Not addressing an editorial contact by name when you write to them with an idea, proposal or article — an easily avoidable mistake. Each of these sets my teeth on edge:
Dear Ms/Miss/Mrs/Mr Jones
To Whom it May Concern…
Each suggests lack of care, lack of research, lack of … unlaziness.
Imagine receiving an email or letter addressed to ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ or ‘To Whom it May Concern’. Would you not be instantly annoyed? Or bored? Would you not immediately assume it was junk mail — or an unimportant mass mailing? Would you not bin or delete it pretty sharpish?
You need the first name of the editor or — if there is one — the features editor or commissioning editor. So look in the publication. If it’s not listed there, look at the publication’s website. If it’s not there either, Google it. If that fails, you could ask other writers — perhaps via Twitter, or use a writing forum. If nobody can tell you, then call up the publication — because you must get it right. Speak with the switchboard operator who responds or ask her for an editorial assistant. Don’t fear: you’re unlikely to be put through to the person whose name you need — but if you are, just tell them you want to send them an idea and would like to address them correctly.
Once you have the full name, check the spelling. Not only surnames. So many first names have variant spellings — Graeme/Graham, Rachel/Rachael, Antony/Anthony — that you need to be certain.
And then you have several options:
Dear [first name] — I consider this preferable, and not over-familiar (as long as you sign off with your full name at first)
Dear [title] [surname] — this is okay too, provided you are 100% sure of the title
Dear Ms/Miss/Mrs [surname] — this is risky, I think, and may annoy some women
Dear [first name] [surname] — this is, in my opinion, hideous (a view not shared by all)
Letters to the letters’ page? Check the name and address supplied on the page. If you see ‘Letters to the editor’ anywhere then using ‘Dear Editor’ is okay. The editor isn’t always involved in the running of the letters’ page, though. For the women’s weeklies, something like ‘Dear Take a Break’ is probably better.
And once you get to know an editor, maybe after a few exchanges of emails, first name terms all round should be fine. Take your cue from them: if they sign off with their first name only, then so can you.
Found this Mistake useful? You might also like my ebook 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make (Kindle edition), priced £1.99 / $2.99.