Writer, your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to hook an exhausted, distracted editor in two sentences or less. This message will self-destruct.
You might not be a secret agent (that career’s over-rated anyway), but when it comes to pitching articles, five seconds really is all you have before your query letter self-destructs. You have two sentences or less in which to convince an editor to read on rather than sending a form rejection. They have too much to do and too many other queries to read to give you any longer than that. It’s speed dating in the extreme.
But that’s not fair! Maybe not. You might have an amazing idea that the editor never gets to hear about, but think of it this way. How long do you give a magazine article before you flip to the next one or toss the whole thing aside to do something more exciting? In an editor’s mind, if you can’t interest them in a couple of sentences, you won’t be able to hook their readers either.
Here’s an example of what not to do from one of my very early query letter leads:
“Mature Christians want to live in a way pleasing to God, but how can they know what that way is when God produced the Bible before the invention of things like bikinis, and movies, and Euchre.”
My early attempts didn’t sell because they were vague and boring. A good query letter hook needs to give an editor (and eventually a reader) a tantalizing, focused, and clear hint about your article. Sounds difficult, but it’s not if you stick to some tried-and-true hook templates (illustrated with examples Lisa and I have used successfully).
The Question Lead
Do you know how many tablets are left in that bottle of Tylenol #3 prescribed to you two years ago – the one still sitting in your medicine cabinet?
The benefit of the question lead is that it makes the editor a participant. You get them thinking, and suddenly they’re paying full attention to what you’re going to say next.
If you’re not careful, however, the question lead can backfire. A good lawyer will tell you that in the courtroom you should never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. The last thing they want is for the witness on the stand to answer in a way they didn’t expect. Their whole argument would be blown.
If you’re considering a question lead, you’re facing the same challenge. You need to be absolutely certain how the editor will answer your question. For example, if you ask “Have you ever wondered . . . ?” you’re taking a risk that the editor answers “no.” If they do, you’ve lost them. Craft your question carefully.
The Story Lead
Since she turned 19, Ruth has fought four separate battles with lymphoma, thyroid cancer, and skin cancer. She jokes that she’s trying to get into Guinness World Records as the person to have cancer the most times and live.
You find a person whose story can add a personal element to the article you’re writing. (It also obviously works if you’re writing a profile.) A good story lead puts a face to otherwise dry statistics, shows that you’ve already done some research, and lets the editor know that real people are dealing with this issue.
The trick with this lead is to find an individual who’s story is unique and compelling. Before you use a story lead, run it through the “who cares?” test. Why should the editor and her readers care about this person? Also, you should only use a story lead if this person will play a prominent role in your article. If they’re not important to your article, they don’t belong in your query.
According to a 2006 Barna report on Teens and the Supernatural, 54% of the teens in evangelical youth groups are moderately exposed to witchcraft and psychic activities.
A statistic lead works because it gives the editor a specific, concrete number rather than a vague statement. When choosing a statistic to lead with, though, you need to choose one that’s shocking, provocative, or intriguing in some way. You also don’t want to include too many numbers up front or your lead becomes dry and loses impact.
The Quotation Lead
Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag – you can’t tell how strong she is until you put her in hot water.”
A quotation doesn’t need to come from someone famous, but it does need to be so awesome that you can’t say it better in your own words. It also needs to be short and directly apply to your article topic.
We’d love to hear what query letter hooks have worked for you.