After you’ve written your novel and had it critiqued, edited, and proofread, there’s still one step left in the traditional writing and publishing process before you can submit your manuscript to an agent or publisher: writing the query letter.
The aim of a query letter is to pitch and promote both you as a qualified writer and your book as a compelling story. A perfectly polished query letter can show your expertise to agents, and a carefully constructed query letter can sell your book.
Most writers dream of doing just that, and a single page can get you there. A bad query letter can keep you from getting there and prevent your book from ever being seen by agents and, ultimately, readers.
But what exactly should be included in your query letter? And what should you avoid? As a professional editor at Scribendi who has seen both the good and bad of query letters and who has written several query packages for finished novels for Scribendi’s Query Package service, I can answer these questions for you!
The Dos of Writing a Query Letter
1. Do use conventional letter writing format.
An improperly formatted letter tells an agent that you are not a professional writer. As such, it’s very important to follow conventional letter writing format in writing your query letter.
First, ensure the whole letter is left-aligned. Then, list your name on the first line. On the next line, include line one of your mailing address. Continue with line two of your mailing address on the next line.
Give a line break. Then, list the recipient’s name and position. On the next line, you can list their company or affiliation. The next two lines comprise lines one and two of the recipient’s mailing address.
After another line break, list the date on which you will be sending the letter. Give another line break, and then include any reference you may be referring to (e.g., Re: “Open call for submissions”).
Add a line break, and then include your salutation. It’s best if you can list the name of the person you are addressing over general terms, such as “Dear Jes.”
On the next line, you can begin your letter. Be sure to give a line break between your final paragraph and closing salutation.
After you’ve signed off, include your name on the next line, followed by your contact information on the line after that. Ensure that you have typed your phone number and/or email correctly!
Below this, you can include any notation for enclosed documents (e.g., “Encl. Outline and Synopsis”). On the final line, you can designate other recipients if applicable (e.g., “Editorial Committee”).
Here’s a concrete example of a perfectly formatted query letter:
Mailing address line 1
Mailing address line 2
Mailing address line 1
Mailing address line 2
Body paragraph 1.
Body paragraph 2.
Body paragraph 3.
Notation for enclosed documents
Designate other recipients
2. Do hook the reader with a compelling synopsis.
After your salutation, it’s time to sell your novel, but don’t praise your own work. Instead of telling the agent how good your novel is, sell your novel by showing them how good it is. It is most compelling to begin the query letter with a synopsis of your novel, as this gives you the opportunity to hook your reader. It’s your job to get the reader interested in your story while also conveying the basic information necessary to understand it.
How do you explain your story in the short span of a query letter? It’s important to communicate, at the very least, the main character, their desires, and the obstacles and conflicts they face. Make your summary as specific as possible to your story to prevent your outline from being too generic, but avoid overwhelming the agent with too many details.
Remember that, above all else, the agent is wondering if your novel is suitable for publication at all, first and foremost, by deciding whether the story sounds finished and original. As such, pay attention to how you summarize the novel. The voice and style of the writing in your query letter should somehow match the voice and style of the writing in your book in order to showcase these elements to agents before they read the novel (and, hopefully, enticing them to do so!).
On top of judging whether the manuscript is suitable for publication, the agent will also be deciding whether your book is suitable specifically for them. The query letter cannot do all the heavy lifting alone; that is, it is important that you submit to the right agents based on your story and the agent’s submission guidelines (e.g., its genre, length, etc.). That’s why, along with the synopsis, you should include a short description of your book, including the word count.
3. Do list your qualifications and publication history.
Your query letter should be selling you as a writer as much as it is selling your book. In a new paragraph, begin listing your qualifications and publication history. Qualifications include any relevant degrees or education, while your publication history should list past publications, their publication dates, and their publishers. Don’t worry if you have yet to publish a novel, as you can list short stories, poems, guest posts on pertinent blogs, etc.
If you don’t have a publication history, don’t fret. List any other qualifications that you think will help sell you to the agent as a professional writer, such as your motivation for writing the novel. This can also help promote you. For example, if you have written a book for schoolchildren and you were a teacher for 15 years, this fact would be very interesting for an agent to hear, as it gives you a unique expertise in writing your novel even if you haven’t written anything in the past.
One often overlooked aspect of writing any type of letter is thanking the reader. Many writers explain what they want from the reader but fail to thank them for their time and consideration upon closing the letter. It’s important that you do so, especially when emailing agents, as they are busy people. You’re also facing a lot of competition, so make your letter as polite as possible with an appropriate thanks. A closing line like, “Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you” is perfect.
The Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter
1. Don’t use gimmicks.
In trying to hook a reader or catch their attention in a pile of query letters, it’s not uncommon for writers to resort to gimmicks. Such gimmicks could include presenting a query letter in the same experimental format of your novel, using an inappropriate subject line to grab attention, writing your query letter as the main character of your novel, etc.
It’s tempting to use tactics like these because they are sure to grab an agent’s attention. However, it’s the wrong kind of attention. While your query letter may stand out when you use gimmicks, it will be thrown into the slush pile just as quickly. Why? Because such gimmicks actually stand in the way of showing how good your book is and how good of a writer you are. The only way to demonstrate that you are professional writer is to forget about gimmicks and focus on delivering a professional query letter that is well written and contains good storytelling.
2. Don’t write more than one page.
Keep your query letter short, no more than one page. While you have to provide all the necessary information, it’s important that you do so in one page. This may seem restrictive, but it will make your query letter most effective because a good query letter doesn’t need to be long in order to communicate the essentials. In fact, the best query letters are short, typically under 350 words, precisely because they are to the point and don’t waste an agent’s time.
3. Don’t forget to have your query letter proofread.
Since agents receive so many submissions, they will be judging both the quality of the story and the quality of your writing. Thus, it’s important to ensure that the spelling and grammar in your query letter are perfect. It’s easy to miss a typo when proofreading your own work (see Writing Issues You are Probably Missing When You Self-Edit), and you will be competing against other writers, many of whom will have perfectly edited and proofread query letters; as such, it’s not a bad idea to have your letter proofread by a professional editor or editing service.
Congrats! If you’ve read this far, then that means you now know the dos and don’ts of writing a query letter as revealed by a professional editor.
To summarize: do use conventional letter writing format, do hook the reader with a compelling synopsis, and do list your qualifications and publication history. Don’t use gimmicks, don’t write more than one page, and don’t forget to have your query letter proofread.
It’s important to follow the conventions of writing a query letter to ensure that your letter is fairly read and considered. Best of luck!