The Query Letter Formula

I’m writing this out of pure sloth…

Over the first six years of my writing career, I’ve developed a killer template for query letters that works well for myself and dozens of writers I’ve coached or spoken in front of. Other speakers and teachers have referenced it, and it’s been featured in Joanna Penn’s podcast and at conferences in multiple countries.

I’ve typed it out for so many people, so many times, my withered and arthritic fingers begged me to write it down here. One time. So I can send folks to this page instead of repeating it time and time again.

So…here it is.

The Four-Para Magic Query Letter

You want to open with the name of the person most likely to read it. I’ve found about 20% of agents and editors skip this and don’t care…but the other 80% are looking for reasons to not read the rest of your letter. They get 100+ a day. “They couldn’t be bothered to find out my name” is a common reason.

So get the damn name. Open with something standard like “Dear Firstname”, “Hello Ms. Lastname”, or “Greetings Full Name.” Once you start with that basic, it’s time to move on to the Four Paragraphs. We’ll deal first with the Big Three:

  1. “You’re Awesome!”
  2. “I Have This Awesome Idea!”
  3. “I Am Also Awesome!”

Here’s how they work.

Para 1: “You’re Awesome!”

Hard to swallow truth: the folks you’re querying neither give a rat’s damn about you, nor are terribly inclined to start any time soon. They do, however, care deeply about themselves and their publication/agency/website.

So open by showing you care about them and their jobs, too. Spend 2-3 sentences describing why you want to work with them, and the accomplishments that make the recipient stand out. For example…

For a Magazine.

I’ve been a fan of True Brew magazine since 2014, when your coverage of the Portland Hops and Hatchets Festival caught my eye. More recently, I really enjoyed your article about Sascha Karoll’s work with bioengineering yeast for taste and ABV.

For an Agent.

As a parent and world-traveler, I have long enjoyed the work of your client Amanda Hopper. Her book on child safety in developing nations helped me take my kids to Southeast Asia ready to enjoy the experience with less worry.

For a Podcast

I only found out about Guys Mocking Guys a month ago, but you’ve been splitting my sides ever since. You’re in heavy rotation as I try to catch up. I know you recorded it years ago, but your “Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes” episode was one of the funniest things I’ve heard in a long time.

See how it works? You show you cared enough to find out a little about them. Don’t take too long, but demonstrate you performed both due diligence and common courtesy.

Huge bonus points if the thing you mention is directly related to the topic you’re about to pitch. Speaking of…

Para Two: “I Have This Awesome Idea!”

Here’s where you pitch your piece Keep it brief. No more than a five-sentence elevator spiel. Use bullet points for nonfiction sometimes, sentences always for fiction. Stick to the basic facts and don’t overdo it.

Your job here is to pique enough interest they’ll get back to you and start a conversation…not to tell them everything they need to know. If you do that, even if they like the idea they’re more likely to put it on the back burner and forget your name. Remember: agents and editors are crazy busy.

For a Magazine.

Next month, I’m helping to organize hospitality for the Smalltown Big Brew Festival in Anytown. I’ll have interview access to the showrunners, exhibitors, and celebrity guests. I would love to do a “behind the scenes” piece for True Brew. I’m certain your readers will enjoy and appreciate the backstage pass view to one of the country’s most successful brewing events.

For an Agent.

A frequently overlooked aspect of family travel safety is dealing with food allergies in places where you can’t necessarily read the menu. Travelling Hungry With Kids deals with that topic in 80,000 words divided between five sections:

1) Encouragement about how it’s possible to travel with food-sensitive children.

2) A checklist of preparatory questions, and how to find their answers.

3) Advice on communicating your needs to waiters, concierges, tour guides, and other local staff.

4) Emergency first aid in less developed nations, and advice on how to contact and work with first responders and hospitals.

5) A gazeteer detailing risks and needs for various tourist hot spots worldwide.

For a Podcast.

I’m currently launching my Farkas Foxtrots series: a bunch of fictional adventures starring Max Farkas and Luie Grant, two dumb but devoted best buddies who get into all kinds of humorous fun. It’s been described by Hollywood scouts as “Quentin Tarantino directs The Hangover.” I’m looking for some funny-minded guys to help me spread the word.

See how each succinctly describes what you have to offer, in a way that makes it clear why it would be interesting to the agent or editor you described in the first paragraph? That’s what you want to do.

Para 3: “I Am Also Awesome!”

In this final core paragraph, you spend a maximum of three sentences explaining how you are the only person who could possibly do the story justice. Here’s where you list your experience, qualifications, platform, and any other characteristics that make you the best writer for the job.

Brag your ass off. Tell the truth. Stick to the most salient points. But make yourself out to be a rock star. For example:

For a Magazine.

