When you query an editor for the first time, how much information do you give about yourself? I have heard that you are selling yourself. What is the right approach without coming across too strong, or tacky? And any other tips for first time contact with magazine editors?
First of all, you're on the right track from the get-go: I love that you already realize that you're selling yourself. I can't tell you how many writers lose track of this and don't understand that they're marketing themselves and that they are a commodity. It would be lovely and fine and dandy to think that writers can simply wile the way away smoking hash pipes and scribbling down prose whenever the mood strikes them, but let me tell you, if that's your attitude, you ain't making any money in this business.
The last word in the previous paragraph is a good lead-in to answering your questions. Business. Conduct your writing career as you would a business. To that end, I promote myself as I would a product. I try to be approachable and warm, yet still smart and professional. And I do this in a few ways:
1) The tone of my writing. I've already posted several examples of old query letters, and I think that you can see that none of the writing comes off as stiff or overly formal, but I also don't cross the line into assuming that I'm IM-ing with my best friend.
2) My queries are mistake free. I can't tell you how simplistic this sounds, and yet I have so many editor friends who complain that they receive emails littered with poor grammar, poor spelling, poor writing. So for the love of God, proof read your emails and spell-check them too!
3) Explain why YOU are the one who should write this article. I write a lot of parenting articles these days, and one of the reasons why is because I'm living and breathing the research and ideas behind my pieces. So, maybe I'll start out a query saying, "this past week, my son became a fashion diva: no more allowing mommy to pick out his clothes for him. While I was thrilled at this sign of independence, the allure quickly faded when he insisted on wearing his (dirty) fire-truck shirt three days in a row. So how do parents cope with the burgeoning independence that comes along with toddler-hood? This article would explore how...blah, blah, blah." I just made that up, but you get the point: I'm giving an editor a reason to hire ME over some schmo who hasn't dealt with this personally. Another example: I've been actively pursuing several stories on breast cancer. My link to it - via my late friend - has really expanded my interest in the subject, and when I tell editors why I'm so invested, they're much more invested in ME, and in me writing it. Or maybe you have an inside-edge with an interesting interviewee or hot tickets to a sold-out concert that you want to cover. I don't know - the point is, sell the editor on why YOU should write this piece.
4) Don't threaten, beg, or brag. Again? This is a business. Any query letter that says something along the lines of, "your magazine is really going to miss out without me," "please, people keep saying 'no,' and I'm desperate to break in," or "you'll never find a better writer than me," is just asinine. No editor wants to work with a narcissist or whiner, so don't present yourself as one from the get-go. Again, you'd be amazed at what people include in their queries. (This goes for book queries too!)
5) Do list your credits and list them proudly! If this is a new-to-you editor, you might try listing them in the opening paragraph. Not a necessity, and everyone has his or her own preferences, but part of me thinks that an editor is more likely to keep reading if she's impressed by what you've done than if she's not yet aware of what you've done (and thus might only skim your email and glance at your credentials at the bottom of the query). So you might say, "Dear Fabu Editor, I'm a freelance writer and have written for XX, XY, XZ. Did you know that recent research shows that the world is set to implode in approximately 423 days? Here's why. Etc, etc, etc."
6) Follow up! Writers are waaaay to intimidated by editors. They're people just like us! And if you're new-to-them, they might not give your query top priority. So for God's sake, follow up!! You're not being pushy, you're running your business. Period. You have every right to check in with an editor if you haven't heard back. I'd wait two weeks from when you sent your initial email, then send a quick note (I usually just forward the original query) saying, "I just wanted to follow up to the below email. Please let me know if you're interested." Or whatever. True story: I landed my first assignment at SELF after three follow-ups. If I'd been more shy or more lazy, I'd never have broken in. I'm still writing for them today and have a piece coming out in the November issue.
Whew! I think I've listed most of the nitty-gritty here. Any questions? Anyone want to add his or her own advice?