you get the response you want.

Don’t let one editor determine the fate of your article. It’s likely your article will appeal to someone, somewhere. You get to that person by approaching other publications. The size of your market is larger than you think.

Study other query letters to get a sense of what makes for successful ones. Here are three books that can help:

Books of note

How to write irresistable query letters
Lisa Collier Cool

The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock (Kindle)
Diana Burrell and Linda Formichelli

How to write a great query letter: Insider tips and techniques for success (Kindle; free)
Noah Lukeman
Available here.

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