How to write a really good query letter, part I, or what do you mean, I already have the building blocks of a query at my fingertips?


Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, way back in mid-July, and you’ll find that when I first began talking about how to pull together a verbal pitch. Back in those practically prehistoric times, I promised that doing so it would help you crank out a stellar query letter.

And the laughter could be heard for miles around. Those of you who had never pitched or queried before shook your heads in wondering skepticism, rent your garments, and troubled the heavens with bootless cries of, “How is that possible, when verbal pitches and written queries are such different things? When will this horrible miasma of confusion end?”

To be precise, now.

Today, I’m going to start talking about how to construct a query letter from the building blocks of the pitch. (And if you’re joining us late and are not clear about what they are, check the category list at the lower right-hand side of this page — each has its own category, for easy reference.) This is a perfect time of year to be working on polishing a query — as I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so waiting until early-to-mid-September (after Labor Day, but before the Frankfort Book Fair, since I’m on a precision kick) makes good strategic sense.

I should probably acknowledge before I start that there are almost as many formulae out there for sure-fire query letters as there are professional givers of writing advice. Personally, I don’t believe that the perfect query exists, at least in a generic form: in my experience, the most effective query letters are the alchemical effect of a combination of a well-written, professional letter, a writer who has taken the time to learn to talk about her manuscript in terms meaningful to the publishing industry, a book concept that happens to be appealing to the current literary market, and an open-minded agent with the already-existing connections to sell it successfully.

Such a confluence doesn’t occur all that often — and it virtually never happens by accident.

Did I just sense a multitude of jaws dropping out there? “Heavens, Anne,” some prospective query-writers scoff, “if that’s your standard of querying perfection, I’m not surprised that you think it doesn’t happen very often. As Elizabeth Bennet told Mr. Darcy after he listed his criteria for a genuinely educated woman, I do not wonder at your not knowing many; I wonder at your knowing any at all.”

Touché, oh skeptics, but as a matter of fact, I know scads of writers who were able to produce such query letters by dint of persistent and intelligent effort — but only because they realized that there is no such thing as a single query letter perfect for every conceivable recipient.

There is, however, such a thing as a perfectly wonderful query letter specialized to appeal to a specific agent, as well as a slightly modified version personalized for another. For the next week or so, we’re going to be talking about cobbling together a whole flock of such letters.

Already, I hear martyred sighs rising across the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” easy-fix advocates protest, “that sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work, and I already resent taking time away from my writing to query agents. Couldn’t I, you know, just recycle the same letter over and over again?”

Well, you could, oh protesters, but I doubt it would result in identical outcomes each time. Or perhaps not even a single outcome that you would like.

I understand your frustration, though — I’m fully aware that in advising a tailored approach, I’m placing myself firmly in the minority of writer advisors. You could, I assure you, stop reading this right now, invest less than 20 seconds in a Google search of writing the perfect query letter, and come up with literally hundreds of one-size-fits-all templates that would make your life easier in the short run.

But I don’t think you should use any of those. Frankly, I think that the literally thousands of sources out there telling writers to follow this or that fool-proof formula are doing a disservice to those they advise.

Why? A tendency to produce unwarranted self-blame, mostly: if an aspiring writer believes that the one-size-fits-all approach she is using cannot be the problem, then the only possible reasons for rejection could be problems with the book concept or pages submitted, right?

Actually, no. The culprit could also be having made the right case to the wrong agent, or having made the wrong case to the right agent.

Or having formatted the letter oddly, or having failed to follow the directions on the agent’s website, agency guide listing, or Publishers’ Marketplace page. (Yes, PM has very informative explanations of who represents what and what they like to see in a query, but fair warning: it’s a for-pay site.) It could even have been a matter of having adhered to the standards set forth on one of these sources after the agency has changed its rules, or because the targeted agent no longer represents one or more of the types of book one of those sources says she does.

Rejection may, in short, come flying at an aspiring writer from any number of sources. As I think would be quite apparent to your garden-variety querier writers talked amongst themselves more about both rejection and the nuts and bolts of querying.

