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Then Again The Novel

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One of the things aspiring writers worry about the most is coming up with ideas for salable articles. In order to keep several queries in the mail at all times, it is necessary to add new ideas to the list as often as possible. Where do they all come from? One place is a wonderful institution called the library. Of course, the Web is rapidly replacing the library as a source of general information, but for those not adept at using the Web, we suggest you get intimately acquainted with your local library. Not only is there a vast store of potential article ideas there, librarians can help teach you how to find it and also how to use the Web as a research tool.

University libraries are by far the best. Some of you will have only small public libraries nearby, but even if you must travel a good distance to reach a college or university library, we suggest that you do so on a regular basis.

Libraries, especially those connected with universities, have vast collections of journals and periodicals covering nearly every category and dating back for years. It is here, among the dusty catacombs of magazines, newspapers, journals and other research publications, that you find a veritable gold mind of ideas for articles.

Trade and specialty magazines not only represent good markets for writers, they can also be the source of numerous ideas for articles to sell to general consumer publications. Say you come across an article in one of the technology trades concerning an advance in computer technology. Though the language may be alien to you, don't let it scare you off. All you really need is the gist of the subject and, if necessary, you can make a quick call to the principal researcher to request an explanation in lay terms. Once you feel you can convey the essence of the story, you can query one of the numerous consumer-oriented computer magazines.

You can either look for ideas in specific categories, or use a kind of random browsing system, walking up and down the aisles of racks, pulling trade magazines off at random and flipping to the tables of contents until something, even a single word, intrigues you. Eventually, you will find that certain publications time after time provide you with grist for the writing mill. These become your starting points, but always spend some time seeking new ones.

It is also a good idea to study the academic journals in the same way. Browse the tables of contents, and if something looks interesting, look it up and read the abstract. Thousands of articles have evolved from just single words that caught an alert writer's eye.

For example, a writer frend of ours remembers once looking through a geological journal, glancing over several passages he could barely read, let alone understand. Suddenly, a familiar word, "diamond" caught his eye. When he turned to the abstract, he found that the article concerned a new theory that the planet Uranus had, near its core, a layer of diamond several hundred miles thick. He sold the story to one of the popular science magazines: $250 for 300 words.

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Newspapers are also a good place to find story ideas, and libraries usually subscribe to the major ones. It is a good idea to quickly scan 10 or 15 of the past week's major papers; if you do, you are sure to come up with a few good ideas. Magazines often run stories three to six months behind the wire services and newspapers, and many magazine articles are based upon subjects that originally broke in the news media.

The business, family, entertainment, sports, health, and science pages of newspapers are the best places to start. Front-page material is likely to be the same all over the country and magazine editors read papers, too.

Finally, spend some time going through five and ten year-old copies of magazines to which you currently wish to sell. Many times there are stories that a magazine has covered in the past, but which new developments now make worthy of follow-up. If the magazine ran the story once, it is likely to be interested in new material on the same subject.

One last word about university libraries. Most provide several inexpensive copy machines, so that, instead of taking notes, you can simply carry a pocket full of change and go home with copies of articles you find intriguing.

In addition to the library, there are several other good sources of article ideas, some as commonplace as the radio or the TV. The key here is to condition your mind to be alert, and to think "category." By this we mean constantly saying to yourself, "To what particular audience would this be of interest?"

Short, filler-type stories, usually presented at the end of a news broadcast, can provide numerous ideas for magazine articles. Ideas our writer friend has acquired this way include: a story about a new program for pregnant diabetics, sold to a major baby magazine; one on the development of an "artificial gill" for scuba divers, sold to a sports magazine; and one on a pesticide made from grapefruit, sold as a feature for an agricultural trade magazine.

Other good idea sources, though they take time to develop, are university public information offices and the PR departments of research labs and major manufacturers. Many universities publish periodic "Writer's Tip Sheets," and "Feature Services." In addition, most large colleges, research labs and manufacturers regularly issue press releases concerning developments at their institutions.

