Category Archives: Business Writing

The Query Letter: Why You Should Never Ever Ever …

A query letter is, first and foremost, a business document. The publishing world is a business.  Stay with me.

Way too many web sites I’ve researched advise this type of opening line (and I’m trying not to gag here):

Joe Smith never realised what hit him when he sent out his query and the entire editorial department went on stress leave. But that didn’t stop Joe from hammering out yet one more enthusiastic effort after another. Joe Smith was, after all, an “auteur” of the highest calibre who just knew he was born to be –

Stop, stop, stop. Please stop. No more.

Another is the “when” format: When Joe Smith received yet another rejection, nobody was more suprised than him…

Maybe the people offering this advice are publishing a very specific type of book, and these openers reflect that exact style. After all, these lines are meant to shine a light on the writer’s prowess, so if that’s pretty mediocre then this all makes sense.

The writer is a professional publication-seeker, someone offering a skill set to a professional organization. The query letter, like the cover letter that goes with a resume, exemplifies and summarizes the quality of the writer or job seeker. It’s – for want of a better way to put it – judgement at a glance. Harsh judgement. Brutal, instant judgement.

Think about it this way: your query letter must precisely mirror your writing in voice, style, energy, power, and originality. It has to be the literary dirty bomb that hints at the larger arsenal that’s really going to blow them away in the manuscript. So why do writers get it so wrong? Everything from pleas to be published so kids don’t starve to arrogant tirades to disinterested dreck.

It’s a business. Marketing, selling, products, ideas, innovation, professional players. That’s what business is all about. What are you selling and why should anyone care?

There are enough agents and publishers out there providing a point-by-point framework on what to include in a query that there’s no need to reiterate it here. Instead, here are some hints on how to professionalize a cover letter:

DIFFERENTIATE

1. Design a professional  letterhead template or download one from Microsoft Office that can help brand you. It should reflect who you are as an individual and a writer. If you’re a classic, a minimalist, funky – make sure the format says something about you. It must be professional and uncluttered. It will help you stand out from the 99% crowd that does nothing more than slap a left-justified return address and a text block onto the page, or cheap clipart. Once you decide on your template, stick with it. Use it for all communications. You are creating brand recognition, and you are the brand. This holds true even if you’re submitting electronically as an attachment. Using a professional letterhead says you care, and that your writing matters because you take it seriously as a career. The idea is to catch an editor’s eye every step of the way. He or she opens the letter, sees something dignified and well designed, then thinks, “Oh, here’s something unusual”. The likelihood of someone reading an eye-catching letter over one that looks just like – or worse than – everyone else’s is much better. The only thing that will stop an editor in his or her tracks is a stinky query letter, in which case a great opportunity has been ruined. Will it get you published? No. It’s sole function is differentiation.

2. Think about including a professional (looking) photo – not as an 8×10 glossy but no bigger than wallet sized and digitally formatted right into the letter template. It could be in an upper or lower corner, in the masthead, or in the margin. This not only helps with brand identity (you) but tells the reader something about your professionalism. If your first instinct is to cut and paste that picture of yourself at that wedding dancing drunk on a table with a beer hanging off something, or the one your mom took with you and Gammy before she died, then you might not understand what professional looks like. Research author photos or forget it. You don’t have to pay for it; just be creative, make sure it’s not pixellated, maybe get a friend to help.

3. Use quality paper stock. Quality, not weird. It should be thicker than printer paper, like vellum or linen. White or off-white is best, no flecks or dappling. Colours and patterns make text too hard to read, even if the fluffy kitty just screams “you”.

TELL & SELL

1. Most poker players have a “tell”, little non-verbal indicators that give away a good or bad hand. The writer’s tells also reveal a bad hand:

  • Unprofessional query and sample pages
  • Sending an unsolicited m/s
  • Sending a query or m/s to the wrong publishing target (horror fiction to a poetry publisher/agent, or literary fiction to a commercial specialist)
  • No understanding of genre, style, or form
  • Hand-written cover letter
  • Type-written submission
  • Odd fonts
  • It’s all about you and what you want
  • Unaware of competitors or how to successfully position in marketplace
  • Poor writing quality
  • Messy printouts and overly thin or heavy paper stock
  • “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”
  • No interest, background, participation, or experience in a professionalized writing life

Or a good hand, which is pretty much the opposite of the bad hand.