I’ve been a professional journalist for six years, and an amateur brewer for twelve. You can find my work in Sip, The Weekly Growler, and Booze and Brews. My Twitter feed @BeerBellyBob also gives a good sense of my voice and place in the brewing community.

For an Agent.

As you might have imagined, I researched the core of this book while personally travelling the world with my peanut-allergic nine-year-old. I’ve augmented that experience by interviewing professionals both before and after our family trip. Though I have no professional writing credits so far, you can get a sense for my style at my popular blog Mommy on the Road.

For a Podcast.

As for me, I’ve been writing humorous articles since 2011 with credits in Maxim, Boy’s Life, and Reader’s Digest. You can see my standup routines on YouTube, and on my Facebook feed. I’m told I give great interview, so we’re sure to produce a hilarious and popular episode together.

That’s it. Keep it quick and dirty. You can get into specific page visits and tear sheets/samples when they respond, deeply intrigued by the international writer of mystery you most clearly are.

Closing Out

As with the opening, you want this quick and dirty. Say thank you. Invite them to respond. Give your name.

And you’re done.

Para Four: The Bonus Paragraph

Okay. I’m going to let you in on a little secret. This paragraph has probably made me more money than any other part of this whole spiel. It’s a PS, and works thusly.

After your closing, do four sentences to the following basic format:

“If you like my style, but the (article above) doesn’t suit your needs right now, I have two other idea that might suit your fancy. The first deals with (short summary). The second covers (short summary). If these pique your interest, I’m happy to provide a full query with further details.”

Got it?

That’s the letter. Simple. Brief. Easy to understand. Now, go forth and do likewise.

9 Habits: Think Abundance

Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I’m assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free. 

Habit 9: Think Abundance

Write Nonfiction is the most important habit for giving you the opportunity to make a good living as a writer. This last habit, though, is the most important for seizing that opportunity. It’s the difference between wanting to write for a living and actually writing for your daily bread.

Unlike other habits, this is less about what you do and more about how you think about the resources available to you.

Thinking abundance is the opposite of thinking scarcity, which is what most writers I work with do when I meet them. Most writers have the following monthly earning cycle:

  1. Write your butt off.
  2. Count up how much money you made.
  3. Spend that money.
  4. Repeat.

It’s easy to fall into that rut, and the rut feels safe while you’re in it. However, it means you’re making only as much money as you happen to make. It’s no way to grow a freelancing business, and no way to meet those five year goals from Habit Seven. Perhaps worse, you never feel done writing for the month, or the week, or the day. There’s no “off” button because you haven’t defined a finish line.

Instead, consider the power of a different monthly earning cycle:

  1. Determine how much money you need to do the things you want.
  2. Figure out how much writing you must do to earn that much money.
  3. Write that much.
  4. Stop writing.
  5. Spend the money you earned.

This is thinking abundance. Instead of asking “Can I afford what I want?” you ask “What must I do to afford what I want?” It gives you control of how much you make from your freelance career, which means it lets you live exactly the life you want by writing for a living.

Abundant Time

You can apply the abundance mindset to your time just as easily. When working a regular job, sometimes you have to be at work instead of going on vacation or seeing your child’s recital. When freelancing with a scarcity mindset, things get even worse. You skip all kinds of things you want to do because you feel like you have to work all the time.

Instead, apply the question “What must I do to get to do what I want?”

Want to coach your kid’s soccer team every Tuesday and Thursday evening? Schedule a little extra work on Monday and Wednesday night, or on Saturday morning before everybody gets up. Want to take a two week vacation? Spend two months doing an extra assignment a week until you’ve amassed enough saving to not have to work while you’re away. You never have to ask anybody for permission, and there’s no limit to the flexibility of your time…as long as you plan for it and commit those extra hours.

On the back end, this is how regular jobs figure vacation time. You get paid more than your salary for each day you work, and that extra pay gets applied to some time you don’t come to work in the future. That’s exactly like working harder for a day so you can take another day off. The only difference is when you freelance with an abundant mindset, you’re the one in control of how much, how often and when you get to do that.

Make a Joke Out of Your Life

Your life isn’t a joke, but if you can plan your life the way good humorists tell jokes, you’ll be able to make out of it whatever you want.

Here’s what I mean by that.

A Tale of Two Tale-Tellers

When the newly shot-down pilot was thrown into the crowded barracks with the other prisoners of war he was surprised to find that all the rest of them had been there so long that they had started giving numbers to all the old jokes and just shouting out the number without telling the whole long story. One guy would shout out, “Number 31” and everyone would howl with laughter. “That’s a good one, someone would say.”

But when one fellow called out “26!” hardly anyone laughed. The new guy said, “what gives, why didn’t anybody laugh?”

