Friday, January 20, 2006


Preparing E-mail Queries
by Moira Allen
A few years ago, only a handful of periodical publishers listed in The Writer's Market provided e-mail addresses. Now, nearly every publisher in that directory does so. While some editors still prefer paper queries sent by surface mail, an increasing number prefer e-mail queries. Among electronic publications, such as e-zines and e-mail newsletters, that preference is almost universal. Many electronic publications will not even consider paper queries.

E-mail queries save postage and time. Your query will reach the editor in seconds rather than days. You may also receive a response within days (or even hours).
E-mail queries also have disadvantages, however. A common complaint of editors is that many writers don't bother to prepare e-mail queries carefully. Many seem to be written in haste, with little consideration for style or presentation, and no proofreading. E-mail queries are often casual, chatty, even "cute" -- qualities editors rarely find endearing.
Another problem editors frequently encounter is impatience. Just because your query may arrive within seconds, that doesn't mean the editor is going to read it immediately, let alone respond within minutes. Nothing annoys an editor so much as a writer who starts nagging for a response within days (or hours) of sending an e-mail query.
While e-mail queries contain many of the same elements as traditional "paper" queries, they also contain elements that need special attention. These include:
The Header
With e-mail, you can't impress an editor with nice paper or a snappy letterhead. Instead, you must rely on your header to provide vital information about yourself and your query. Be sure to put the right information in these sections:

To: Address your query to the right person at the right address. Try to locate the exact e-mail address of the editor you wish to contact.

From: You probably wouldn't sign a traditional query with a tagline like "Crystal Windsinger" or "Rafe Moondragon." If you use such an nickname to communicate online, however, it may slip into your query by mistake. Be sure to set up an alternate, professional "personality" in your e-mail program that includes your real name and a professional-sounding e-mail address.

Subject: Include the word "Query" in your subject line, along with a brief (two to three word) description of your proposal -- e.g., "Query: Cancer in Cats" or "Query: Writing for Pet Magazines." Never leave this line blank. Avoid cuteness or excessive informality; a subject line like "May I have a moment of your time?" looks too much like "spam" and could cause your query to be deleted.

The Text
The easiest way to handle the text of an e-mail query is to treat it just like a traditional query. (See How to Write a Successful Query Letter for details on what to include in a query.) However, many editors find that they actually prefer shorter queries by e-mail. This is partly a display issue: The less the editor has to "scroll" to read your query, the better.
Thus, more writers are turning to brief, one- to three-paragraph e-mail queries. The hook is often eliminated entirely, allowing the writer to get straight to the pitch, followed by a single paragraph of description, and closing with the writer's credentials. Here's an example of a query I received from a regular contributor to Inkspot:
Hello! I promised you a query, so here you go.
"Flash What?" is an exploration of the (at-first-glance) strange medium of flash fiction. The article does not attempt to define the form, as flash is virtually undefinable, but it does identify the many styles of flash, and its many names. I cite such writers as Lila Guzman and Pamelyn Casto and their thoughts on the form. Following this, I segue into a general how-to segment on writing flash, listing three essential questions every flash writer must ask. Once that's finished, I close out with market listings and other resources.
With flash fiction becoming more and more prevalent in the literary community, especially the online publishing world (whole zines are devoted to the medium), I think that this piece is very useful to Inkspot's many readers who double as fiction writers.
"Flash What?" is about 1220 words long. I'll be happy to send along the full piece if you are interested.
Thanks! Looking forward to your reply.
J. Gurley

When crafting an e-mail query, therefore, give serious thought to ways that you can "condense" your information into a compact summary that the editor can view on a single screen. Just be sure that your summary actually covers all the salient points that you wish to make!

Credentials and Clips
It's perfectly acceptable to list your credentials in an e-mail query just as you would in a traditional query. Many writers, also use this opportunity to provide a link to a Web site where editors can learn more about the writer's qualifications, or perhaps view writing samples. Here's an example:
I have been chosen as a Poet of the Year 2000 for the poetry that I submitted to and have been invited to Reno Nevada to receive a trophy and a medallion for my poetry from the actor and poet, Ed Asner. My poetry can be seen at

Some editors will check the sites you list; some won't. It's wise, therefore, to state your credentials explicitly, and offer Web sites only as a backup. Never send "clips" in an attachment.

The Address Block
In a traditional query, your name and address and other contact information would go at the top of the page (or be incorporated into your letterhead). In an e-mail query, it should go at the bottom, below your typed signature:

Jane Smith
1042 Gloriana Lane
Whippet, IL 60606
(555) 123-4568 (fax)

You may wish to use a standard "signature block" to include your Web site and any special credentials you'd like to list. You can also include your surface-mail address and contact information in a signature block, but be sure you only use this block for queries and professional correspondence; you don't want to broadcast that information on the Web. Avoid overly cute signature blocks, or blocks that involve graphic elements. Save the cats, dancing weasels, and emoticons for more personal correspondence.
Removing the Gibberish
Sending a query or manuscript electronically isn't simply a matter of copying your material from a wordprocessing file (such as MS Word) and pasting it into an e-mail. All too often, a straight cut-and-paste results in a message that looks something like this:

%Please don,t reject my manuscript,@ the author cried, pleading ? but to no avail, as the editor wasn&t in the mood for such %gibberish@!

