Query Letter Basics and Beyond

Your novel is ready. It is time to send query letters to land a literary agent. As I prepare to send off my own query letter, let me share some basics of writing a query letter that will get your manuscript noticed.

Is Your Manuscript Really Ready?

First and foremost, make sure your manuscript is polished. This does not mean you have finished a second or third draft. It means you have a fully refined manuscript that has undergone professional developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. Your manuscript should be as flawless as possible. If not, you are not ready to send a query letter to agents.

Do Your Research

Second, conduct an extensive internet search and visit the websites of literary agents. Make sure the agent you are querying accepts work in your genre. You can do this by checking the submission guidelines on the agent’s website. If you are pitching a sci-fi thriller and an agent only accepts non-fiction submissions or Young Adult fiction, you should not query that agent.

Third, make sure the agent is currently accepting submissions. The agent will usually indicate on his or her website whether submissions are being accepted.

Make a List and Track Submissions

Next, make a list of literary agents who accept manuscripts in your genre. Open a spreadsheet and list the agents. Make columns for agent’s name, website URL, email address, submission guidelines, date the query letter was sent, dates for follow-up emails, and notes (any relevant information, such as whether the agent represents an author you like). As you query agents, it will be important to track which agents you have written to and the status of your query.

The Query Letter Itself

Okay, so you have a killer manuscript, you have a list of agents who accept submissions in your genre, and you have a spreadsheet to track submissions. You are ready to write the all-important query letter. Where do you start? Here are a couple of considerations. If you have met the agent at a writer’s conference or if another agent has recommended that you query that agent, this is a perfect way to introduce yourself. If not, go right into the story. Make sure your writing is punchy. If your query letter is boring, the agent will assume that reflects the quality of your writing.

Here’s what must go into your letter:

The Basics: Title, genre, word count. Make sure your word count is within industry standards and the agent’s submission guidelines.

The story’s “hook,” a concise summary with special emphasis on what makes it unique. What is it about your story that makes it stand out from the flood of manuscripts that inundate agents? The story summary should include the main character’s name, the setting, the character’s goal, the central conflict, antagonistic forces, and the choices a character is forced to make to achieve the goal. All of this should be done in 150 words or fewer. Experts caution against describing the theme in a query letter. Agents want to know what happens in the story. That’s the best way to judge whether they can sell the story to a publisher. The theme does not tell the agent anything about the quality or marketability of the story.

Brief bio, including publishing credits. If you have not been published, mention any writing you have done for newspapers or magazines. If you have a blog, which you should start well before you query agents, mention that.

Close your letter. Thank the agent for considering your manuscript. Include your contact information. Be brief, professional, and straightforward.

Your query letter should be no longer than one page (400 words). If it is longer, you will increase the chance the agent will not read it. Agents are busy and they get tons of query letters. Be concise, get to the point, and don’t gush about your work.

Query letters are the key to getting published. Make sure to take your time to create the strongest possible letter.

Here are more query letter resources:

Jane Friedman-The Complete Guide to Query Letters

The 10 Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a Query letter
Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Rachelle Gardner-How to Write a Query Letter

Nathan Bransford-How to write a query letter

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