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The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter

Categories: Brian Klems' The Writer's Dig Tags: Brian Klems, online editor blog.

Learning how to write a must-read query letter is nearly as important as writing a must-read manuscript—after all, an enticing query letter is what will get an agent to say, “Love your story. Send me the full manuscript.”

While query letters vary a little depending on who the agent is (and their guidelines) and what type of book you’re writing (novel, nonfiction, poetry, etc.), there are many elements that remain the same. That’s why I’ve developed this list of dos and don’ts to help you navigate what’s really important to include in your pitch and, also, what should be avoided at all costs. By sticking to these 10 specific dos and don’ts of writing a query letter, you’ll give yourself the best opportunity to find success and land an agent. Good luck!

When Writing a Query Letter Do …

Address the agent by name. When sending query letters to an agent, you always want to use his or her name. Generic letters addressed to “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Literary Agent” are much less likely to connect with someone at an agency. By using an agent’s name, you not only personalize your message but also show you’ve done a little research—and agents take writers who do research a little more seriously than writers who do not. Just make sure you spell the agent’s name correctly.

Cut right to the chase. Don’t waste the opening paragraph of your query letter introducing yourself. Save that for later. Much like a book, you want to hook that agent with your first sentence. The best way to do that is to introduce the hook of your manuscript right away.

Sell your manuscript. The summary of your book will ultimately make or break your chances of landing the agent. Write this section the same way you would write the copy that would appear on the back of the book jacket—one or two paragraphs that sell the heart and soul of your book. Remember, this is the most important part of your query. Spend the most time on it. (Looking for a professional editor to tell you if your summary is strong enough? I recommend a 2nd Draft Query Critique.)

Explain why you’ve chosen to query this specific agent. When salespeople go out to make a sale, they attempt to learn everything they can about a client before making their pitch. The more you know, the more likely you are to target the right person and find success. When pitching to an agent, it’s important you know a little bit about that agent—namely, what other books they represent. In your query, be sure to mention one or two of these books and briefly explain why you think your book is a good fit in that group.  (NOTE: If your book isn’t similar in genre or scope to others the agent represents, you’re likely pitching to the wrong agent.)

Mention your platform (if you have one). Have a blog that gets 20,000 pageviews a month? Mention it. Speak at writing conferences 10 or more times a year? Mention it. Have a Twitter following of more than 30,000 followers? Mention it. Basically, having a platform can only enhance your opportunity to reach an audience of readers—which enhances your opportunity to sell books. If an agent knows you have the resources to reach an audience on your own, it makes you a more attractive client. And if you don’t have a platform, don’t worry (and don’t mention it). But consider starting to build a platform now. (Here is a great resource on everything you need to build your writer platform.)

Study other successful query letters. Thousands of others have found success when querying agents. No need to reinvent the felt-tipped pen. Spend time studying actual query letter examples that other writers—many of whom had no previous writing credits or platform—have used to land their literary agents. Here are several query letter examples that may help.

When Writing a Query Letter Don’t …

Be arrogant. Never say anything in your query like “my manuscript is a bestseller in the making” or “you’d be lucky to represent my book.” (You laugh, but some people do this.) Save all bragging until the end, and even then it should be focused on meaningful writing credits and authoritative credentials (the final “don’t” on the list covers this).

Include your age. There is no real upside to this. In fact, it often can create unintentional bias and make it more difficult for you to sell your book.

Tell agents that you value their time. I learned this from my agent, Tina Wexler. Many writers waste a sentence or two in their query explaining that they know how busy the agent is and that they value their time. There’s no need for this, as agents are well aware of how busy they are. More important, though, is that this is wasted space in your query that could be used to give more information about (and sell the idea of) your manuscript.

Include writing credits that aren’t meaningful. Unless you’ve had books published through a publishing house before or have had work appear in something prestigious, like The New Yorker, it’s best to not say anything. Just stick to selling your story and your concept. Now, if you have other non-writing credentials that are valuable—such as you’re writing a nonfiction book on financial planning and you’ve spent 15 years working as a financial planner at a major financial firm—you want to mention that. Anything that makes you an authority on your topic is worth noting.

BONUS: Here’s a free download on How to Impress Literary Agents.

Want to learn more? Expand your writing knowledge with these great writing books & videos:

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7 Responses to The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter

  1. ScottyM23 says:

    I’m kind of back-and-forth on the second tip. I think many people spend too much time trying to come up with the best hook, when what they should really be doing is just jumping into the premise of the novel. I’ve found that works for me, at least. I’ve never used a one-sentence hook.

    Here’s a post I wrote about queries:

  2. Jerry Lobdill says:

    I am a writer of history. I recently sent out a query letter for my first book, titled Last Train to El Paso–the mysterious unsolved murder of a cattle baron , to five academic presses via email, and three hours later had a phone call from the most prestigious of the lot. The editor and I talked for about 40 minutes and he asked for a copy of my latest draft of the manuscript. Two days later I got a request for a proposal from another recipient of my letter.

    I studied everything I could find before writing my letter and took a month to craft it. I obeyed all of the dos and don’ts listed here except that I did thank the recipient for his/her time.

  3. Katherine says:

    Is Do #4 absolutely necessary? Agents know why you’re querying them, it’s because they represent the genre you’re writing. They also know what books they’ve represented in the past and based on the story you present in your query, should be able to tell whether or not (and why) would be a good fit. Just curious.

    • JohnA says:

      I agree. If an agent is, for example, looking for thrillers, which come in many sub-genres – legal, espionage, et al – is it really necessary to research all the sub-genres, to see if what they represent matches what you have written? Particularly when they are always looking for something different. I would guess thriller readers in the UK, for example, run into the millions, and like me, probably read many sub-genres. How do you quantify such a market?

      And having just read Mark Giminez’s, The Common Lawyer, a legal thriller written with humour threaded throughout the narrative and the dialogue, I wonder if, were I to consider submitting to his agent – I don’t know who that is, by the way – should I simply assume he/she wouldn’t, in fact, be interested in a non-legal thriller? Or should I work on the basis that, at the end of the day, it IS a thriller, written in a similar vein, and submit accordingly?

      • I think the reasoning behind #4 is really to show that you’ve researched the agent and also to show that you have some kind of knowledge of the publishing world. Basically, this is a way to prove that you haven’t just opened your copy of the Writer’s Market to a random page, closed your eyes, dropped your finger onto an entry and gone with it. It’s a way to show that you understand the agent, understand how your book can be marketed and what genre it could be in, and prove that the publication of the book will not be a one-sided effort that they’ll be tackling all by themselves.

        • JohnA says:

          I think Katherine and I both recognise that, which was just the point.

          For example, a thriller is a thriller, and rarely, if ever, does an agent specify a sub-genre. Yes, you can usually – though not always – check their client list, and often recognise books you have read, but if I were to mention to an agent that I thought my X thriller would fit in with their Y group, a group which is the same genre but a different sub-genre, I’m not entirely sure that I could explain why, other than that the writing is in a similar vein. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t done my research; simply that I am looking to my opening paragraphs to show the agent how it would fit in with the kind of genre they represent.

          There is a large agency now accepting submissions online, and for the genre section, they not only ask that you check two boxes, not one, but include a box for ‘Not sure’. Evidently they recognise that it can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint the exact genre.

          And as an aside: good to see Jerry getting such positive results so early on, but I’m sure he appreciates that that was very much the exception, not the rule.

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