The short, sweet guide
to writing query letters

Absolute Blank

By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Updated April 2009

Ah those blissful days when you first finish your novel. You might take a little time to bask in your own glory or you might dive into rewrites. In any case, sooner or later, you have to do it: find an agent to sell your novel to a publisher, so that others will bask in your glory for you.

Maybe you don’t write fiction at all. Maybe you had an idea for an article for your favorite magazine so you decided to give it a try and darned if it doesn’t look pretty good. Maybe they’d buy it from you, if only you knew how to get it into an editor’s hands.

If you write for publication, you have to query. If you write short stories, creative non-fiction or certain kinds of non-fiction, you might never have to write a full-blown query letter. A few lines to introduce yourself and your story could be all you’ll ever need to send to an editor.

Some of you have a novel finished or a collection of short stories. Some of you have a few how-to or “personal experience” articles rattling around in your mind or collecting dust on your hard drive. You want people to read your work, right? So introduce yourself and your work to the right people with a query letter.

What’s a query letter?

A query letter is used to approach editors or agents about manuscripts. You’re saying “here’s what I have” and “does it interest you?” There are two possible responses: “yes” and “no.”

The agents I’ve queried have been cordial and professional. Some have asked for more based on my query. Some have said, “Not for me, thanks.” Some have sent back a form letter that they are not taking on new clients. No agent has ever sent back something like, “Are you serious?” They won’t do it to you either.

The worst response you’ll get is no response at all and, so long as you’ve included an SASE, anyone who doesn’t have the courtesy to reply is not someone with whom you’d want to work anyway.

Who to query

Send your novel’s query to an agent, not a publishing house. Reputable agents may be researched online at http://www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm or in books like the annual Writer’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents. More information about how to choose an editor is available at http://www.sfwa.org/Beware/agents.html

If you are querying an article, contact the publication directly. Make sure the editor you’re writing to is the right person to read your article and make sure that the person you’re contacting is still with the magazine.

For novels, novellas and short story collections

Many authors admit that writing a query is more difficult than writing a novel. Approach your query as though you were selling the story to the reader, not to an agent. Make every sentence count. If you bore the agent in a query, he might fear being bored by your novel.

Be general about the story. Don’t delve into your themes and symbolism and subplots. Leave them for the agent to discover. However, don’t be so general that the agent has no idea if the book is for his agency or not. Your summary should read more like the inside flap of a dust jacket than the back cover.

In writing the synopsis paragraphs, be vivid and economical with your word choice. Identify your intended audience or genre, if it’s not obvious. If you believe your book has an element that will make it stand out from others in the genre, tell the agent.

Some agents like an outline instead of a plot synopsis. In this case, your outline may be included on a second sheet of paper, separate from the query letter itself. Don’t get fancy; just write a tight outline and follow any suggestions laid out in the agent’s guidelines.

One way to structure your letter is as follows:

  • Paragraph 1: Begin with the reason you’re writing, the name of the book, the word count, the genre, etc. (example: “I am seeking representation for my mainstream novel, WHITHER THE EMU, complete at 80,000 words.”) For your word count, round to the nearest 1000.

Begin your synopsis by focusing on your main character and his predicament. Describe some other important characters. What is at stake? Where is the conflict? If you have room, you may want to make this a separate paragraph.

  • Paragraph 2: Continue your synopsis by getting into the book itself. Stay factual and open. Don’t try to rouse the agent’s curiosity by keeping plot twists to yourself. What’s the action? How do the characters interact? How does your main character change during the novel? How does the conflict manifest itself and how is it resolved? Remember: characters + problem = conflict and conflict + action = resolution and change.
  • Paragraph 3: This is where you get to introduce yourself as a writer. Include a line or two about why you wrote the story. Tell the agent about your qualifications, publishing history and any other relevant information. Following the guidelines you read when researching this agent, let her know that chapter samples, the first fifty pages or whatever samples she requests in her listing are available.

Stay professional, not personal. Don’t include information like what kind of dog you own or how many kids you have unless it’s relevant to the book or the market. Don’t confess that you’ve never been published.

Close professionally, with your contact information (phone number, e-mail address, etc.), and thank the agent for her consideration. Include a self-addressed stamped envelope for a reply.

For articles

If you use a formal query for your article, you will have an advantage over 90% of the writers submitting pieces for publication. Even if you submit electronically, follow the query letter format.

Follow the same basic structure of the novel query. For your word count, round to the nearest 100 words if your article is under 2000 words; round to the nearest 500 if the article is over 2000 words. Identify what section of the magazine you believe is best suited to your article. This will have the added benefit of showing the editor that you are familiar with the publication.

For your opening paragraph, present the idea up front (example: “Rumors abound as to the best way to get pregnant. Could some fertility myths be true?”). Be specific and persuasive. Use these paragraphs to showcase your writing style.