2. In business there’s an old acronym that covers everything in the buyer/seller relationship. WIIFM. What’s In It For Me. It’s what the customer, the client, the buyer will always be wondering about any product or service. As a writer you need to think about your focus audience at all times. Your reader needs to know what’s in it for them. When you’re selling your ideas, manuscript, and yourself it’s crucial to put yourself in the editor/publisher’s shoes in order to understand what the query is really all about. In business the successful seller knows he or she is fulfilling a client’s needs, not his or her own. So when you’re staring at that blank letter template ask yourself what’s in it for them (the editor/publisher/agent AND end reader). Don’t even put one word down on paper until you’ve answered this question. If you can’t, you’re in trouble.

3. Figure out your strengths and what your emphasis will be. Don’t mention or hint at your deficits. Start the letter with your strongest feature, end it with your most tantalizing.  By doing so you’re tapping into the psychological primacy and recency tendencies of memory. Start with a bang, leave them wanting more. This is the other “tell” – the way you tell your target about your product or service. Just as your story has structure and an arc, so must your letter. You’d never start a novel with a dud of a first line, so why would you start a letter that way? Then build up the tension and interest to a climax, finishing with a brief denouement. The worst scenario is a writer with no credentials, (publication, pertinent experience, awards, contests, degrees),  who has made no specific efforts to professionalize craft (recognizable mentors, education, reputable workshops). This type of writer will have to do a harder sell on originality and style through the originality and style of the letter itself.  From the first word on, for everyone seeking publication, the query has to be magic.

4. If you can’t write an enticing jacket blurb that would go on the back of a book, then writing a sensational query will be out of your reach. Create a document for no other purpose than to summarize the story in the most exciting way possible. Treat it like you would any writing project. Work at it every day until it’s pitch perfect, then adapt it to your query letter. Better be able to articulate that story concisely and with interest.

5. Have someone with a good editor’s eye  read the letter over for these specific issues:

  • Spelling & grammar errors
  • An “I/me” orientation
  • Emotional overspray – anxiety, desperation, fear, arrogance
  • Dullness
  • Redundant/irrelevant points

The following site has some very good examples of query letters, including commentary from the agent. Not all are great but they display originality, they reflect each writer’s style and personality,  and the  agent responses are worth reading.

http://www.nelsonagency.com/faq.html#6

Take care about how you write your query. Take the time to do it right. Or hire someone to make sure it’s right. Be a professional. Remember: it only takes a few seconds for someone to make their minds up about you, and for writers that’s the query letter. The competition is tough enough in a career choice whose odds for success are already pretty close to zero.

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Motive Killed the Writer

Writing is very psychological. Some even argue that it’s as much an extension of identity as the fork is an extension of the hand.  Writing arises from the depths of who you are. For some writers it takes years to understand this. Most never do.

Understanding what’s flowing through you is a must for creative writers and business writers alike.

Several years ago two of my university students submitted final papers. One was desperate to maintain his grade point average so he could become a scientist. His writing abilities were vocational at best. The other needed to keep a sports scholarship. He’d come from an inner city school and it showed. He was barely literate. Both cheated. The first had his girlfriend write portions of the paper that couldn’t have been more obvious if she had actually done it in her own handwriting. The other cut and pasted directly from Wikipedia.

These students weren’t motivated by learning even when the resources were right there. Their true motivations poisoned their futures. One falsely believed math skills alone would carry him through his career, and the other wasn’t even literate enough to pass grade six. Dishonest and narcissistic and misconceived motives made success impossible and cheated them of one of the richest aspects of life there is – writing well enough to express themselves and open doors to opportunity.

So what motivates you to write? To get rich and famous? To rival the latest big name or be part of a trend? To cope with personal traumas or stressors? Bragging rights? To prove something to someone? To yourself?

There are two legitimate motivations all successful authors share: the perfection of craft, and honouring the art of storytelling.

That’s it.

Even if the need to psychologically manage childhood trauma was the reason a writer began to write, it is not the motive. It isn’t a coping tool, it’s a tool for communicating the best message in the best way possible – the well-told story. To be professional means being in supreme control of the material and process, and not the other way around.

Great writers are driven to hone words and sentences and structure like a finely wrought sculpture. They see it. It’s almost physical.

Write from the wrong motivations and what will happen? Well, when the writing fails to meet the needs of the motivation there’s not much reason to go on. When rich and famous eludes you you’ll quit to find something else that can get you what you want. If writing is your coping mechanism, you’ll never be able to take control of your story or your craft any more than you’ve been able to take control of the problems that drive you to write. Your writing will be interminably linked to your psychological state. Need bragging rights? Step this way, my friend, into the world of audience – the workshop, the writer’s group, the classroom – and see how long you want to continue writing when you discover yourself sinking to the bottom of the talent pool. Facing your inadequacy (all writers do, every day) will not compel you to soldier on when you’re driven by a need for accolades. When the praise dies so will the desire to write.