The library has books that list the addresses of these companies, labs and colleges. If you are interested in developing these sources, ask a reference librarian to locate the lists, and take a day to go through them, deciding which you think would be the best for your purposes. A simple letter can be used to get on the mailing lists of these institutions. If you have any credits, it is good to mention them in this letter, and send clips. If not, a professional presentation, and a phrase like "I work with several national publications" should suffice. Dishonest? Not really. Sending queries to these publications constitutes work, and remember, you are a professional writer.

In dealing with public relations departments, remember that it is their job to publicize as broadly as possible the activities of their institutions. The publicity personnel are usually very helpful, and will do such things as set up interviews, provide photos and supply file material when you have an assignment for an article that will mention something about, or quote someone from, their institution. In addition, many of these offices, especially those associated with universities, publish such things as directories of "experts" in various fields, quarterly or yearly research reports, and faculty directories. All of these can be helpful when you need to find someone to interview on a specific subject.

Some story sources can be found right in your own community. These include local personalities with unusual hobbies or businesses, environmental situations with a national application, and local governments or individuals who have coped with problems in unusual ways. Finally, there is your own experience. Whatever experience you may have in any field can often be developed into several story ideas.

It is important to familiarize yourself with as many magazines as possible and train your mind to be alert to stories that will appeal to them. As with the slushpile, the supply of article ideas never runs dry. All you have to know is where to find them.

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Searching for story ideas takes on a new and sometimes valuable twist when you turn to the Web. If you have a subject in mind and want to know what is currently happening in the field, a quick search using one or more of the popular search engines can turn up so much information you will often be overwhelmed. Likewise, scanning several newspapers no longer means a trip to the library, as many of them are now on line. Searching non-newspaper Internet news sources can also be fruitful. We will elaborate on the use of the Web in a later section.

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Once you now know how to find interesting subject matter, and if your prose is competent, well-constructed queries will sell your article ideas to editors.

With a query letter, the cardinal rule is to "grab 'em up front." That is, load your queries with the most exciting information you can find on the subject, preferably in the first paragraph.

Proper query format is a matter of much debate. Some contend that a query should be like a letter to a friend, conversational and relaxed. Others say it should be formal and no longer than a page. We recommend crisp formality, with the length depending upon the subject matter, the type of article you are suggesting, and how many words you need to get the point across.

Although an occasion conversational query to an editor with whom you have worked before is acceptable, 95 percent of all your early queries should follow a standard pattern: a title, hard-hitting text, and a brief explanation of how you intend to proceed with the article. Once you are established, and for the editors with whom you work regularly, just the title, text and the name and qualifications of those you intended to interview should be enough.

If you are unable to use personalized stationery, your name, address and phone number must appear in the upper left corner of the front page. Ten spaces below that, center the title. Begin the text two or three spaces below the title. In some cases, one paragraph will be sufficient. In others, it may take a page or more. Following the text, you can normally use up to six paragraphs of explanation, requests, credits and additional data on the subject. Because you will be composing so many, some of these paragraphs may become nearly identical from query to query, but try not to send the same wording time after time to the same editor.

As for the question of whether or not to double-space the text of a query, there are varying opinions. Some listings in Writer's Market may specifically ask for double-spaced queries. Most do not. Our opinion is that either is okay, provided you are consistent. For editors with whom you regularly work, it is sometimes permissible to submit several story ideas in a single query letter. These should be single spaced with proposed titles in bold at the left margin rather than centered. Under each, separate subject put a "NOTE," saying who you intend to interview and giving any other pertinent information, such as the availability of photos for the story. We do not recommend this format for submissions to editors you do not regularly work with.

For editors with whom you have not worked, or who specifically request double-spaced queries, double space the actual idea and single space the accompanying information, such as your qualifications or additional thoughts you might have on how the story should be handled. This query style may seem somewhat cold, but it is what most editors like to receive. An editor's time constraints make wading through chatty letters to find both the subject and the writer's qualifications for writing about it unappealing.

