As an established blogger in a relatively niche community, I get the occasional query email from folks who are looking for platforms to publish their writing. Occasionally, these are targeted, thoughtful, and demonstrate that the writer actually read my blog.
Most of the time, however, they’re…not.
I got one this morning. In many ways, it’s a good, solid query letter – but it’s got one fatal flaw. The letter (with identifying details redacted) reads as follows:
As a homeschooling mom to a child on the autism spectrum, I found your site to be very educational, helpful, and interesting. I noticed that you have a newsletter, and I wondered if you’re open to taking guest submissions for it. If so, I’d love to write something for your subscribers.
You can find samples of my writing on my site, [Web URL]. I can write on a number of topics, including offering engaging lesson plans and activities that work well for children with special needs, advice for parents as their child with special needs starts school for the first time, advice for parents of teens with special needs (especially those on the autism spectrum), tips for parents on educating their community on their child’s needs and how to serve them best, and more.
If you’re open to receiving an outside submission, please let me know, and please send along any guidelines you have. For example, I always like to include helpful resources in my writing and would just want to make sure that’s ok.
Hope to hear from you soon, but if I don’t, I look forward to learning more from your awesome website.
First, let’s talk about what’s right with this letter.
1. It’s clear, consistent, and legible. Surprisingly, many “writers” querying publications – including my blog and the press at which I work – don’t get this far. This query is expressed in standardized, written English that makes its purpose and the connection between its ideas clear. I completely believe this writer has had some success in the business, and that this writer’s work would be read and enjoyed by others.
2. It’s reasonably targeted. I write a blog about being autistic and about the autistic community. The query is from a parent who wants to write about autism-related topics from that perspective. This writer has clearly done enough homework to notice that our interests in a particular subject area overlap (and maybe even enough homework to notice that advice by/for/from/to parents is an area I don’t cover much).
3. It contains a clear call to action. Specifically, “please let me know, and please send along any guidelines….” This writer doesn’t wait for me to guess how to accept this query. Instead, the query itself tells me exactly what to do.
In most cases, if you can hit these three points in a query letter, you can land a writing gig. Queries don’t have to be long. In fact, they shouldn’t be; they should be short, straight, and to the point. The elements of a good query letter are all here: Polite greeting. Who is this writer? What can they do for the publication? What should I do in order to start that process? Polite closing.
Nevertheless, this one’s getting rejected. Here’s why:
1. I don’t have a newsletter. “On the autism spectrum” in the first sentence grated on me a bit (more on that below), but the fatal blow was the start of the second sentence. “I noticed you have a newsletter….” No, I don’t. This writer is asking to write for a publication that literally does not exist – and, in so doing, clearly demonstrated that they sent me a form letter instead of actually reading my blog.
This mistake alone was enough to get the query rejected, but the following two things are also wrong with this letter.
2. Pathologizing and weasel language. One of the main focuses of my blogging is the use of language surrounding autism. In particular, my blog champions the use of “autistic” to describe people and “Autistic” to describe the community and culture those people are developing. “On the autism spectrum,” while considered very polite in general discourse, gets the side-eye when it comes from anyone who has claimed to be reading my (“awesome”) blog.
See also: “special needs.” My blog also takes a pro-neurodiversity approach to language, which means that I strongly prefer not to describe autistic people’s needs as “special.” This, too, is something that would be very obvious to anyone who read my work.
Having to explain these to a writer, especially when that writer has already claimed to be reading my work, takes more effort than it’s worth. The pro-neurodiversity blogosphere is full of fantastic writers, some of whom I have hosted as guest bloggers before, and some of whom I’m sure I will host in the future. Why should I waste my time explaining things these writers already know?
Besides, I don’t have a newsletter.
The form of this query letter is great. Unfortunately, this is one of those instances where 90 percent won’t cut it, because the missing 10 percent is the part that really matters: the part where the writer demonstrates they actually understand what the publication is about. This writer is not a good fit for my blog (or my non-existent newsletter).
“Not a good fit” is, of course, the stock rejection reason throughout the publishing industry. Usually, it means one of two things: either (1) the publisher has decided that the amount of work they’ll have to do to edit or remediate the submitted piece is simply not worth it, or (2) the submitted piece is not going to resonate with the audience they’ve built.
“Not a good fit” feels subjective and opaque, and thus unfair. But it’s avoidable. It’s avoidable by making sure you actually understand the publication’s goals and core audience before sending a query.
Remember, every publisher, no matter their size, is reading your query letter with one question in mind: “What’s in this for us?” The answer they want to see is “I can write you a thing you can easily publish that your readers will like and pay for.” Make sure you provide that answer (though, as always, show rather than tell).