But if you write for the sake of the craft and the art of storytelling, then this will push you on no matter what happens to your life or your writing. You will always find better words and sentences, better arrangements; your interest will be solely to tell the most important story ever because you’re the only one in the world with that story inside you. It comes from you.

If writing really is the most profound extension of the self, then what can anyone produce who doesn’t understand where it’s all coming from?

Know yourself, know why you need to do this.

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Literary Horse Flop

Before you open your next writing file or type your next sentence, get out your best writing sample. Read it, not as the creator but as a customer assessing a product.

By the time you’re ready to let someone read your work you’d better be sure of what you’re selling.

Decades ago one of the big potato chip companies decided to product test in the market where I lived. What was the test? Orange and grape flavoured chips.

Yeah, my sentiments exactly.

The big question is why nobody in the board room could foresee what a huge pile of horse flop orange and grape flavoured chips would be. Did anyone there even taste them? Or maybe it just sounded stupendous on paper, the algorithms were workable, and the chemical spray composition didn’t kill the chimps.

No matter how literary or arty or even functional it is, your writing is a product. Unpalatable? Leave people scratching their heads? Poor workmanship? Shoddy material? Maybe, like the baby formulas that always seem to come from China, there’s a taint of the toxic.

The other day I received a resume and cover letter from someone whose email about a potential job proclaimed: Yes! I’m very interested!

Exclamation points? Two of them? In a row? That’s pretty serious. You don’t just go throwing those around, right?

But when I opened the files the truth was there in boldface. And italics. A glance told me everything I needed to know. Lazy, unmotivated, sloppy, unknowledgeable, apathetic. The email said Yes! but the written product screamed meh

Toxic stuffthat noxious reality lurking unseen to the naked eye. The entire effort was coming straight from the individual’s pathology. Try sending out a submission or query that has this effect on an editor. The vast, sad majority do. Someone who has worked with words for a long time can smell falseness and insincerity and a lack of professionalism like a cat sniffing out a coming storm. A glance is all it will take for an editor to judge and dismiss a piece of writing.

Remember that as a writer you are not in a monologue. You’re not even a narrator waxing eloquent from your writerly perch. You are engaged in a dialogue. Every word is producing an unvoiced response the way any product would.

So what are you provoking in your audience? Is it positive? Is it negative?

You are in a position to study the algorithms and chemical flavourings around the board room before wasting time and money and energy on something that won’t work. The best of resources must go into your offering. High quality research, accuracy, purity of style, a clear, differentiated voice, authentic characterization, a structure with the muscle to move the story forward.

Figure out what your product is. Step back and de-personalise. Strip away ego and pride. Name it, classify it, put it in a spreadsheet, detail it to death before you write one more word. Know it. If the algorithms aren’t working, figure out why and change them. If they can’t be changed then stow it away until the issues can be resolved or cannibalized for another project. Or trash it. Be tough on yourself. Better you, now, than an editor later.

Your readers will thank you for not trying to sell literary horse flop disguised as a satisfying treat.

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Will You Survive Writing?

The quick answer: probably not.

Let me elaborate. Somewhere along the line writers are taught or somehow absorb the fallacy that writing is a black and white area. You either do or you don’t. You are or you aren’t. Everyone and their uncle regularly throws out the ultimate paraphrase of catagorical thinking: you write or you want to have written. The doers and the wannabes. It separates the diaper wearers from those capable of pulling up their own underpants, thank you very much.

Writing is a spectrum.  Or maybe more like a dogpile where every mutt thinks it’s going after a single bone. Who gets the bone, who gets smothered? Some get hold of the bone in their clenched jaws for one brief glorious moment before it drops back into the pile for someone else to nab. For the rest: broken bones and collapsed lungs, starvation and plaquey teeth.

From blogs and rinky dink home-made websites to e-publishing, all the way to the top dogs earning awards and reviews and fortunes, it’s all writing.

Writers who can’t see the spectrum will gauge their career as a make-or-break scenario. As such even the most dedicated writer will be broken after butting up against the paper ceiling for so long. Reality sets in. You’ll probably want to date, get used to sunlight, maybe move out on your own. That takes money. Writing is the anti-earnings career choice. You might get tired of making bookshelves out of found planks and bricks. After a while pensions start sounding really appealing.

