Issue 55 - Revision & Self-Editing - Joanna Penn, Kate Sullivan, Annette Rogers

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our latest query, to your joy, gets accepted, and you’re assigned the article. You negotiate a little with the editor, agree to the word count, and accept a nice fee. So filled with excitement, you plunge into the writing.

Now, you wax eloquent and lyrical, free associate, tuck in slightly off-the-point but sparkling anecdotes. What are a few more words than agreed on? What are a few more incisive tangents than in your query? The editor, you’re sure, will be dazzled by your brilliance and instantly accept the article with no revisions. You send off the shining manuscript in a glow of satisfaction, sure it will garner your editor’s great verbal applause, and you go celebrate with a piňa colada.

The Sin of the Mismatched Manuscript

When you see the editor’s reply, “Sorry, this isn’t what we expected; we must retract our offer,” you’re puzzled and shocked. If you’ve negotiated well, you get a kill fee; but still, that’s no compensation for the total amount or delicious anticipation of your name in print.

Many writers have had such experiences, especially novices. We think that an editor’s acceptance of our query is license to spill. It isn’t—it’s an editor’s declaration of belief that you will deliver what you teased. If you don’t, your credibility with this editor is lost, and you’ve little chance of another assignment.

In Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, Jenna Glatzer counsels, “If you want to become a favorite freelancer, make sure you always come through with what you’ve promised.”

She asks three questions that should head off any wayward wordiness:

  • What did the editor tell you to write?
  • What did your query say you would write?
  • How closely have you delivered what the editor is expecting?

Many editors see too many articles written by “free spirit” writers. As Michelle Ruberg observes in the Writer’s Digest Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, “Free spirits don’t stick to editors’ guidelines. They turn in a story twice as long as assigned . . . An article that was supposed to be a hard-hitting, multiple source news story ends up a first-person humor column.”

“My general practice is to query for service articles and book reviews.” ~ Erika Dreifus

Avoid the Prodigal Query

To steer clear of such transgressions, I’ve developed a foolproof method for avoiding the snare of the prodigal query or free-spirit article: I write the entire piece first.

I know, I know. Some writers don’t want to “waste time” on complete production before a guarantee of acceptance. Freelance author, reviewer, and writing guru Erika Dreifus adheres to the time-honored approach: “My general practice is to query for service articles and book reviews.” She adds that she offers whole pieces only for poems, personal essays, and short fiction.

But here’s why I write the full piece first:

  1. The compulsion to do it.
  2. The joy of doing it (isn’t this why we write in the first place?).
  3. The conviction that other markets are waiting; and if the first market doesn’t work, I can publish it elsewhere.
  4. Most importantly, the very writing enables me to develop my initial ideas and tells me what I want to write.

I’m not alone. Writer/editor/publisher Moira Allen of, concurs: “I’m with you on the ‘write the article first’ procedure; I’ve always found it easier to do that. One reason, for me, is that when an idea is fresh and interesting, I want to write it. If I have to wait for a response from an editor, possibly months later, the idea no longer has the spark that captured my attention the first time.”

A fellow writer agrees. “Everyone hates queries. That’s not the only reason I write the article first. I don’t want to dash off a query, and then when it comes to writing the piece, realize I want to give the subject an entirely different slant from what I proposed.”

“If I have to wait for a response from an editor, possibly months later, the idea no longer has the spark that captured my attention the first time.” ~ Moira Allen

In the Beginning . . . All the Words

So like these colleagues, I write the article completely. Of course, it should have the basic structure: a beginning that scintillates, a middle that proves and helps, and a close that nails it with the takeaway.

Once I’ve got a fairly decent draft, I copy and paste the manuscript into a Word doc I label as the article query. (I’ve set up a query folder for all queries for all articles.)

Next, I split the screen of this document. (A handy, little Word trick: the split-screen wonder is a tiny rectangle just above the “View Ruler” icon at the top of the right margin slider). With the manuscript first above the split-screen line (or below, if that’s your choice), the piece now becomes my guide for constructing the query paragraphs.

