Book Review: ‘How to Write Attention Grabbing Query & Cover Letters’

“How to write Attention Grabbing Query & Cover Letters” is a humorous & entertaining guide to writing for the freelance market by John Wood, a senior editor at Modern Maturity. He begins with “The Art of Correspondence”; the first chapter, suggesting that query letters be aggressive and straight-forward, rather than business like. In fact, if you are unsure or timid about your letter, rewrite it. You really have to get and hold the editors attention, as they may have an even lower attention span than your audience. Chapter two “The writer and the editor”, is where John playfully plays off of both the cynicism of the writer, who feels that editors aren’t competent enough to know true talent when they see it, and the bourgeois editors who are above the “slush pile”, who would prefer writers adhere to a strict format in presenting their ideas to them. Such editors have dreams of attending snobby parties in New York, where a party is not a party without a prestigious book editor around, but, due to the poor communication skills, can rarely get the letter formatted in a way in which they can respect.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone how writers who aren’t the brightest tool in the shed are often overpaid for mediocre work because they’ve gotten past such editors with an award winning query. John’s advice is to use such short-sightedness to your advantage to win assignments at prestigious magazines. The advice is piratical, put your best foot forward, do not write queries which comes across as desperate or even worse, show a lack of skill and competence, as you find yourself in the trap of babbling about what small publications you’ve written for. They truly do not need to know, it is all about what kind of article you can write for them today, not how you were underpaid in the past. There is even a Q & A section, in which a writer asks John (this is all hyperbole, of course John is himself the unsure writer approaching the editor), about the fact that an editor has passed on one of his ideas and he has been successful in selling it to someone else. In true fashion, John suggests that if his competition is willing to pick up his trash and publish pieces that aren’t good enough to be in his magazine he must be doing something right.

The many tens of query letters given as examples to the reader are to the extreme, on either side of the argument, yet John is clear and concise in showing you what to do wrong. Adhere to his “ten commandments” of writing a perfect letter and you’ll get an assignment every time. He should know as well, as he has received over 25,000 queries in his time as an editor. Finally, you should at least try to move from creating mere articles to proposing non-fiction book ideas. Non-fiction is always backed up by some writer who considers himself to be an “expert” in a particular field; to John this is simply someone who is better than the rest out there as many are eager to hear such advice. The only questions that are left remaining concern today’s digital age, where you can write web copy. For example

  • What do you do when you are not required to query? How do you fashion such an article in this case?
  • Should the bargaining process be as extensive with web copy when web publications typically do not have the same resources to pay as print publishers do?
  • Are web publications more up to date than traditional publishers, do you still have to query to find out if you’re writing to the right editor or not?

If you can follow his practical advice I’m sure you can figure out the answers to these and other questions, by following his examples and using common sense. Yet John lays out the ins and outs of the process in a way that is entertaining and easy to read, and you will be ready to get back into the game right away.

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