But you haven’t been published so you give up. What remains is a bitter or whiney manifesto about The System and Corprate Lackeys, the Old Boys’ Network, and how your morals are too high to get anywhere, or that you couldn’t compromise your masterpiece for their crass commercial interests.

All that for having ignored the dog chews and kibble while believing you had to go after the bone.

There’s a reason the other options are invisible to the writerly eye. Maybe it’s too hard for writers to recognise and accept their limits, to face the plane of their own talent and capabilities and finally admit that they are meant to be bloggers or NANOWRIMO contestants but never the prize winner. Never the big time published author. That’s extremely hard to face. It’s natural to avoid that reality for as long as possible.

It’s a waste to do so until there’s no hope left.

I’ve read some stinky, stinky fiction – unpublished, online, and published as well. Recently an award-winning novel made me physically launch the book across the room. And I’ve read some of the most beautiful storytelling online where the writer just expressed what was authentic and real, without all the narrative bells and whistles, who in a million years wouldn’t even have identified themselves as writers. There are a lot of ways to tell a story, and a lot of places to do it. Publishers don’t always get it right.

There are a lot of criticisms about online writing and that’s as it should be. But it’s also okay that it’s a possibility. So is writing a journal or printing off stories for your friends’ children. It’s all practice and audience.

Writing is brutal. The act, the career choice, all of it. Facing the spectrum and making peace with the range of possibilities will make surviving the act of writing much easier.

Who knows? Possibilities might even lead to possibility.

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Great Writing Secrets – The Business Letter

Not everyone is a skilled or talented communicator. Most professionals have no idea how their letters or emails are coming across – but clients and colleagues certainly do. And so does your boss.

Even for someone whose writing is purely functional there are little tricks to improving the quality of any type of communication.

In my experience with business writing, one bad habit cuts across all levels and all professions: overuse of “I”. It’s everywhere. Almost every sentence starts with “I”. It’s peppered throughout letters and emails.

So what’s wrong with that?

Besides being sloppy and lazy its main fault is that it leaves behind an impression of narcissism: I want to meet with you, I’m interested in doing business with your company, I’d like this, I need that, I’m the best, I can improve your results.

Next time you’re writing a letter or email try one simple change. Write the entire communication without using “I” at all. And don’t try to fudge your way around it (Over the last year I worked hard to deserve this raise).  It’ll be a challenge but what this will do is make you more mindful of your reader’s point of view.

Why would the client want to do business with you? Why would your colleague want to collaborate with you on a project? What’s in it for them? Why are you writing this particular document? Under what circumstances?

Audience, purpose, and context form the three prongs of rhetorical power. When you know the answer to those questions before you even begin writing a letter or an email you’ll not only find yourself breaking the “I” habit, you’ll be conscious of the most important part of any message: the reader.

The secret of great writing is the secret of the sale. The reader, like the client, comes first.

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Why We Write

Writing has been one of the most important facets of my life. It has been joyous, agonising, cathartic, and pure torment – at times all at once.

On any street or in any crowded room are closet writers struggling with a great fiction work of the 21st century; we know someone who writes or wishes they could write.  They are people whose minds and hearts and souls have already been touched by some great novel or philosophical work.

What is it about the act of creation in this particular form that people seem to claim so freely, and that utterly claims those who practice what has been identified equally as craft, art, and skill?

Those suffering PTSD, in particular war veterans, are increasingly advised to turn to writing in order to exorcise those demons coiled in the depths of their consciousness.  After spending much time researching the Vietnam War era and reading the multitude of stories posted online, it has been surprising to read about how many of those vets saw relief from their symptoms for the first time in 40 years only after they began to write their stories. Writing seems to have allowed them to objectify their pain, and to untangle it from the pleats of their brains once the unspeakable has finally been voiced.

What’s interesting, though, is that for the first time in history these narratives can bypass the publishing world and still have an audience, and the generations of an entire era have been embracing the technology that allows it to happen. Most will only ever occupy one place along the continuum that defines the writer but the common ground is the same: storytelling.

What’s truly amazing is that no matter why the writer gives life to words, and no matter how transformative the practice is personally, it’s what writing does for the reader. That someone else’s expression – and in some cases the simple retelling of an event without deferring to form or style or structure – can, in its plainness and honesty, somehow become equally transformative to the reader is why writing can hold within its power the agency to incite, provoke, stimulate, engross, entertain, madden –

The potential is infinite. No painting ever brought on a revolution. No symphony or concerto ever stopped time in its tracks and restarted the clock at zero.

But writing has.

It’s this possibility, in the smallest and grandest of ways, that makes anyone face the blank space before them and begin the metamorphosis with a single word.

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