“Well,” said one old timer, “some guys just can’t tell a joke.”

But what’s the difference between somebody who can tell a joke and somebody who can’t? Bear with me now. I promise this has to do with planning and life-hacking.

A bad joke-teller would try to tell that joke above, but go at it with low confidence. He might stammer, or pause to remember part of it, or say something like “Wait! I forgot this part. Let me go back.” By the time he reached the punchline, it would fall flat and leave everybody, including him, disappointed.

By contrast, the good joke teller spins the yarn with confidence. She never seems to make mistakes, instead weaving the warp and weft of the tale into a pattern that’s memorable and entertaining even before it reaches the punchline. And when she does, everybody explodes with laughter.

Then you have people who know they’re bad at telling jokes (or think they are), and refuse to even try even when people ask them to. And then there are those master joke-tellers who do it wonderfully, without any apparent effort.

That’s the whole spectrum of joke-tellers, from the naturals to the non-starters. Everybody falls somewhere on that spectrum.

But regardless of where they fall, they all like to laugh. Everybody feels jokes are worthwhile, and the exceptions aren’t folks we want to hang  out with anyway. 

And Thus It Is With Planning

Three professionals were in the bathroom standing at the urinals. The first, an architect, finished and walked over to the sink to wash his hands.  He then proceeded to dry his hands very carefully.  He used paper towel after paper towel and ensured that every single spot of water on his hands was dried.  Turning to the other two, he said, “As Architects, we are trained to be extremely thorough.”

The second, an engineer finished his task at the urinal and he proceeded to wash his hands.  He used a single paper towel and made sure that he dried his hands using every available portion of the paper towel.   He turned and said, “Engineers, are not only are we trained to be extremely thorough, but we are also trained to be extremely efficient.”

The Planner finished and walked straight for the door, shouting over his shoulder, “In the Planning Department, we don’t pee on our hands.”

They say failing to plan is planning to fail, and I tend to agree. It’s possible to “wing it” for mediocre results. If you’re very talented, or in a field with low demands, you can even make it to average without plans. But if you want to excel, to live the life you want on your own terms, you have to plan.

As it turns out, planning your life is a lot like telling jokes. It’s an art that can make things a lot better (or at least more fun) once you’ve mastered it. Also, many of the same characteristics of good or bad joke tellers apply to planning.

Peoples’ relationship with planning falls on the same spectrum as peoples’ relationship with telling jokes. You have good planners who seem to breeze through it, successfully organizing their time and executing their plans. You have bad planners, who struggle with the process so much they get very little useful out of it. And you have people who refuse to even try because they think they’ll just fail.

And of course the planners who won’t and those who effortlessly attain planning nirvana without any apparent effort, who actually seem to derive comfort and peace from the process.

The spectrum is the same as with jokes, only the stakes are higher.

How to Plan Like a Comic Genius

The key to telling a joke, really to any kind of public speaking, and to planning for your goals, is the concept of punchlines and linchpins.

A bad joke-teller recites a joke they’ve tried to memorize like a script, relying on perfect memory and recitation to make the joke happen. At best, their delivery is wooden and stilted. At worst, they have to backfill and redo over small mistakes they ruin the joke.

A good joke-teller understands the details are less important, that only the punch line and a handful of points must be on point. Everything else is flexible, and can be shifted according to audience reaction, need to cover up mistakes, and in-the-moment inspiration. In the end, their joke is vibrant, responsive, entertaining, and funny….it’s successful.

Bad joke tellers view the text of the joke as a rigid, set-in-stone path from point a (the beginning) to point b (the punch line). That makes the entire process vulnerable to even small variations or surprises, and even if the joke gets a laugh, it’s not very much fun to tell.

So, How Does This Work With Planning?

Too many people view planning like people who can’t tell a joke. They think it’s a locked-in, rigid cage of intention from which any variation is “cheating.” With that view, they can’t imagine living a life with those kinds of constraints.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are the super-effective planners. They know how to set aggressive goals, then reach them with an infinitely flexible set of benchmarks that gets them where they’re going, no matter what kind of detours get in the way.

In between are the rest of us. Folks who can tell a decent joke, but won’t be going on tour with Jim Jeffries or Samantha Bee any time soon. But we can learn from the masters and make our joke telling and planning mojo that much better.

So…go and make a joke out of your life, my friends. Sweat the big stuff and watch the small stuff flow. You’ll be glad you did.

9 Habits: Master Your Game

Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I’m assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free. 

Habit 8: Master Your Game

Lawrence Block is an award-winning mystery author with an immense body of work and enthusiastic following. I’m still a little mad at him for retiring, leaving me with only 10 ½ Bernie Rhodenbarr mysteries to entertain me for the rest of my life. For years, Block wrote an advice column in Writer’s Digest. In one such column, he said that writers who don’t read the magazines they want to write for won’t get published – and they don’t deserve to.

