Writers Market has a nice .pdf called Query Letter Clinic (external link) that contains many helpful hints. It also contains some assertions I don’t agree with. Consider this paragraph:
“Many great writers ask year after year, ‘’Why is it so hard to get published?’’ In many cases, these writers have spent years—and possibly thousands of dollars on books and courses—developing their craft. They submit to the appropriate markets, yet rejection is always the end result. The culprit? A weak query letter.”
Really? How do you know? The editor may not be interested in the idea. Not even if it were written by Tolstoy or Hemingway. Or maybe the material doesn’t fit their editorial calendar. Or perhaps the editor prefers to work with writers they already deal with. It may not be your fault. So, what to do?
Write shorter query letters, especially for newspaper (internal link) or magazine articles. An editor will let you know if your query leaves questions. Personally, I am done with crafting finely detailed, individualized query letters. My acceptance rate is so low I find it better to send more queries rather than spend more time on each one.
Write on spec
Consider writing on speculation. Certain magazines consider complete articles, without assigning a contract first. Type it up and send it in. I’ve written on this before (internal link). Even here, it’s wise to query an editor to make sure your topic fits. Just a few sentences should suffice.
All five of my Rock&Gem articles have been written on spec. One article was rejected (internal link), and that could have been avoided if I had short queried ahead of time. The topic had been covered recently and I missed the similar story when I reviewed their back issues.
Mention that you can provide original photographs or that you can arrange permissions and releases for historical photos. Editors expect today’s nonfiction writer to deliver photographs for their layout artist to arrange. You’re probably not selling to National Geographic which may assign a photographer. Even then, offer to provide your own images.
When sending photographs, remember not to include too many. The editor wants to know what images are key to the article; too many diffuses those needed to address your central theme. Consider putting your best photos at your website, to show off your talent in that regard. Hmm. That’s something I need to do. Which brings us to the next point.
Have a website
This goes without saying and I’ve written on this before. (internal link) You need an online portfolio in case an editor wants to know more about you without going through an e-mail exchange. A website is vital. And don’t run ads!
Don’t get discouraged
Silence from the editor is the normal response these days. You won’t get a critique with a rejection, if you get any reply at all. And the reason one magazine rejected you may not be the same reason as another magazine’s rejection. They could have completely different policies and needs. Despite what Writers Market says, hang in there. It may not be your fault.