Tips for Writing a Great Query Letter

Most agents don’t accept unsolicited submissions as a way to avoid having their office consumed by manuscripts of varying degrees of quality with no way of immediately telling them apart. However, this doesn’t mean that novice and unconnected authors can’t get their foot in door. So that agents don’t receive full manuscripts (and consequentially thousands of pages of paper), they accept one-page query letters that succinctly tell them about the book and why the author is qualified to write it. The agent’s interest in seeing the full manuscript or the first 30 pages is determined by their interest in the query letter. However, even some of the best writers don’t know how to write a captivating query letter.

Tips for Writing a Great Query Letter
1. Make sure you know your book: Within the first paragraph the agent needs to know what genre a book falls into. A writer may think they have written a self-help book when in fact the book would more appropriately be labeled as an inspirational gift book or a memoir (if it heavily relies on personal experience). If memoirs are in hot demand, but publishers seem to be accepting less self-help books, the misinformation in the query letter might cause an agent to pass on the book.
2. Get to the point: A query letter is meant to be one page—no more, no less (and don’t play with the margins). Focus on what makes the book interesting and different. If it is difficult to write an interesting synopsis of the book, it might be necessary to go back to the drawing board with the manuscript.
3. Follow the format: According to Agent Query, query letters should be broken down into three basic parts:
Paragraph 1: The hook—a one sentence summation of the premise and tone of the book that will hook the reader’s interest (often called the tagline or elevator pitch).
Paragraph 2: Mini-Synopsis—Roughly 150 words summarizing the entire book.
Paragraph 3: Writer’s bio--This is not a biography of a writer’s life, a time to rant about the difficulties of finding an agent, nor a time to apologize for having never written a book. This is the time to explain why the author of the book was the ideal person to write it—either because of perspective, experience, or education. This is also the place to boast about other publications (i.e., short stories, articles, other books, etc.).
Paragraph 4: The closing—Thank the agent for his or her time and mention that the full manuscript is available upon request. In the case of nonfiction, the table of content and the first chapter (or first 30 pages, depending on the length of the chapter) might be included with the query letter.
4. Talk about the book, not yourself: The writer and agent have one thing in common: they both want to pitch a great book to a publisher and make money. Trying to connect with the agent on any other level (i.e., pity, flattery, self-deprecation, etc.) is just taking up space in a one-page letter that could be use to make the book sound more interesting and to establish the writer’s credibility. Writing-world lists hooks that writers should definitely avoid.
5. Follow the instruction: Usually noted somewhere near the agent’s address is a detailed list of instructions called “Submission Guidelines.” Follow them. Including a SASE (self addressed stamped envelope) is typically on the list so that the agent can mail a reply. No envelope, no reply. Making the agent’s life easier will start the relationship on the right foot.
6. When in Doubt, Seek Professional Help: There are many publications, websites, and articles filled with sample queries letters and tips on how to write a successful one. If the final draft and personal best effort at writing a query letter still seems to be lacking, invest in a book, such as Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Query Letters that might help or go to the library and get several opinions.
7. Do your research: Most agents specialize in different genres, which is information usually found easily enough on the agency website. If an agency’s focus is on fiction and graphic novels, don’t send a children’s book.
8. Save the postage: Many writers think: If I’m already sending a query letter, I might as well send the whole manuscript. There is no way to trick an agent into reading a manuscript. It is true that many bestsellers were found in a slush pile (the pile of unsolicited manuscripts), but those would be the exceptions rather than the rule. The rule is: Wait to send the manuscript until they ask for it.
9. The Secret: There’s no secret to writing a great query letter. The information is everywhere. But learning from “the secret” can be helpful in writing your query letter. When writing the tagline and synopsis for the query letter, imagine it’s the back cover copy of the book already on the bookstore shelf. The back cover copy entices the reader to want to read the book. The query letter entices the agent to want to read the manuscript.
10. Be professional: Everyone has heard the story of the man who dresses up in a chicken costume in order to get to see the CEO of a company to ask for a job, which he gets. Chicken man is the exception, not the rule. The rule is: Write a query letter to a professional as a professional. Showing up in chicken costume (or its epistolary equivalent) might be memorable, but so is a well-written query letter.

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