I know, I know: that’s a rather startling statement for an online writing guru to make, but hear me out. Most of the query letters currently floating through the US Mail or flying via e-mail actually do deserve to be rejected by professional standards, but not because the books they are pushing are poorly written, lousy concepts, or any of the million other reasons a manuscript might not be up to publication standard.

No, most queries fail on a few very basic levels: unprofessional presentation, non-standard spelling and/or grammar, omitting to mention necessary information, hostile tone, being sent to an agent who does not represent the kind of book presented, and, most notorious of all, obviously being a boilerplate letter designed to be sent out indiscriminately to every agent currently operating in North America.

Agents have a pet name for the latter: they’re called Dear Agent letters, because some of them are so generic that they are not even addressed to a particular agent. Virtually without exception, US-based agents simply reject Dear Agent letters unread.

Also destined for the reject pile: queries sporting overused tricks to attract an agent’s attention — strategies, incidentally, often borrowed from one of the zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively infallible query letter. Perhaps it is unfair, but nothing says generic letter like the hip new lead-in that some hugely popular marketing guru was advising two years ago.

In my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. Quite possibly because it is rarer.

Although I am confident that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls that plague the average querier, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits-all pattern.

We can do better than that, I think. So let’s start at ground zero and work our way up, shall we?

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest in the manuscript it describes.

A strong query is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly, professional write who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) Nor is its goal to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

In order to elicit the admittedly less dramatic but ultimately more respectful of your writing latter option, an effective query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound awfully familiar to those of you who stuck with me all the way through my recent Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it.) To cast the query in the context we’ve been discussing for the last month or so, the query is a written pitch, intended not to prompt an instantaneous offer to represent the book, but a request to read some or all of the manuscript or book proposal.

Ah, I just lost some of you with that comparison to pitching, didn’t I? “That’s all very easy to say, Anne,” those of you who find the prospect of sitting down face-to-face with a real, live agent about as appealing as hand-feeding a hungry wolf marshmallows by balancing them on your nose point out, “but you just got finished telling us that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all formula. So how does a writer trying to break into the biz pull it off without a prescriptive plan that tells him precisely what to do at every step?”

Well, for starters, don’t feed wild animals that way. What, are you trying to get mauled?

Once you toss aside the preconception that there is only one kind of perfect query letter and you are being expected to guess what it contains, constructing a good query letter introduction for your manuscript or query letter becomes quite a bit easier. It just requires a bit of advance preparation.

I just felt you tense up again, but trust me, this is prep that you are uniquely qualified to do: figuring out what your book is about, who might want to read it, and why. Once you have established those, writing the query letter is a matter of building a structure with parts you already have on-hand. And that’s a comparative breeze, because instead of trying to chase an elusive wraith of an ideal or copying what worked for somebody else, you’re talking about a book you love.

What’s more natural to a writer than that?

Let me hasten to add: being natural does not mean presentation doesn’t count. Your query needs to be businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), discussing your book project in terms that an agent might use to describe it to an editor.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths; you are already well prepared to do this.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the information you would need to include, so you may see for yourself just how much of it you already have at your fingertips. Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent
Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,”  “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title
Self-explanatory, I should hope.

*The book’s category
I.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries omit it, but as in a pitch, it’s essential; no agent represents every type of book on the planet. (If you don’t know why, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count.
This one is completely optional. Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre — for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words — go ahead and include it. (And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.
This is the part that stymies most queriers. Relax — we’re getting to it.

3a. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book That’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page.

3b. and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.
If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book
Or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Here is where you present your platform — or, to put it in a less intimidating manner, where you explain why the agent should take you seriously as the author of this book.

Actually, this paragraph is not optional for nonfiction, and it’s a good idea for everyone. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, don’t panic: just omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid work.) Or any public speaking experience — that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph
Here is where you thank the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, or whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not impossible to pull off in a single page, is it?

Oh, dear, you’re tensing up again at the prospect, aren’t you? If so, I have some very, very good news for you.

If you have been prepping your pitch throughout our recent Pitching 101 series, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter. You merely have to pull them together into a polite missive personalized for each agent you plan to approach.

