Writing and Publishing

Tips for Query Letters, One Sheets, and Book Proposals

Early in my career, I thought a query and a proposal were two names for the same document. Boy, was I confused?

A query letter is a short communication to get an agent or publisher’s attention. If your query letter succeeds, they’ll ask for a book proposal. A proposal is a lengthy, detailed document that shares key elements of your book in organized sections. If they like your proposal, they’ll ask to see the full book (for fiction) or encourage you to move forward in writing the book (for nonfiction).

The Query Letter: There’s a lot of information online about writing a query letter. Unfortunately, there’s disagreement over what to do. It seems to be as much art as science. Despite differing opinions on the specific content and order, here are the pointers I’ve picked up and use:

  • Address it to a specific agent, following the agent’s guidelines and making sure they accept queries in your genre.
  • Open with a concise connection to the agent (sincere and non-embellished), followed by a great hook, sell your idea, and then sell yourself (including your platform). This should take four paragraphs. Making it longer makes it too long.
  • Keep it to one normal page (even though you will email it as text).
  • Don’t ask them to click a link or download an attachment. I understand most will skip your link and few will download an attachment unless they know you and requested that you attach a document.
  • Keep it professional. Avoid being cute, clever, or gimmicky.
  • Spell-check and proofread carefully.

Note that in the non-book world, some periodical and online publishers also want you to query them first. Others just want to see the finished work. If they ask for a query, the preceding discussion applies.

A-One Sheet: Something like a query letter is a one-sheet (sometimes called a one-pager). It’s a document that you might hand to an interested agent or publisher whom you meet at a writing conference. It contains much the same information as a query but can include more, as much as comfortably fits on one page. A one-sheet can also include relevant graphics and professional formatting, which you should avoid in a straight-text query letter.

A Book Proposal: Whether you have a fiction or nonfiction book, agents and publishers who like your query letter will expect you to send a book proposal next, even if the book is complete. There are many courses and books that teach how to draft a book proposal, so I won’t try to cram all this information into a brief overview. 

Do an online search, and you’ll receive more matches than you have time to read. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees with the expectations for a book proposal and some contradict each other. Focus on recommendations from successful agents and authors who have sold a lot of books to traditional publishers. You will benefit from their experience.

Here are the sections I include in my nonfiction book proposals: 

  • book title
  • synopsis
  • hook
  • target audience
  • table of contents
  • detailed outline
  • about the author
  • author platform
  • competitive titles
  • sample chapters

Though I’ve never done a fiction book proposal, the sections are about the same. The main difference is that, instead of including a chapter-by-chapter detailed outline, a fiction proposal needs a concise summary of the entire book, including any spoilers. Don’t hold back. Condense your book into a couple of pages. 

Search online for specific examples of nonfiction and fiction book proposals to further guide your work on your own proposal. 

Make the best proposal you can. Some agents and publishers will tell you what they expect in a book proposal. Follow their instructions exactly. 

If your proposal follows their format, it’s easier for them to evaluate. And if it doesn’t meet their expectations, it’s easier for them to reject, because they know you’re a person who won’t follow directions or doesn’t think the instructions apply. You will be a challenging writer to work with. No one wants that.

Writing and Publishing

Common Submission Errors

Here are the three biggest mistakes people make when submitting content for publication. Avoid these common submission errors :

1. Not Following Submission Guidelines

The first submission error is not following directions.

Adhering to submission guidelines helps increase the chance of them publishing your work. Each deviation lessens the likelihood of success.

Common mistakes include missing deadlines (a huge no-no), submitting content not accepted by the publication, and having a piece that’s the wrong length. Too many writers ignore the directions for submissions.

2. Not Proofreading Their Work

The second submission mistake is not proofreading their submission.

Most editors will overlook an error or two, but when it’s clear that the author never even ran spellcheck, it’s obvious they haven’t bothered to send their best work, and they expect me to clean it up. Sometimes I don’t have the time, but it always irritates me,

3. Not Adhering to Writing Conventions

The third submission error is using non-standard formatting.

Some writers must think that creative formatting equals creative writing. It does not. They use odd fonts or switch fonts within the piece, various point sizes, multiple colors, and lots of bold, italics, underline, all three, and ALL CAPS.