Even a single line of this can be annoying; having to wade through an entire query -- or worse, a manuscript -- of this nature is beyond the patience of most editors. Kind-hearted editors will send such a submission back and ask you to fix it; less-understanding editors will simply send a rejection.

Gibberish and "nonsense symbols" are the result of transferring a word-processed document directly to e-mail without "undoing" many of the special characters and commands that such a program (like Word) automatically embeds in your file. Unless instructed otherwise, for example, Microsoft Word will automatically convert dashes (--) into a special dash-symbol, turn all apostrophes and quotes into "smart quotes," transform ellipses (...) into yet another special character, and superscript the ending of words like "1st" or "7th".
These special characters look nice on the printed page, but are the result of hidden codes in your electronic file that do not "translate" when copied into an e-mail document. Instead, those codes are converted into various symbols and odd characters. Any formatting codes in your document (e.g., bold, underline, italic) will be similarly transformed. Converting your document to "RTF" format, or even "text," does not always remove all embedded codes. (While it usually removes formatting codes, it may not remove "special character" codes, such as dashes or smart quotes.)
To prevent these and other e-mail problems in your submissions, be sure to take the following steps before submitting a query or manuscript electronically:

Turn off all special-character commands. In MS Word, you can do this by going into the "AutoCorrect" menu under "Tools." In the "Autoformat as you type" and "Autoformat" menus, uncheck everything under "Replace as you type." In the "Autocorrect" submenu, look at the list of automatic corrections, and delete the correction that replaces an ellipses with a special character.

Replace special-character commands in existing documents. If you're submitting a document that you prepared BEFORE turning off these "replace" commands, you'll need to do a search-and-replace on the problem characters. For smart quotes, simply enter a single quote in the "find" and "replace" box and do a "replace all"; this will correct all apostrophes and single quotes. Do the same for double quotes. To replace a dash, use the keyboard combination [option hyphen] to enter the dash in the "find" box; replace it with [ -- ]. To replace ellipses, use the keyboard combination [option ;] in the "find" box, and replace with [...].

Double-space between paragraphs. E-mail wipes out tabs, which means that a manuscript that relies on tabs to indicate new paragraphs will end up as a nearly solid block of text. If you don't want to double-space manually, simply do a search-and-replace on the "paragraph" character. (In Word, click on "More" in the find-and-replace menu. The paragraph command is the first item under "Special" -- hit this option once for the "find" box and twice for the "replace" box.

More Do's and Don'ts
Editors will be even happier with your electronic submissions if you follow these guidelines:
DO use a large, readable font. Sometimes I feel the urge to send a query back simply because it seems to be written in electronic micro-print. Make sure your font size is set to "normal" -- or to a minimum of 12 points. If you're not sure how "large" your type looks (it may look fine on your own screen), ask someone else how your e-mails look.

DO include an appropriate subject header. A header such as "QUERY: (article title/subject)" or "ARTICLE SUBMISSION: Title" always works well.

DO keep e-mail queries as short as possible. While paper queries should be kept to a single page (if possible) because that's easiest for an editor to read, keep in mind that an e-mail "page" often translates to the size of an editor's screen. Try to present your query succinctly enough to minimize (or eliminate) the need to scroll through your message.

DON'T use HTML formatting in your e-mail. Turn off any commands that automatically convert your e-mail to an HTML document.

DON'T use colors. Just as you wouldn't type a query in yellow ink, don't send an e-mail query in any font color other than black.

DON'T use emoticons. These are more appropriate for personal correspondence.

DON'T send any "involuntary" attachments. If your e-mail program is set up to send a "vcard" attachment, turn off that option. Editors have been worried about electronic viruses long before they began to worry about surface-mail viruses, and many will delete a message that is flagged with an attachment without even reading the e-mail itself.

DON'T send "clips" as attachments. It's always difficult to send clips with electronic queries.

One option is to state the availability of clips, to be sent by e-mail or surface mail on request; another is to provide links to online clips. (It's perfectly acceptable to set up a website of your own where you can place scanned or HTML'd copies of your previously published articles, to use as a "clip portfolio" -- even if you don't make the material "publicly available.")

DON'T send a submission as an attachment unless a publication's guidelines specifically state that this is acceptable, or unless you have authorization from the editor.

DON'T expect an editor to respond to an e-mail submission "instantly." Although some editors do respond more quickly to e-mail submissions than to surface mail, assume that a publication's published response time still applies, no matter how you submit material. Nothing irritates an editor like a writer who asks after a submission only days after sending it in.

DO keep a copy of all correspondence with editors. This will make it much easier for you to send a copy of your original query if you need to follow up. One way to handle this is to create a folder in your e-mail directory for "queries and submissions" that are still awaiting response, and another for queries and submissions that have received a reply. By checking your "awaiting response" file, you can easily determine, by the dates of your e-mails, when a submission should be followed up.

The ability to contact editors electronically has made life much easier for writers around the world. To retain this ability, however, we must make sure that we make life as easy as possible for our editors as well!


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