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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Leading Query

"What's the best way to get an editor's attention? Punch him in the nose." So begins Chapter
Three of Lisa Collier Cool's book, "How to Write Irresistible Query Letters." Chapter Three, as you may guess, is titled "Leads That Hook the Editor" and is chock full of good ideas and important advice on how to begin a query letter to a magazine editor. This blog contains a brief overview of that chapter.

The first step, she says, is to ask yourself the five questions newspaper writers answer in their first paragraphs: When? Where? What? Who? and Why? Knowing the answers to these questions, while alone may not capture an editor's attention, will help you focus your slant and incorporate your more salable elements into your lead. For instance, if the "where" is in Salt Lake City, and the magazine you're querying focuses on subjects relating to Boston's coastline, you would probably want to omit the "where" from your lead and focus more on the tantalizing "Who," which just happens to be, let's say, a survivalist sea captain.

Next, Collier suggests implementing another newspaper formula, the "inverted pyramid." The inverted pyramid is simply this: "lead with your strongest material, save the details for later." That means, don't spend your first paragraph on miscellaneous details; instead, "punch" the editor with your most powerful, eye-catching information, such as "my method will double readers' incomes," or "Jane Doe is changing the way America loses weight." Also, the first paragraph based on the inverted pyramid is organized in this way: 1) Arouse interest. 2) Provide specifics. 3) Close with the key point.

Anecdotes, especially success stories, can also be effective leads because they immediately show the editor how readers can benefit from your article. Structuring anecdotes, according to Collier, is "a one-two punch: first you show the reader the problem or situation with an illustrative case history or two, then you tell the story behind the story . . . with approriate facts and figures." The anecdote is the lead I personally used several years ago to sell my profile article to "Guideposts for Kids."

Other effective leads are:
1. Beginning with a question.
2. "Cramming" your first sentence with specific facts to prove your expertise on the subject.
3. Incorporating quotes and dialogue to add drama or present difficult information.
4. Using comparisons and contrasts. "Yesterday we . . . Today we . . ."
5. Implementing "uncommon leads," such as "witty definitions, commands to the reader, surprising twists, and shockers." Collier's example of a shocking or twisted opening, which I've paraphrased, described that while a family was spending time in an amusement park, their dog was slowly dying inside their scorchingly hot car.

There you go. Writers often question how to write effective queries, and I've seen many examples by both new and established writers, but Collier's advice has worked best for me: We need to grab--punch--the editor with our first sentences, just like we do with the first sentences of our articles. This not only helps us hold the editor's interest, but it also stimulates his desire to buy our work.

So, this is one of the secrets to my querying success. What's yours?

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