All these things require work to clean up. Make it simple for editors by submitting a clean copy with no embellished formatting.

To have the best chance of success, avoid these common submission errors.

Writing and Publishing

Article Submission Tips

Here are the key article submission tips on submitting an article to a publication.

Know the Publication or Website

Read their past content. As you do, envision if your idea is a good fit. If not, don’t force it. Seek a different topic or a different outlet.

Look for Submission Guidelines

Find their submission guidelines on their website. If they don’t have them posted, they may not be open to receive unsolicited submissions. If you can’t find their guidelines online and still want to pursue publication with that periodical, go ahead and ask them, but you may not get a response.

Write the Best Possible Article You Can

You know the drill: write, re-write, edit, spellcheck, and proofread. You only get one chance with this article at this publication.

Follow Their Requirements with Care

Reread their submission guidelines and meet every requirement. Though most editors won’t disqualify you for making a tiny blunder, it could count against you, and too many will result in a rejection.

Be Patient

Some publications will acknowledge they received your submission. If they say they do and you haven’t heard back in a few weeks or so, ask—politely.

If they accept your piece, be patient. It can be a while for them to post it online and several months if it is in print.

Thank Them

Most writers skip this step. Don’t be one of them. Once your piece has run, thank them—even if some aspect of it wasn’t to your satisfaction. If you have an idea for another piece or are open to receive an assignment, this is the ideal time to mention it.

Follow these key article submission tips when submitting an article to a publication. Doing so will significantly increase your chances of success. And you can thank these pointers once your article is published.

Writing and Publishing

Periodical Submission Tips

There are three key periodical submission tips to follow when sending content to online outlets and print media publishers.

I list them from least important to most important, but if you don’t get past the first one, you’ll never get to the second. And you must pass the second step to even have your writing considered.

1. Follow the Submission Guidelines

Guidelines are there for two reasons. First to allow the recipient (usually an editor) to work more effectively, and second for the writer to present their work in the most favorable light.

The guidelines are there for your benefit, to help you, not constrain you.

2. Make Sure Your Submissions Match What the Periodical Publishes

For example, my publications address niche industries. I want relevant industry nonfiction articles. Over the years I’ve had people submit short stories, poems, song lyrics, and even a recipe. It’s clear they never bothered to see what content I publish.

As a result, they wasted my time and theirs.

3. Submit Your Best Possible Work

Even though it will be edited—this happens to every piece, regardless of who wrote it—make it the best you can. Proofread it carefully, spellcheck it, and ensure it says what you want it to say. Frankly, if I have to work too hard to polish the submission, I’m likely to reject it and go on to the next one.

This may seem harsh, but it’s the reality for most time-pressured editors, agents, and publishers. Follow these three periodical submission tips to maximize your chance for acceptance.

Writing and Publishing

Submit Your Post and Article to Blogs

To submit your post to blogs, the first thing to do is see if your target blog runs guest posts. Many do not. They may state this on their site, or you may need to search their archives to find out.

Next, as with print, familiarize yourself with the blog. Look at the content they post, the length of the posts, and the writing tone. Try to match those characteristics.

They may post their submission guidelines, or you may need to email them and ask how to go about submitting a post. Follow their expectations exactly.

Then before you submit your post proofread it carefully. Then email it to them.

I wish you the best when you submit your posts and articles to blogs and websites.

Writing and Publishing

Tips for Periodical Submission Success

To submit content to print publications, the first thing is to familiarize yourself with the target publication. Look at the type of content they print, how long each item runs, the style they use, and their tone. To make your periodical submission a success, your goal is to match those characteristics as closely as you can.

Periodical Submission Guidelines

Publications that accept unsolicited submissions will have their submission guidelines posted on their website. Read those and follow their expectations precisely.

If they don’t have their submission guidelines posted, it’s likely they don’t accept unsolicited submissions. Though you could email (or even call) them to find out, you’re more likely to irritate them. Never email them with a submission question until you’ve thoroughly scoured their website looking for an answer.

Before You Submit Your Article

If they accept submissions, then before you submit your content, proofread it carefully, and have someone with writing experience review it too.

Then send your periodical submission without further delay in the manner they specify.

Writing and Publishing

Are You a Rookie or a Professional Writer?

