Asking The Experts: seven steps to a successful query

Comments often give me interesting ideas and trains of thought to follow. This post was triggered by recent blog discussions about seeking information. It struck me that a request for advice or help might not work out because of asking the wrong person, asking the wrong question, or asking in the wrong way.

All writers – no, make that all freelancers – know that framing your pitch or query letter properly can make the difference between positive response and stony silence. So what’s the best way to approach someone for advice or information? Here are seven simple principles that may help:

1) Be clear what your question is. A short, simple, straightforward query is more likely to get an answer than a long rambling one.

2) Do your own research first. The less you waste someone’s time, the more willing they’ll be to help you. Get on the net, dig out everything you can on the topic you’re interested in, and make sure that your question is something you really can’t answer yourself.  Want to know what manga competitions you can enter? Read the rules. Want to know what kind of submissions a publisher accepts? Read the guidelines on their website or in their publications. Want to know if you can work for a company? Read their website.

3) Ask the right person. Would you walk into a car showroom and ask them to do a valuation on your house? Studios, distributors and publishers are businesses, there to make a living. They will not have time to respond to enquiries outside their core business. Don’t ask Shueisha or Madhouse to tell you how to get published in Japan or authenticate your rare piece of merchandise.

4) Do NOT go straight to the top. Hayao Miyazaki, Katsuhiro Otomo, J.K. Rowling and other major names are unlikely to answer your query in person. If they did, they would never have time to do any work. Find out how to contact the publicity department or press office, see if they blog, or send an email to the contact address on the website.

5) Make sure they can understand you. If you’re writing to a foreign company, do it in their language, not yours. Why should a Japanese, Korean or French company spend money translating your query from English? If you can only write English, contact their English-language distributor or agent, or hire a translator.

6) Be reasonable. Reading a script or comic, answering a letter, researching a query, all take time. You are asking busy people to help you, so don’t make them even busier by chasing them. If they don’t reply within three months, you might send one polite query, just in case your letter/email got lost. Then let it go. And never expect anyone to return unsolicited submissions.

7) Ask yourself: what’s in it for them? If the answer is “nothing”, don’t expect a reply, don’t badmouth them if you don’t get one, and say thank you politely if you do.  And please don’t say “This will help to promote their business.” Unless you have a high profile, helping you out won’t add anything to the bottom line or the prestige of the business or individual you are contacting. Be aware of this and behave accordingly.

To sum up: be brief, be polite, be reasonable and, if you get the help you asked for, be appreciative!

One thought on “Asking The Experts: seven steps to a successful query

  1. These are all very helpful tips on how to ask questions properly. Hopefully more people will read this and take it to heart. The less stupid questions the better.
    I try to answer questions on forums when I can be of help, and even on there I would appreciate people trying to find information themselves before just sending a “PLEASE HELP!1!1!!! When is that thing? Where is it? OMG I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING HLP PLS!” message. I’m much more likely to answer a question from someone who looks like they actually tried to get the information themselves, rather than just asking a bunch of strangers as if their life depends on it.
    Another piece of helpful advice, though it may seem obvious, is that if someone sends you information in the form of a link or a reading suggestion, go and look at it before you ask another question! I don’t know how many times I’ve given someone a link to a website that has all of the information they need on it, and then they ask another question, as if I should just read the site for them and recite it all.

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