Are you fed up with your query letters being rejected or ignored? Before you send your next letter out to an editor, take a few minutes to scan this list and make sure you aren't engaging in any of the biggest no-nos.
1. Pitching the wrong publication. While there's something to be said for being able to put a new spin on old ideas, you are never going to convince a publication that focuses on weddings to buy your true crime piece about Ted Bundy. Don't even waste your time trying.
2. Spelling the editor's name wrong. If you want to sell your idea to an editor, the very least you can do is be sure of the spelling of his or her name. Misspelling the editor's name also makes you look careless. It doesn't inspire confidence that your article will be error-free.
3. Sending the query letter to the wrong editor. If you're pitching a health article, find out which editor handles that department. This information usually appears on the publication masthead, or if you want to get really radical, you can just call the publication and ask.
4. Incorrectly guessing the editor's gender. Even names that you think are obvious can bite you in the rear in you don't make absolutely sure. Case in point: I have a female friend who goes by the name "Ben." (Her brother couldn't say "Brianna" when he was little.) She's fairly good natured about receiving correspondence addressing her as "Mr." but she's thrilled when someone actually gets it right.
5. Difficult to read style or font. Don't try to stand out by using an unusual font. Editors spend all day reading, and they won't waste time trying to decipher illegible correspondence. Besides, if you have to resort to attention getting tricks, most editors assume you're trying to cover the fact that your idea is weak.
6. Talking yourself out of a sale. Many writers prepare a perfectly presentable pitch and then ruin it by spending the next three paragraphs explaining how they've never really written anything for publication before, but their mom really likes the article, and they scored good marks in high school English. You don't have to lie and say you have experience when you don't. Just leave that part out and let the strength of the pitch stand on its own.
7. Playing guessing games. Don't try to get the editor's attention by ending with, "If you want to know how to solve this problem, you'll have to read the whole article." It's the mark of an amateur and makes the editor wonder whether you, yourself, have researched solutions to the issue you've presented.
8. Making promises you can't keep. Unless you're on President Obama's speed dial, don't tell the editor you can get a three-hour exclusive interview with him. If you do have an ace-in-the-hole expert, you can always write something like, "I did an internship with Senator X, and we still keep in touch. He is willing to be interviewed for this article."
9. Long letters. If your query letter runs more than a page (~500 words), it's too long. Go back and look for words and sentences you can sacrifice.
10. Spelling and grammar errors in the letter. True story. I once replied to an advertisement for writers who specialized in caregiving issues. I figured the position was right up my alley and was surprised and a little hurt that I didn't even make the first cut. I finally got up my nerve to send a polite letter asking why, and he pointed out that I had a spelling error in the first paragraph of my letter of interest. Ouch. Take the extra time to proofread--it's worth it.
Of course, we all know that even the best written query letters get rejected sometimes. Maybe the publication just ran a similar story, or the editor had a fight with her husband the morning your query letter about improving family harmony hit her desk. Those are the breaks. But you certainly don't want to give an editor any reason for rejecting your query letter.
Have you ever sent out a query letter with a big mistake in it?