The Other Side of Article Submissions from an Editor’s Perspective

For the past thirty-five years, I’ve been submitting articles to periodicals. For the past sixteen, I’ve also been on the receiving end as a trade magazine publisher and editor. This gives me a 360-degree understanding of what happens to an article from conception to publication—and everything in between.

In my role as submission gatekeeper, I see a wide variety of articles, from the interesting and finely honed to those missing the mark and sloppy. I also deal with all manner of authors, from the skilled professional writer to the high-maintenance novice.

These two factors result in four possible combinations of article/author dynamics:

  1. You have a great article and are professional: Your work is on the fast track to publication. Feel free to send me an article every month, and I will seriously consider it.
  2. You have a great article but are hard to work with: I groan when I see your email, look for an excuse to reject your submission, and give it a low priority.
  3. Your article needs work, but you don’t: I appreciate your effort and will give your submission extra attention to make it great, knowing you will humbly accept my edits and be thankful for the results. I want to see you improve.
  4. Your article needs work and so do you: Sorry, you’re out of luck.

Therefore, for the greatest chance of having your article accepted, you need to create a powerful piece and be easy to work with. Although there are a plethora of resources to help writers refine their writing, there are not so many addressing the supporting issues that can mean the difference between rejection and acceptance.

Consider the following contrasts between a rookie and a professional writer.

You May Be a Rookie Writer If You:

  • Forget to spell-check your work: This is simply inexcusable.
  • Leave “Track Changes” on and include your reviewer’s edits: This means you were in a hurry or haven’t yet mastered your word processor.
  • Submit the wrong version: This error tells me you’re not organized. I have no expectation your writing structure is any better.
  • Assume the submission guidelines don’t apply to you: Guidelines are for the writer’s benefit. Learn them and embrace them.
  • Insist on no editing or require the approval of all changes: All submissions will be edited. It’s a reality of periodical publishing. The only exception is publishers who don’t care about quality. And do you really want to be associated with a shoddy publication?
  • Think artistic formatting equals creative writing: The use of italic, underline, bold, and all caps to add emphasis is not a sign of writing creativity but a lack thereof.
  • Insert needless self-promotion: If you do this once, I may edit it out. If you do this too much, I’ll simply reject your submission.
  • Argue to have your work accepted: No means no. There’s no room for discussion. You’ll gain nothing positive by pleading or threatening.
  • Beg for feedback: A writer who needs help with their craft should seek it from a different source prior to submission. A publication editor is not that person. Helping you become a better writer is not their job.

You Are a Professional Writer If You:

  • Produce articles that require few edits: You do whatever it takes to submit your best work.
  • Do what you say: When you promise a piece, you always deliver.
  • Meet deadlines: Deadlines are needed to produce a magazine on time, and you respect them, always meeting or exceeding expectations and never requesting an extension. You also understand that merely submitting your piece on time doesn’t guarantee a place in the next issue.
  • Know your target: Be familiar with the publication you’re submitting to, understanding its style and content. Know the audience and what they want.
  • Understand how the industry works: You comprehend periodical lead times and space limitations; you accept edits and deferred publication.
  • Minimize non-work-related communication: You keep your communication focused on business and don’t engage in superfluous interaction.

I’m not advocating perfection—I certainly miss the mark on that—but striving for excellence is a worthy goal that a professional writer pursues.

There’s more to consider, but this is a good starting point.

With this information, I encourage you to go write, avoid these rookie mistakes, and be a professional writer. The publication is sure to one day follow.

Writing and Publishing

Should You Make Simultaneous Article Submissions?

Be upfront with editors if you are sending the same piece to multiple publications

When submitting an article to a magazine it’s a good practice to inform them if it’s a simultaneous submission, that is, if you’re sending it to others for consideration at the same time.

Making simultaneous submissions is like dating multiple people at the same time. If you are honest and careful, it can work, but if you’re not, someone will be hurt in the process.

If you submit your article to two magazines and both publish it in the same month, then it will look like one copied the other or that neither is interested in providing unique content. Both publishers will be upset with you and your chances of working with either in the future are unlikely. If you do simultaneously submit articles, make sure you inform each magazine you are doing so.