For your middle paragraphs, give an idea of how the article unfolds. Include bullet points, sidebars and any other information relevant to the layout and presentation of the article once it is in print. If you have illustrations or ideas for illustrations, some editors want to hear it and some don’t. The best thing you can do is to follow the editorial guidelines. If you have illustrations or photographs to include with the article, mention that. The editor’s reply will include whether or not she is interested in the illustrations or if the magazine will use its own art department or freelance artists in this capacity.

You may also want to include a paragraph about why you have chosen this magazine for your article. How will the two compliment each other?

For your closing paragraph, include previous relevant publishing experience. If your work has been printed in similar “rival” magazines, mention it. It shows that your work is suited to this type of publication. Let the editor know why you are qualified to write this article. You have a little more leeway here than writers submitting novel queries. Mentioning personal experience can be a boon and do so, if it has bearing on the subject.

Don’t…

  • Use unusual fonts, colored paper or other “tricks” to stand out. Let your professionalism and writing ability create the “stand-out” quality you want
  • Call your novel a “fiction novel”
  • Send samples with your query unless the guidelines say you should
  • Send more than the agent asks for as a sample
  • Use pseudonyms. If the agent is interested in your work and takes you on as a client, you can discuss pseudonyms later
  • Mention how often your work has been rejected and/or by whom
  • Mention that you’ve never been published or are an “amateur” or that you write as a “hobby”
  • Tell the editor or agent that the piece “needs work” or ask for any upfront editing advice.
  • Discuss copyrights or payment
  • Query more than one piece of work per letter
  • Query the same agent or editor repeatedly after being rejected

Do…

  • Be professional from beginning to end
  • Limit your query letter to a single page, using a formal business letter format
  • Let your tone should reflect the piece. If it’s funny, have a lighter tone. If it’s serious, stay serious
  • Hook the reader in the first paragraph. Keep this paragraph 100% about your work, not about you. You’ll have the opportunity to talk about yourself at the end of the query
  • Spelling, grammar and punctuation must be perfect. Don’t leave it up to Word; ask someone to give it a once-over or come back to it after a cup of tea
  • Make sure the market matches the piece. Query relevant magazines. Query agents who specialize in your genre
  • Get to the point and stick to it
  • Research the agent or editor. Her guidelines supersede any advice in this article. Editors like to work with professional, respectful writers. Your query illustrates that you fall into that category
  • Respond quickly when an editor or agent shows interest

One more bit of advice

  • I believe the best rule of thumb is this: if your query sounds anything like the lyrics of “Paperback Writer,” start again from scratch.

Final Poll Results


[ April 2009 Update ]

In the six years since publishing our Absolute Blank article “The short, sweet guide to writing query letters,” the way in which we query has changed.

These days, agents accept more electronic queries (some take e-queries exclusively) and this means they want your hook right up front. Why? So that when the opening of your query shows in the agent’s inbox, they will see your hook. Agents, like anyone, love to be thrilled and they like to see a hook that compels them to open an e-query immediately.

So here’s how to structure an electronically-submitted query (e-query):

Paragraph 1: Your first or only line should be your hook. A hook is a single line meant to intrigue the reader. Agent Colleen Lindsay writes, “A strong hook in your initial query is going be the most effective tool you’ll have to help all of these other publishing and bookselling professionals sell your book.” Here are some examples of hooks from agent Nathan Bransford’s blog:

  • A man goes into the jungle to search for a missing general (HEART OF DARKNESS)
  • A reclusive chocolatier opens up his factory to the lucky children who find golden tickets (CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY)
  • A monomaniacal sea captain forces his crew to search for an elusive white whale (MOBY DICK)
  • A train engine thinks it can make it up a hill (THE LITTLE ENGINE THAT COULD)

AgentQuery also provides guidance on how to craft your hook.

You can segue into your synopsis from here or leave your hook as a single-line paragraph. I recommend going into the synopsis, since some of that might show in the agent’s “preview” of the content of your e-mail as well.

Begin your synopsis by focusing on your main character and his predicament. Describe some other important characters. What is at stake? Where is the conflict? Talk about the action of the story without mentioning every plot point. Remember: you have one paragraph and one entire page to accomplish your query.

Paragraph 2: This information is unchanged from the original query formula we presented in 2003.

Paragraph 3: Here’s where you give the title of your novel, the word count (rounded to the nearest 1000 words), the genre and the fact that the novel is complete. If it’s not, you’ll need to hold off on your query.

You should also put your writer’s biography here. Include your credits (if any), and any personal data that’s relevant to your novel. For example, if your book is set on a horse ranch in Montana and you spent your college summers cooking toasted cheese sandwiches for ranchers in Wyoming, you might want to include it—or not. At a minimum, you’ll want to include your contact information: Name (Pen Name, if applicable), e-mail address, mailing address and phone numbers.

Thank the agent for her consideration and say that you look forward to hearing from her.

For land mail queries, you can follow this structure or the structure we presented in 2003. The trend is toward this structure but some agents might prefer the older style.

Additional resources:

-Stephanie Lenz

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