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Diana Burrell is the coauthor of The Renegade Writer and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock, and the author of Psychology Today’s Here to Help: The Secrets of Successful Weight Loss. She writes for Parenting, Family Circle, Oxygen, and The Writer. Diana lives in Westford, Massachusetts. Visit Diana online at www.ninetofive.com
Linda Formichelli writes for Health, USA Weekend, Fitness, Women’s Health, Multi-Channel Merchant, Target Marketing, Writer’s Digest, and many other magazines. Linda co-authored The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock. Linda lives in Concord, NH, with her writer husband and three cats. Her interests include kung fu, science fiction, languages & linguistics, Archie Comics, Thai iced tea, and volunteering for animal welfare organizations. Linda’s website is www.lindaformichelli.com.
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- The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters that Rock gives freelancers license to break the rules—and sell more stories in the process
Why did you write The Renegade Writer?
One time I was grumbling about the one-page query letter rule and I said, “I should write an article on freelancing rules you can break.” My editor friend said, “Heck, you should write a book!” I roped Diana into the project, and we wrote a book proposal that was rejected by about a dozen big publishers. Then, once Diana and I had forgotten all about the proposal, I got an e-mail from an editor I had written for at a trade magazine. He wrote, “I started a publishing company that publishes books for journalists. Do you have any ideas?” Did I! I sent him the proposal, and within two weeks Diana and I had a contract. Thus The Renegade Writer was born!
How is The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock constructed?
The first part of the book consists of a FAQ – we answered the query questions that we hear the most often. The second half of the book has more than two dozen successful query letters, along with comments from the writers and their assigning editors. We were thrilled to get great magazines like Smithsonian, Fitness, USA Weekend, The LA Times Magazine, E: The Environmental Magazine, mental_floss, Parenting, and AARP.
Why did you write The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock?
Diana and I talk with a lot of writers, we hear from readers of The Renegade Writer, and we frequent many online discussion boards for writers. We kept hearing how hard it is to find examples of good queries. The other books on the market give instructions for writing query letters, but no examples of winning queries. We started offering writers a free packet of 12 successful queries via e-mail, and it was a hit! This showed us that there was a need out there, so we sold our publisher on the idea of a query letter book.
What is the main idea behind The Renegade Writer?
The Renegade Writer’s point is that you should do what’s right for you. Sure, lots of writing books say to never call an editor or to never pitch the same idea to the same magazine twice or to never turn down an assignment. But the rules don’t make sense for everyone all the time. Learn the rules, then determine which ones make sense for you and which ones don’t. Break the ones that you think are BS and see what happens. If the results are positive, great. If they’re not, figure out what went wrong, or rethink why you’re resisting that particular rule.
What’s the most common query mistake writers make?
They don’t tell the editor what’s in it for her and her readers. They somehow think the editor cares about how the article will benefit the writer, such as, “I’d love to write X for you,” or “I’ve always wanted to write for Y magazine.” You need to tell the editor how the article will make her job easier and thrill her readers. For example, you can end your query with a statement like, “Your readers want to make short work of housework so they can spend more time enjoying their families. My article “Quick Clean Secrets” won’t disappoint them.”
Another mistake is that many writers don’t research their queries, figuring that they’ll do the research once they get the assignment. But doing research makes it more likely that you’ll land the assignment – and that your idea will fly. (It stinks when you get an assignment and then realize that your idea was flawed!) Most of the queries in The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock were very well-researched, with quotes, studies, and statistics. There was even an amazing query from a regular Smithsonian writer who clearly did a lot of research – and if this guy has to research his queries, so do the rest of us.
What’s the most important thing readers will take away from the query letters?
They’ll learn that they should be themselves. Many writers are so afraid of the query process that they try to be ultra-professional, but come off as stiff and boring. Some of the most successful letters in the book injected a bit of humor. For example, one writer, in his letter about a blues DJ, ended his query with, “If you don’t give me this assignment, I don’t know what I’ll do.” Another writer titled his proposed article, “This Gland Is Your Gland.”
How did you get started as a freelance writer?
In 1996, I had just finished up my MA in Slavic Linguistics at U.C. Berkeley and was starting the Ph.D. program. After my first semester in the Ph.D. program I realized that this wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I thought I might like to get into publishing, so I set up informational interviews with several newspapers and book publishers. Although I didn’t like what I learned well enough to seek a job in the field, I thought my experiences in informational interviewing would make a great article for a career magazine. I wrote up a query using Thomas Clark’s book Queries and Submissions, sent the query to a bunch of magazines I found listed in Writer’s Market – and landed an assignment worth $500 from EEO Bimonthly magazine. Over the next few months I sold more and more articles, mostly to trade magazines but also to newsstand magazines like Games, Cats, and Nation’s Business. In July of 1997 I made the leap to full-time freelancing. I can’t imagine ever going back!
Your book The Renegade Writer was all about breaking the rules of freelancing. How can readers break query letter rules?
Let me count the ways! First, you should try as much as possible to e-mail your queries, and we give tips in The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock for figuring out editors’ unpublished e-mail addresses. You can also go as long as you need (forget the one-page query rule!) to convince the editor that your idea is great and that you’re the right person to write it. Also, you don’t always have to format your query the same old way: lede, body, credentials, closing. If you have some amazing creds that relate to the story you’re pitching, put them up front. If you have no creds at all, leave them out and wow the editor with your super idea and awesome writing style. And don’t be afraid to show your personality…if you think a pun or joke is the best way to start or end your query, go for it.
Besides these two books, how else do you help writers get more assignments?
We offer a free packet of a dozen successful query letters that netted me, my co-author, and my husband assignments worth from $800 to $3,750 from magazines like Family Circle, Parenting, and Psychology Today. Readers can send a blank e-mail to and our autoresponder will do the rest. I also offer a free service called The Review Copy Helper (http://www.lindaformichelli.com/reviewcopy), which is a directory of a couple hundred publishers and instructions on how to request review copies from them. Finally, I do e-mentoring for writers (http://www.lindaformichelli.com/course) and teach an 8-week e-course on how to break into magazines (http://www.lindaformichelli.com/course); my students have sold articles to Woman’s Day, For Me, E: The Environmental Magazine, Pizza Today, Michigan Out-Of-Doors, MyBusiness, and other magazines.
What was it like writing The Renegade Writer and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock with your co-author Diana Burrell?
It was a riot. We have such similar writing styles that when we go through the books later, we can’t remember who wrote what. I think the secret is to play to one another’s strengths. For example, Diana is much better at negotiating than I am, so she wrote the section on contracts in The Renegade Writer. In the query book, I chased down most of the editors because I’m really into marketing and I’m also very persistent. Diana is good at answering writers’ questions, so she did most of the FAQs. Then we edited one another’s sections.