An efficient, businesslike format conveys your professionalism, and when done consistently, it tells an editor those envelopes bearing your name will not contain long-winded or burdensome queries. This query format will move your envelopes that much closer to the front of the slushpile when the garbage is purged.

The times you might want to deviate from this format are when you are suggesting a straight interview, or when a subject is just too complex to convey in a couple of paragraphs of text. In these cases, skip the title, and begin with single spacing, but still mention the most exciting aspects of the story or interview near the front.

It is okay to send more than one query at a time to an editor you have not worked with, but put each one on a separate sheet. This way they can be passed around to specific editors, and one will not be automatically rejected with the others.

Always keep copies of each query. Many times a magazine will not return the query with its rejection slip, and often there will be no reference to which query is being rejected. For this reason, it is a good idea to write the title or titles of the queries you have submitted on the outside of the SASE. This way you can tell from the envelope which ones are being rejected, even if you have no other clue.

As for SASEs, buy inexpensive number 10 envelopes, and type, rubber stamp, or have them printed with your name and address in both the center and upper left corner, so that under no circumstances will they be returned to the magazine. Put the same amount of First Class postage on the SASE as on the query envelope.

Your query package should contain the query letter, the clips, and the SASE in that order, paper clipped together in the upper left corner, and folded in thirds. Be as neat as possible. Fold the SASE squarely, and make sure that all the folded sheets have lined-up even edges.

When it comes to clips of your work, never send originals. Original magazine copies are too expensive. You can also use the reduction facilities of the newer copy machines to assemble collages of your clips, which include a maximum number in a minimum space. Make these collages as visually effective as possible, superimposing the logos from the various magazines on the articles, and choosing the best, most recent, selections for maximum impact.

Update your clip sheets about every three months to show that you are currently working. Old clips give the impression that you have not sold anything lately.

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Last, and truly least, is the phone query. When you read your market listings, you see that many editors do not accept phone queries. There are times when a phone call can get you in ahead of the competition, but be certain the idea is new, valuable and easily stated in a few sentences.

Never phone in a query to an editor from whom you have not had at least some encouragement. Most of the time, you should restrict your phone queries to those editors with whom you have already worked. Prepare for the phone query the same way you would for any other. Study the material you have, compose the text of a written query, read it over a few times to firmly implant the details in your mind, and set it aside.

Start your phone conversation with something like, "Have you picked up on the artificial gill story yet?" stating the most precise and descriptive aspect of the story immediately. In most cases, this is something that can be used as a title, such as "Artificial Gill." If the editor says they have not, proceed with a very brief description of the subject. Try not to read the description. Explain the subject in conversational terms and accentuate the aspects that will have the most impact.

If the editor says they have already covered the story, or that they are not interested, be polite, and close the conversation as quickly as possible. Never take the opportunity to try to discuss other queries or articles you have submitted to them. If you need to talk about other things, do it at another time, preferably by mail.

Faxing queries is another option, but one that should only be used if you are sure an editor will not be irritated by receiving your faxes. The best way to determine this is to either ask or make sure the magazine's fax number appears in their market listing. Faxes should be covered with a sheet that contains your name, address, phone and fax number, plus the number of pages being faxed and the date.

E-mail queries are, for the most part, taboo for new writers. Even if you are lucky enough to discover the e-mail address of an editor, it is not advisable to use it unless invited to do so. The ease and speed of e-mail has begun to overwhelm most editors, and if you add to that ever-increasing volume you run the risk of alienating them. If you have worked with a magazine before, it is okay to ask if the editor would like to receive e-mail queries, but cold e-mailing (which can be interpreted as SPAM) can prove detrimental to your chances in the future.

In our merchandising plan, the query system is your advertising campaign. Through it, you convey to the prospective buyer the most valuable attributes of your product, how you plan to package and deliver that product and, most important, the professionalism of your company. Exact wording is up to you, but if you follow these guidelines for format, and if you have good subject material, you will greatly enhance your chances of closing the sale.

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