Follow the Straight and Narrow

I’ll illustrate with a query for a piece on reviving outworn clichés that became an assigned article for The Writer. The first paragraph, when tight enough, can be used intact, as I did here. Introducing your subject, it should seduce the editor into reading the second paragraph:

Dear Ron [I know this editor, hence the familiarity. Of course, you will address the editor by last name if you don’t]:

For many writers, clichés spill out easily. Like an old shoe—er—favorite flip flops—they’re reliable and relievedly comfortable. But they indicate laziness and almost guarantee manuscript rejection.

The second paragraph should announce the name of your article and briefly describe its organization. This is new writing distilled from the manuscript:

My article “Refresh Your Words, Convert Your Clichés” alerts writers against slipping into the old-slipper comfort of clichés and instead freshen them. The content then trumpets originality and increases writers’ chances of acceptance.

The third paragraph gives the editor a taste of the article’s meat. Draw from the body of your manuscript:

In this article, I share three principles, with many examples, so authors can apply literary CPR to exhausted expressions and convert them into lively writing.

Next I give the principles, with definitions and examples, the first of which is below:

Resuscitation 1: Puns

Use homophones: two words pronounced the same way but spelled differently, as in write, right.

Example: For an article on the rising divorce rate: “Today, more couples than ever have tied the not.” 

Use homonyms: two words spelled the same way but carrying different meanings: pen (writer’s tool) and pen (pig farmer’s tool).

Example: For an article on fast-track career burnout: “The Wall Street broker couldn’t stand hearing all those stock phrases.”

In the fourth paragraph of your query letter, list some credits, which you can extract from your bio (you do have a bio always ready, don’t you?):

My writing how-to articles have been published in many writers’ publications, including Writer’s Digest, Writers’ Journal, and the online newsletter, Absolute Write.

Once you’ve published in a particular magazine several times and have established a more relaxed e-mail or phone relationship, you don’t need to list past credits.

However, like free samples in the supermarket, never pass up the chance for credits. When I’ve received some new good news about upcoming scheduled articles, I add a line or two. These little gems show editors you’re a serious professional and increase their respect level for you:

My writers’ how-to article, “Write a Letter to Yourself,” will be published later this year in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Bulletin.

The final query paragraph is your wrap-up and should reflect the last paragraph of your manuscript. Here you reiterate how readers will benefit (the takeaway), so the editor will be unable to resist assigning you the article:

The principles in this article will help readers refresh, revitalize, refurbish, reinvent, and rejuvenate clichés in their writing. Not only will their work improve and readers chortle, but editors will more likely sit up and take notice—er—leap up and shout, “Accepted!” Glad to send you this article.

Rewards of Your Writeous Query

If you’ve written a good manuscript and follow these steps, you’ll be predestined to create a good query. And you’ll increase your chances of reading an editor’s divine words, “Yes, I want to buy this.”

When you see this heavenly message, in the heat of the glow, get moving and get right to the manuscript. Even though you’ll probably feel the need to edit (don’t we always?) or adjust to the editor’s higher or lower word count, you’ve already done the major work in writing the draft of the article before the query.

When you follow these query-letter guidelines, yours will ascend above the rest, and you’ll no longer commit the cardinal sin of mismatched queries. Editors will know they can rely on you to deliver what you pledge, and they’ll keep buying your articles, too.


(Photo of Noelle Sterne by Jeffrey Berson)

Author, editor, ghostwriter, writing coach, and spiritual counselor Noelle Sterne writes fiction and nonfiction. She has published over three hundred pieces in print and online venues, including many guest blogs. Her monthly column, “Bloom Where You’re Writing,” appears in Coffeehouse for Writers. With a PhD from Columbia University, for over twenty-eight years, Noelle has helped doctoral candidates complete their dissertations (finally). In her recent book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, one of the ten best 2011 e-books), she draws examples from her practice and other aspects of life to help writers and others release regrets, re-label their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit her website:


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