Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Query Letter Basics

"This is really hard!" I’m quite certain that’s the most uttered sentence from writers about concocting a good query or cover letter.

They’re absolutely right. It is hard to write a good query letter, especially when you’re starting out. I don’t know anyone who really likes writing queries, and most agree: the process can be confusing and feel very daunting. But adhering to the list of ingredients and following the basic formula can make it that much easier.

These days, most queries to agents will be e-queries. In an e-query, you don’t need to start with your address, the recipient’s name/title/ address, or date as you will in a traditional snail-mail business letter to editors/publishers. For e-queries, simply begin with the greeting.

First paragraph: Some agents and editors like essential basic information in the first paragraph:
• Title
• Genre
• Word count
• Target audience/age range
Others prefer you to start with why you’ve chosen to submit to them, or to dive straight into the hook and synopsis, and leave these basics until near the end. But note: this basic information must be somewhere in the query.

Do your research, online and through writers’ organizations such as SCBWI, to learn about the agent you’re approaching. Does the agent maintain a blog? Then read it. For example, Agent X may be one those with a rampant distaste for queries beginning with a rhetorical question, especially one they can easily answer in the negative:

Writer: “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to escape from a pickled herring factory?”
Agent: “Um. Actually, no.” *Queryfail*

Thorough research will make your process so much easier.

The Synopsis:

You need to answer the basic questions:
• Who is the protagonist?
• What do they want and why?
• What is getting in the way and what’s at stake?
• What does the protagonist do about it?
• How does the problem escalate?

Common errors:

• It’s too vague. Be specific. Editors and agents see way too many vague synopses. What makes your plot different from all the others out there? What is specific about these characters that will make us want to hear their story? It’s no use whatsoever telling an agent or editor that:
Betty-Sue goes on an emotional journey of self-discovery and learns what family means to her.
That doesn’t provide any concrete information about the plot or character, except her name, and it’s also:
• Too didactic-sounding. Agents and editors don’t need you to tell them what the protagonist or audience will learn from this manuscript. The themes of the book should be readily apparent from the synopsis—if it’s written properly.
• Too much self-appraisal. Good writing is so much about Showing vs. Telling, and you, the writer, have the opportunity to show you can ‘show.’ Don’t tell them your text is whimsical or lyrical—let that come through in the way your synopsis is written. Show them that you can write—and with style.
• It’s too dry. So often, writers say to me of writing the synopsis: “It doesn’t flow like it does when I’m writing my book. It feels stilted and awkward.” Try to get into your happy place or sad place or use whatever emotional fuel writing your book required. Make it exciting. Make it voicey. Make it sing. Have fun! Your passion and excitement will come through in your synopsis.
• It gives away the ending. Set up the protagonist, setting, conflict, and what’s at stake, and then leave the reader hanging and desperate for more.
• Not enough revision. Just like any fine piece of writing, a synopsis needs to be revised multiple times until it is right. I usually work with my clients and students on multiple versions of their query and cover letters before we consider them ready.

Bio Paragraph: What you include here should be as relevant as possible. It can’t hurt to say you are a SCBWI member, if you are. Certainly, if you’ve won awards (as long as they’re not utterly obscure) include that. If you have relevant publishing credits, list them. Your day job may or may not be relevant. For example, if you’re an elementary school teacher or librarian, it is. But don’t try to plump up your bio with irrelevant details or tell them about your dream of being an author (Why else would you be subjecting yourself to this query torture?) And if it’s your first book, don’t be embarrassed to say so. (You’ve written a book. That takes guts and determination and dedication and lots of hard work. What a feat! Good for you! You’re amazing!) But never “argue for your limitations.”

Sign off: Thank the editor or agent for their time; that’s just common courtesy. Do say you look forward to hearing from them—but I recommend you don’t say “soon,” especially if you’re writing to an editor/publisher rather than an agent. It may be soon, but it may be not, and I’ve heard some agents and editors say use of the word “soon” may come across as impatience or a lack of understanding about the industry. And, if you're querying an editor or publisher, don't forget to say whether this is an exclusive or multiple submission.

Email signature: A neat, concise email signature—with your name and contact details and a link to online presence, such as a website or blog—looks professional.

And finally: Proofread it! Check for grammatical and spelling errors. Check for word misuse such as their/they’re/there, sight/site etc. Then have someone else proof it for you. If you have used clipart or fancy stationary (either e-stationary or the paper kind) get rid of it—simple and professional is best. Make sure you have the correct phrase in the email’s subject line. Follow the agent’s directions. And then proofread it again. Remember, this letter is your introduction as a writer, so errors in the query are unlikely to go down well.

I'm planning to do more posts on writing successful query and cover letters in future, so feel free to email me your questions. I hope to have some examples of winning query letters from published and up-and-coming authors in the weeks to come, too.

The process of concocting a query is not nearly as difficult when you know the right formula. Keep it professional, keep it courteous, and above all, don’t be afraid to send it. An atrophied manuscript is far, far worse than a rejection.


  1. Thanks for the information, Wordy. But I'm having a hard time fashioning an e-query. How long should the e-query be? Is there a website to go to that has the agents and what they have recently sold and to whom?

    Tracy Dunn

  2. Tracy, short of a subscription to Publishers Marketplace:, is a pretty good source of info re: client lists and so forth.

    If your e-query can fit on one regular page, then it's the right length.

  3. I'm going to try this......soon. The queries I write seem to be too "vanilla".

  4. Vanilla is tasty but it's best when it's pure essence and is used to enhance chocolate.

  5. I appreciate your mentioning the difference between e-queries and snail mail queries. It's a small point but some of us agonize over little things like how to be professional in the less formal e-world.

  6. Well, feel free to ask me questions about that kind of stuff and I'll do my best to answer them. :)

  7. Good information. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thanks for this valuable information, Marlo. What is your opinion on asking an agent the question "Would you like to see more?" Is that implied, or should it be asked in the query?

  9. Hi Shanna,

    It certainly is implied, but really I think it's more a matter of personal style. One has to find the right balance between being friendly/approachable and sounding too jaunty and familiar. For instance, I prefer to say, "I am seeking representation." But there's nothing wrong with "Would you like to see more?"

    Each writer has a voice/style/personality, and I think it's fine to let that come through in the letter (esp. the synopsis!!) as long as one stays professional and courteous at all times.

  10. Fabulous advice. Thanks again!