Better still is to submit your article to one first, then consider others later.

If the first publication doesn’t accept your submission, then you can immediately submit to a second. If the first magazine does accept it—assuming you only gave them, “first-rights” to use it—wait until after it is published before considering other magazines. (The first publication will often prefer you wait a certain length of time before you approach other periodicals.)

When submitting an article to someone new, you should indicate where else it’s been published if the piece is essentially unchanged from the original. However, if you repurpose it or sufficiently rework it, there should be no reason to note prior publication.

Following these steps when you submit articles (this doesn’t apply to press releases) is the professional way to do so and will save everyone much frustration.



Writing and Publishing

Follow Submission Guidelines to Maximize the Chance of Publication

I recently discussed “Why Writers Should Follow the Rules of Writing.” Now I’ll focus on submission guidelines. The reason we should follow submission guidelines is simple: It increases our chance of publication.

Here are some tips for successful submissions:

  • Use Standard Formatting Expectations: We start by structuring our writing according to accepted industry practices. Then we tweak it if needed for each specific instance. Though there is no absolute set of formatting rules, start with “How to Format Your Submission.”
  • Follow Stated Guidelines: Virtually every publisher has submission guidelines. Look on their website. Find them, and follow them. Expect variations from one publisher to the next.
  • Send by the Right Method: In most cases, submissions are sent via email. Some will request an attachment. Unless otherwise specified, always attach a Word file; don’t submit work from another word processor, certainly don’t submit a PDF file, and never ask them to click on a link. Others will specify “no attachments”; usually they summarily delete all submissions with attachments. A few still requests mailed submissions. Whatever they ask, be sure to comply with their request.
  • Email to the Specified Address: Often a special email address is given for submissions. Use it. Don’t try an end-run around their process.
  • Adhere to Their Schedule: Some publishers have specific dates when they will accept submissions. Be sure to hit that window. Don’t be too early or submit too late.
  • Show Respect: Being the squeaky wheel will not gain the attention we want. Being nice will help with our current submission, as well as the next. If they say “no,” they mean it; there’s no room for discussion or second chances.

You’ve likely heard of writers who have ignored these tips and found success because of it. Although this has worked in isolated instances, the general result is they earn the label of a maverick, garner derision, and receive a stern “no.”

In most cases, each departure from a publisher’s submission procedure increases the chance of rejection. They (generally) don’t do this to be mean or to prove they’re in charge. It may be they’re too busy and don’t have time for writers who can’t follow directions. Or perhaps each instance of a writer’s deviation from expectations, subconsciously moves an editor towards rejecting that piece.

We should submit quality work, in the way publishers request, to have the best chance of success.

Writing and Publishing

Did You Learn to Type on a Typewriter?

Last week, I encouraged the use of only one space to end a sentence, not two. The old convention of two spaces harkens back to the days of typewriters. Computers ushered in a new standard of only one space. This is what we must follow.

There are other formatting habits that came from typewriters, which must be stopped. While most writers have retrained themselves, I still see the occasional submission that persists in following one of these outdated methods.

With old typewriters—before the invention of tabs—each paragraph was started with five spaces. Though I’m not that old, some of the typewriters in my typing class were. With those machines, I needed to space-space-space-space-space to begin a paragraph. I still see an occasional submission that does this. Make sure yours doesn’t.

When tabs came along, we set a half-inch tab for paragraphs. Then, to start a paragraph, we simply pressed the tab. Now word processors do this for us automatically, so setting a tab just causes us extra work when writing and publishers extra work to remove them when publishing. Don’t use tabs for paragraphs.

On manual typewriters and some electric ones, when our words approached the end of a line, a bell sounded to warn us we were running out of the room. Then we needed to manually move to the next line, by doing a “carriage return.” Although this was necessary on a typewriter, it serves no purpose on word processors—other than cause editors and publishers to use bad language. I still receive some submissions where the writer did this. It is tedious to correct and easy to make an error when doing so, but removing these unneeded carriage returns is essential prior to publication.

When I’m vacillating on whether or not I’ll use a submission, it contains any of these issues, it’s likely I’ll reject the piece. I suspect most publishers and editors will do the same.

If you learned to type on a typewriter and carried these habits over to your word processor, begin to retrain yourself now.