Query Letter Basics: The Dos

If you’ve followed the steps from last week’s post on how to find a literary agent, you might be ready to start composing your query letter. Your first question might be: What is a query letter? A query letter is oftentimes the first communication you have with a literary agent. It serves one, all-important purpose: to convince the agent to read your manuscript. This letter can make  or break your manuscript with every agent you send it to, so it’s very important to get it right before you begin to query. This week I’ll post the dos and don’ts of querying as applies to fiction manuscripts. As always, please let me know if you have questions. So…let’s begin:

Minutiae (It’s Important)

There are certain things that may seem small and unimportant, but can be the difference between a literary agent reading your query or hitting “delete”/throwing it in the trashcan. Each literary agency is different, but here are some guidelines that apply to querying anyone:

Follow the Rules

Each literary agency and agent has specific submission guidelines listed on their websites or contact information. These guidelines will tell you everything you need to know about how to format your query and what to send with it. Please, please follow these rules.

If an agency says “no unsolicited manuscripts,” do not send your manuscript. If the agency says “include the first 50 pages of your manuscript,” do not send the first 53. Following basic submission guidelines like this will make the difference between having your query read or trashed.

Submission guidelines may also tell you whether to include pages in the body of your email or attached in a certain file format (.doc, .pdf, etc.). They may also tell you if they require you to submit exclusively (i.e. only to them and no other agencies) or if they are okay with you sending your manuscript to other agents at the same time.

It Seems Obvious, But…

Spell names correctly. If an agent’s name is particularly long or you’re afraid you might misspell it, copy it directly from the agent’s contact information. Address each agent by his or her proper name, not “to whom it may concern.” If you were emailing Jane Smith, for example, write, “Dear Ms. Smith,” not “Dear Agent.”

Check your whole query for agency-specific information that you may have left over from previous queries. Not personalizing your query to each agent and agency is a quick way to lose your chance at having your manuscript read.

Format

Query letters have been around for as long as literary agents have, and their format has begun to standardize. There are no “rules” that say you have to follow this format, but since it has been shown to work, it may be a good place to begin.

By Email

Almost all queries are handled by email these days, rather than print letters. However, you might find some literary agencies that still prefer print. If you are writing a query by email, however, be sure that the title of the email is clear to its purpose, something like: “QUERY: ‘Title of Manuscript’ (audience, genre).” An example might read, “QUERY: ‘CINDERELLA IN SPACE’ (YA sci-fi).” Some agencies may have specific email headlines that they would like you to use. Be sure to follow the agency’s guidelines, but otherwise, make sure the agent knows it’s a query and knows the title of your manuscript.

Three Paragraphs

It’s very important to note that literary agents are busy people. If they are accepting unsolicited manuscripts, they need to be able to sort through authors’ queries quickly. So keep your query short; keep it simple. Keep it under 300 words. In general, the three-paragraph format has become popular:

  1. Hook the agent.
  2. Summarize the manuscript.
  3. Give a brief biography of yourself.

In paragraph one, your sole goal is to keep the agent reading. Don’t be kitschy, but do grab the agent’s attention with, as Agent Query calls it “a concise, one-sentence tagline for your book” (linked article is also useful in general for query letters!). You can also hook the agent with personalization about why this manuscript is ideal for his or her list, a mention if you have ever met this particular agent, or something else eye-catching. In addition, you might want to tell the agent why you are querying him or her (e.g. an interview you read, other clients he or she represents, etc.). In this hook, be sure to mention your manuscript’s title, word count, and genre, for example: “CINDERELLA IN SPACE is a 52,000 word young-adult novel.” Remember: it’s important not to be trite.

Paragraph two should summarize your manuscript concisely, hitting the most important and unique details. Who is the protagonist? What does he or she want? What makes this story interesting? Who is the audience for this book? Has the agent represented something similar? What are comparative titles whose audiences this manuscript might appeal to? Don’t go on forever here and don’t spoil the story; just state enough that the agent would want to read what you have sent or request pages.

The final paragraph should also be brief (as all of them should). Here, state in a sentence or two who you are. This is also the place where you can mention previously published works or accolades, particularly if they’re relevant to your current manuscript. If you have previously published books, it might due to mention those early on in the query (including publishers and publication years).

Finish your letter by respectfully thanking the agent for his or her time and consideration.


There you have it! You’re almost ready to begin writing your first query letter. However, there are still many things that you shouldn’t do when writing a query. Take some time to read about The Don’ts of querying, and then begin your draft.

A great resource as you workshop the query letter you’ve begun is Query Shark: a site where Janet Reid, an NYC literary agent, shows aspiring authors how to improve their query letters. Read through the entire archive (yes, the whole thing!) to learn great tips of how to improve your query letter.

And as you send out queries once yours is up to par, use Query Tracker or another site to organize your queries and responses.

As always, post any questions you have or send me a Tweet!

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