Don’t believe me on the preparation front? Look at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name,

I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.


I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Aspiring Q. Author

Or, to show it as it might appear on an actual piece of paper (bright white, please; this is not the time to break out the solar yellow in an misguided effort to grab Millicent the agency screener’s attention), like this:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

I see quite a few lit-up eyes out there. “Um, Anne?” some wily sorts murmur, jotting down hasty notes. “What you’ve just shown looks suspiciously like a template. Mind if I borrow it wholesale and use it as such?”

Actually, I do, but not because I’m especially proud of having penned a sentence like I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. You should eschew copying anybody else’s query letter for the very simple reason that it is important that your query letter sounds like your book.

Not my book or the creation of any of the small army of writing gurus, but yours. After all, you’re not seeking representation for a generic volume; you’re looking for the best agent for your particular manuscript.

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination; today’s post is the lead-in for one of my patented exhaustively in-depth discussions. By the time we’re finished, the very suggestion that your book’s chances would be improved by utilizing boring, one-size-fits-all query copy is going to make you laugh out loud.

At least, I hope it will. Keep up the good work!

4 Replies to “How to write a really good query letter, part I, or what do you mean, I already have the building blocks of a query at my fingertips?”

  1. The thing that stymies me is the credentials part. If you’re trying to interest an editor (as I write mostly short stories at the moment, although I’m Working On A Novel) but you’ve only really just gotten started again and haven’t won or published anything (that’s not fanfiction), how do you deal with that?

    1. That part stymies nearly everyone, Janet — but I have to say, your parenthetical aside caught my eye. A publication is a publication, whether it is fan fiction or not: if someone else decided whether to put your writing in print or online, it’s technically published, and thus a perfectly legitimate credential. Just ignore all of the advice out there that says fan fiction and/or web credentials don’t count; having something publishing-related to put in the credentials paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there. (Although the pervasive rumor that fan fiction credentials don’t count has some basis in fact: as writing credentials go, they are taken less seriously, but in the usual style of rumor-based fact-checking, what almost nobody goes on to mention is that just because it’s not the best writing credential doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless, especially if you happen to write in that genre. It shows that you are familiar with your chosen book category.)

      But on to your direct question. The classic answer to this question is if you don’t have writing credentials, get some. Most aspiring writers are turned off by this, because they assume this is referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possible option here. The goal is to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small. Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even maintaining a blog.

      All of these things demonstrate professional intent — which, if you do not have professional credentials, is the next best thing. I have some tips on brainstorming more possibilities in the posts under the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category on the archive list at right, but it all boils down to BE CREATIVE.

      The standard professional-breaking-into-the-biz answer to this conundrum is to concentrate in that paragraph upon non-writing credentials that either (a) are relevant to the subject matter of your book — yes, even if it is fiction — or (b) make you look like a smart person who should be taken seriously. For (a), any life experience (so long as you don’t indulge in the dreaded, “Well, this novel is sort of autobiographical…” trope) that would tend to make you an expert on your subject matter is legitimate to mention. So if your book is about coal miners, and you were a coal miner for 47 years, that’s a legitimate selling point. For (b), any educational or professional credential is considered fair game, so whether you have a MS in bacteriology or were your county’s Teacher of the Year three years running, that’s worth mentioning, too.

      I could say a great deal more on this point, but since this is a question I get a lot and I haven’t blogged about it in a while, I shall do a full post on it sometime within the next few weeks. Keep an eye out for it!

    2. Credentials are always difficult to obtain early in a writing career. The industry’s expectations have not altered to reflect the very different current reality in which few magazines publish short stories. It’s no longer 1952!

      There are a few posts addressing this problem here, but I have a few quick suggestions. Short story contests still exist: Poets & Writers’ website is a good source for upcoming deadlines. There are also online publishing opportunities, as well as starting a blog. Even taking a good online writing course could lead to a query-friendly certificate.

      The trick is not to be too literal about what constitutes a relevant credential. Remember, publications are not the only possibility — and that book-length works are always about something about which an article could be written. Good luck!

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