Before you read on, I must warn you that you should not underestimate the value of just saying little and moving on. If you don’t have anything notable to say, there is nothing wrong with simply saying that the manuscript is complete, and “Can I send you (pages/the full manuscript)?”
YES: INCLUDE THESE ELEMENTS
Prior writing credits. Obviously, this is a big one. Feel free to skip titles and just list publications. For example, feel free to say, “I’ve written articles for several magazines and newspapers, including the Cincinnati Enquirer and Louisville Magazine.” Notice how the article titles weren’t included and the writer could explain more, but this gets the job done. Brevity is appreciated here.
Short story credits are good here; articles are good. If you got paid for writing, you can mention it here – just do so humbly and quickly. Poetry is probably the least impressive note. If you were paid to get your poetry published, that may help a little.
Obviously, past credits within the category at hand are of the most value, but any and all credits are good. For example, if you are query a nonfiction project, your history of published articles is more impressive than a short story being published. However, mentioning the short story is not a bad thing.
Contests and awards. For instance, if your story was a finalist in the adult romance category contest at a writers’ conference, say so.
If you have an MFA somewhere. (Saying you majored in English really won’t do much, nor will mentioning your continuing online education.)
If you are part of a large, recognized, nationwide writing organization – such as the Romance Writers of America (RWA), the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the American Medical Writers, etc.
Platform and publicity – but mainly for nonfiction. If you’re writing nonfiction, suddenly the bio paragraph becomes the most important part of the letter. You must explain your credits, bio and platform – making a case that you are the best person to write this book and you have some means in place to sell it. If you’re writing fiction, this can still help, but it matters less so.
NO: SKIP THESE ELEMENTS
Your writing influences.
That you are part of a local writers group or online group. Unless it’s a large nationwide group, skip it.
The fact that you’re a parent and have X number of children, which, you believe, helps make a case for you as a kids writer.
How long it took you to write it.
That this is your first novel.
The fact that it’s been edited by peers or even a professional editor. Stuff is supposed to be edited; agents assume it is. Stating what they already assume helps nothing.
That the story is copyrighted with the U.S. Copyright Office. Or that you own all rights to the story.
That you are also writing the screenplay adaptation of the work. Another subject completely, not to be discussed in a query.
Anything about pen names. You’re thinking too far ahead.
That your family and friends loved it.
That the story is fiction but based off truth and/or your life. All fiction is based off truth and/or a life, so this is, again, telling agents what they already know.
That the book has been rejected before.
Which draft of the novel this is.
BUT WHAT ABOUT?
But what about my career, Chuck?
This is tricky. First of all, if you mention this, mention it quickly. If you get paid to write during the day, tell us. For example, if you get paid to write technical copy during the day, by all means say so. If you work in children’s bookstore, that’s probably OK, too. But if the main character is an electrician or computer programmer, and you yourself are an electrician or computer programmer, I say skip it. It really doesn’t matter that much. People like to include this fact anyway.
Over the weekend, a gentleman asked about this very thing and if he should say he served in the Marines since his protagonist was a Marine. I said yes, because I think that could serve as a notable publicity angle down the road.
But what about my connection and research to the subject matter at hand, Chuck?
If you look at the Successful Queries posted on this blog, you see one where an agent compliments a writer who said she studied belly dancing and the book is about belly dancing. Another compliments the writer for saying she has been to and researched Amish country and the book is about Amish country. Once again, these comments are made quickly by the author – just like they should be.
There are subtle things here. Let’s say your book is about Sioux Indians. If you spent six months in the library researching Sioux life, that is not worth mentioning. However, if you spent two months living among the Sioux people on such-and-such reservation, then that is more interesting and worth a mention.
But what about marketing and PR, Chuck?
Again, tricky. If you’re writing nonfiction, your background and skills in these areas is very, very important. However, if you are writing fiction, this matters less so. Your writing credits and awards will be more important. I would lean against mentioning these skills in a fiction query.