Updated: Sep 11, 2021
The Query Letter
Can one piece of paper be more important than a query letter? It's hard to believe that such a thing can send a writer into a state of panic.
Let' take some of the fear out of the process. After all, knowledge is power, and confidence comes along with it. Some of you may already know a good part of this. That’s great! It means you are learning, or already know, this part of your craft! Keep it up!
To begin with, if you decide to venture down the self-publishing road, you may never need this advice. Though, it is indeed handy to understand. Perhaps you could share it with others who are searching for answers. For those traditionally publishing this knowledge is a must. An important fact to note is writing one is unavoidable.
This may shock you, but there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ query letter. That’s right, I said it. Editors and agents are human beings. Obviously, that makes each query they receive up to their own impressions and feelings at that very moment.
So when ‘editor A’ looks at your letter, they dislike it, feeling it doesn’t cover the plot well enough. Meanwhile, ‘editor B’ gets the exact same letter and is impressed with you bold approach to the stories characters. (You’ll see a similar scenarios in the examples.)
What is a query letter?
The answer is quite simple. Query letters ‘pitch’ or ‘sell’ yourself and your idea(s) to magazine editors and agents. Keep in mind this is a general statement and there are plenty of writing positions that will ask for a query first.
The first 'rule' never to be broken is—queries are one page long.
Sounds simple, right? How hard can writing 300 words be? Well, it can prove to be an authors most dreaded event. We can churn out a 300 page novel with no problem, but ask us to write a one page letter and we start to sweat and shake with fear.
First, before you attempt to write one, let’s see how much is riding on this little piece of paper. Imagine a job interview where you get less than 4 minutes to make an amazing first-impression. I know, scary, huh! That’s about how much time it takes your intended ‘employer’ to decide if you peak their interest.
If your letter is rude, self-indulgent, contains poor grammar, misspelled words, or worse, lack of contact information or any other ‘necessity’, I promise that paper just hit the recycle bin.
Next, do your homework! I can’t stress this enough. Who are querying? Why? Picking the right editor or agent is a crucial component of success. What if you simply chose a random editor or agent off an internet list, then quickly send them your query. (Little did you know, since you forgot to research this particular person, they only work with mystery or romance authors.)
Well now, that stinks! It doesn’t bode very well for your fantasy book query, does it? Another ball of paper makes a basket! Swish!
In this scene, we’re going to say you’ve done your research, (great job!) found the perfect person for your project, and are excited over the possibilities. The whole thing feels right. If you can only create the perfect ‘pitch’ letter you may get the chance to take one more step toward your dream.
Remember, a query letter is a way to introduce yourself and your work.
Picture this. There you sit, a trembling finger poised over the little while mouse, ready to click ‘Send’ on the email you composed.
CLICK! Away it goes…whoosh! Now begins the waiting game! How did you do? Did you represent yourself to your best ability? Will they like it? Hate it? Nerve-racking, isn’t it!
The letter you sent must convince its intended audience that you have an interesting project, or, possibly impress them with your style or wording.
If all goes right, the editor/agent will like your query and request more of your work. Congratulations! You’re one step closer.
(They may ask for several chapters or the entire project in question.) Yes, it’s time for your baby to leave the nest and fly to the arms of another. If you’re not nervous by now, you have nerves of steel.
How to format a query letter!
To make an amazing impression, be sure to format your query correctly. This entails being aware of an agency’s formatting request or any submission guidelines the pub house has posted. Follow them completely. Not all queries will be the same. They usually have little variations.
I joke with my writing friends that each agent, editor, and pub house purposely make their query format different as a sort of twisted ‘author test.’ That way they can plainly see if you had spent time researching them and their requirements, or simply grabbed their name off a Goggle search and sent them an email with your project proposal.
Are you seeing the benefit of research yet?
Since there are no specific guidelines available, keep these tips in mind: (Please understand these are not hard and fast rules. As mentioned earlier, there’s no such thing on queries.) Always follow the websites requirements and you can’t go wrong with formatting and content.
· Querying by email? Make absolutely sure your e-mail address is professional. ( I wouldn’t suggest using: I Hate Editors@dorkville.net)
· If querying by mail, (this is more common than you think, even in the 21st century) send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). It gives the editor or agent a way to notify you when the work has been accepted or rejected. Remember, some may never answer no matter what.
· During your research you may find a line or two on their site saying something like, ‘due to the amount of queries/submissions we receive, not all will be answered. If you do not receive a reply within the next 90 days, we are not interested at this time.’
· Reminder Alert! One page. Agents and editors are swamped with work and look at an extraordinary amount of information. They will not read your 3 page query. Yep, another basket!
· Format your letter to industry standards. White paper only, black ink, and Times New Roman size 12 font.
· Include the following: date, the editor’s/agent’s name and title, the magazine or agency name and address, and your name and contact information (address, phone, and e-mail You may include fax, if you have one.)
· Proofreading your work is a must. After all, this is a pretty important page. Imagine misspelling the editor/agent’s name! (The crowd roars with another great shot! A perfect basket!)
· Have the individual’s accurate mailing/emailing address. Some companies maintain multiple addresses or locations. Know which location to contact.
· Address the agent or editor specifically by name. (See the examples for ideas.) Incorrect spelling here, is bad, very bad.
· Make the extra research effort to find out about them. Search online and see what they’ve written about (blogs, tweets, IG posts, FB page, or books) and what genres they are looking for. Some even reference this information in your query, thinking it carries a more genuine feel. (Again, see editor/agent feedback on the examples.)
· Give the basic information of your project. Always mention the book title and genre that fits your work. If you write nonfiction, talk about your proposed title or category.
· Include a summary of your story and final manuscript’s word count or proposed word count for nonfiction books. (Most ask for the word count, but not all. Check the requirements.
By this point you’ve heard of ‘hooking the reader.’ This is vital since it comprises the bulk of your letter. It's about the characters, plot, and conflict. Generally, there will be around 300 words on your entire page. (including addresses and all info.)
Fiction writers should concentrate on their protagonist(s) with such things as who they are, the conflicts they experience, and the setting. (Word of advice: Don’t give away the ending. It can act as a hook if your query is well written.)
Devise a way to explain how your story or idea is different from other similar books.
Remember, sell yourself. Make them wonder how your fantastic story is going to end! It may be enough to get you a reply.
Next, comes your bio. Be aware there are varying opinions of this subject. Some writers love this part, while others rarely mention themselves at all. Do not go overboard. (See the examples for a better understanding). Your bio shares who you are and what expertise you may hold.
Great job, so far! You’re nearly there! The final element is the closing, where you can politely and sincerely thank them for their time. It’s common to mention that you are prepared to send additional materials at their request.
Also, be sure to sign your work before mailing it off if using snail mail.
Ta-da! Drum roll! You’re done!
Keep in mind, a good query letter should show the recipient you’ve done your homework, you’ve provided all key information requested, got them interested in seeing more, and made them aware you’re ready to send the remaining material.
Fantastic work! Good luck!
How to Write Successful Queries for Any Genre of Writing