Down-and-Dirty Query Letters

No one can write your query letter for you. You may be tempted to ask a friend, or to look online for some sort of query service to take the burden off your shoulders, but at the end of the day, you as the author need to suck it up and write the query yourself.

All of the things that make you nervous about writing the query are the very reasons why you need to do it. The query letter introduces you to an agent or editor, and provides them with the first idea of your writing skills and style. It sells someone on the potential of your story, sinks the hook and reels them in, making them anxious to read your manuscript. And beyond that, it can be an indicator of your professionalism and your personality, of the sort of person you are and whether the agent or editor will be able to work with you.

All of which can feel like a lot of pressure, I know. So here are a few things to keep in mind when you sit down to write your query letter.

Be sure to include:

  • Your full name and contact information.
  • Title, completed length, and genre of your project, for fiction; title, projected length, and subject, for nonfiction proposals.
  • Pertinent personal information, which includes any links between your life and your subject matter (such as, your book is set in Cairo and you lived there for a year, or your protagonist is paramedic and you have similar training, etc.), platform for nonfiction projects (career details, blogs, lectures you’ve given, expertise, etc.), previous publications, and contest wins.
  • Project pitch.
  • Why you believe this project might be appropriate for this agent/editor.
  • Status of your submission process, including whether any other agents have requested partials/full manuscripts.

In addition, it’s nice to add one or two stand-out personal facts that hint at who you are beyond your resume, such as what you do in your spare time, if you grew up in some interesting spot, have an intriguing day job, etc. It’s not required, but it humanizes the correspondence and you might just hit on something you have in common with the agent or editor.

Things to leave out:

  • Apologies for having no previous publications/contest wins, etc. Everyone starts somewhere. If you don’t have any of these to include, just don’t mention the subject at all.
  • Discussion of how you’ve dreamed of being a writer since childhood, an explanation of how many unpublished books you have in the drawer, the names and ages of your children, a dedication to your spouse for enabling you to take the time to write, etc.
  • Pitches for additional projects. If you have other works completed, you can mention the fact and even the genres, but don’t pitch multiple projects in a single query letter.
  • Promises that the project being queried will be the next New York Times bestseller, make a million dollars, change civilization as we know it, etc.

When it comes to writing your actual pitch, make sure to include specific details rather than providing a generic description. What makes your story different from others in your genre? Name the characters and locations, mention some of the steps leading toward the climax, and be sure to state the protagonist’s goal/journey/ambition. If you can also write using the tone of your book, do so. Pitch a comic novel with a humorous tone, fantasy with more epic language, etc. This does not mean you need to pitch it in the voice of your protagonist, just that you should keep the sound of the book — its emotions, level of formality, pacing — in mind.

Avoid mistakes that flag you as careless or unprofessional, including:

  • Sending the identical query to a list of agents as a mass email, with all of their addresses listed in the cc: field, or as an obvious blind copy addressed to yourself. Take the time to personalize the query and email agents individually.
  • Failing to follow submission guidelines. Make sure you check the agency’s site for how they wish to receive queries.
  • Addressing the agent by the incorrect honorific. Take the time to look them up and ascertain if you should use Mr. or Ms.
  • Claiming to include an SASE in an electronic query.

Treat your query with the same care you would your actual manuscript. Take some time to write it, then set it aside for a couple of days before going back to revise. Run spell check. Try reading the query out loud to catch missing words or awkward phrasing, and have your critique partner read it over, as well. Take a professional approach to your query, remembering that while it’s an important tool in your quest for publication, it is also just another piece of writing, and writing is your job. Good luck!


11 thoughts on “Down-and-Dirty Query Letters

  1. All good advice, and I used to think query letters were an exercise in ridiculously, cruel torture, until I came across the writer’s equivalent to the Iron Maiden, the synopsis. Don’t suppose you’ve blogged any words of wisdom on that little beastie, have you?

    1. Synopses are a little long and complicated for a blog post. I generally teach an entire class on them at conferences. But I’ll see if I can put something together.

    1. I was referring more to official contests run by an organization, publication, conference, etc.

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