Editors I’ve spoken with say the same thing. You’d be amazed and appalled at how many people pitch a magazine without ever having read it, or even cruised the website.

I get that comment a lot online and in my workshops: authors who want to be published, but who don’t read much in the genre where they work. Some of them tell me they don’t read much at all.

If you want to write for somebody, have the common courtesy to research what they do and who they are. Find out the kind of writing they want, their editorial slant, and what topics they’re interested in publishing.

The best freelancers take it several steps further. Many sites and magazines have editorial calendars that describe in broad strokes what kinds of articles they’ve already slated for a specific issue, and any special topics they want to cover at certain times of the year.

They’ll also tell you early they need to receive a piece in order to have it ready for a specific issue. This research lets you pitch your ideas from an angle based on what the magazine has already decided to cover.

The same goes for business writing. If you approach a business, approach already knowing what kind of copy they have on their website and in their advertising. Come prepared with specific examples of how you can make it better. Have the common courtesy to know a little bit about that prospective client before you ask them to give you money.

Researching Opportunities

Researching what specific venues you want to write for is vital, but you won’t get far without also researching all the various venues that might carry your work. There are so many fish in the writing market sea there’s no way you know about them all, let alone which ones are currently in need of your particular writing skill set. Consider this list.

Professional blogging for business

Writing your own blog for sales or advertising

Microbusiness/niche blogging

Developing business documents

White papers

Technical writing

Grant writing

Business plans

Venture capital proposals

Nonfiction articles for major magazines

Nonfiction articles for trade and hobby magazines


Advertising collateral

Web copy

Legal SEO

Informational SEO

Social media releases

Press releases

Local newspapers

Regional newspapers


Self-published books

Direct mail marketing copy

College entry essays

Traditional publishing

Case studies



These are all markets that pay real money for good words. The top tier on most pay a dollar or more for each word you produce. Thousands of professional writers derive their sole income from writing in just one of these categories.

The deeper you research your market and industry, the more opportunities you’ll find to sell your work. That means more assignments, and more money.

Knowing Your Rates

One reason people get discouraged about writing for a living is they see ads for gigs that pay $5 for 1,000 words or some similarly ridiculously low fee. Though the price for any work ultimately comes down to what you negotiate, I see four distinct tiers of payment in most circles.


Some publishers or clients want to pay $5 or less for a blog post or article, or they want you to write for free to get exposure for your work. Do not accept offers at this price point. You’ll make less than minimum wage. Worse, accepting those offers perpetuates the idea that this is a reasonable amount to pay for what we do.

It’s okay to write for trade, for example doing some blog entries at your kid’s karate school in exchange for a few private lessons, but that’s not working for free. It’s exchanging value for value…which is what professionals do.

Breaking In

A wealth of writing opportunities pay between 3 and 6 cents a word. A lot of it is with content mills or low-end legitimate publishers. It’s not what you deserve, but can still add up to a decent living. If you take 30 minutes to write 1000 words, that’s still $30 to $60 an hour. Not a bad payday.

Until you get good at estimating and negotiating your contracts, you’ll probably also spend many of your first hourly assignments stuck making about this much per word. The per-word rate will get even lower as you become better at your craft and you produce more words per hour at the same wage per hour. That’s why writers negotiate on a per-job basis instead of a per-hour contract.


A portfolio of strong copy coupled with good testimonials will land you jobs where you get $100 to $150 for a single blog or online article. You’ll also start to get assignments with mid-range national publications for about the same amount per word. At this rate, it’s possible to clear six figures a year if you’re willing to make a real job of it. I work mostly in this tier, and make a solid middle-class living while working about three to four hours on most weekdays.


I’ve completed about a dozen assignments at this tier, and would love to do more. Rates of $0.25 to $1 or more per word for articles of several hundred or thousands of words are the norm here. Major national magazines, ghostwriting for major clients and a few top online publishers pay these rates. You’ll also get paid at this level for short, high-impact work like brochures or direct mail scripts – though you’ll find they words take longer to write for those assignments.

6 Ways to Kick Your Own Ass

The worst thing about working for myself is I’m pretty sure my boss is shagging my girlfriend.

The second worst thing Kick Ass 1is, just like with any job, there are things I have to do that I really don’t want to. Sometimes those things are not just important, but urgent…and yet the call of procrastination is so strong. In a regular job, that’s what the boss is for. You see her walking around and it reminds you to get your ass to work.

Working for myself means I don’t have a boss to kick my ass when I’m struggling to get the grunt work done. So I have to be my own boss. I have to kick my own ass.

And so will you.

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