10 Tips for Writing a Query Letter

Studying_Scott_AckermanBy Cecilia Lewis

Last week I posted a beginner’s list of links and resources for writing a query letter. Today I’d like to mention a few specific tips for writing a query to either agents or editors. During my time in the slush pile, I often see writers making the same easily-corrected mistakes. So here are a few things to look for in your query.

  1. Always follow the submission guidelines

This is probably the most important thing you can do when querying. Every agent/editor has their own preferences, and you should make the necessary tweaks to your query every time you submit it. Most agents and editors list their guidelines very clearly on their website, and following them is the best thing you can do in your query. For many agents and editors, not following the guidelines is an automatic rejection.

Guidelines are there for a reason. They’re not, as I witnessed one writer say, “suggestions.” Doing something drastically different with your submission will make it stand out, but not in a good way. Don’t risk having your work tossed because you didn’t follow instructions.

  1. Make sure the agent’s/editor’s name is correct

Although it seems like a small detail, it’s crucial in making a good first impression. Mistaking the agent or editor’s name can seem careless. And while you should query multiple agents simultaneously, do not mass-email your query. Take the time to address each query personally.

  1. Keep it short and simple

You should be able to include your title, genre, word count, hook, and bio in less than a page. 250-350 words is an ideal length. Try to keep your hook as short as possible, and remember that this is not a synopsis. Entice the agent to read your manuscript with specific details, but not unnecessary ones. And keep the focus on the project you are querying about, even if you’re previously published. Keep the formatting simple and professional.

  1. Don’t forget the genre

Make sure that you correctly identify the genre of your manuscript. This is especially important for agents who represent both fiction and nonfiction, as well as multiple categories. And make sure you’re using the correct genre to identify your book; if unsure, research!

  1. Proofread

A typo or two won’t mean an automatic rejection, but having multiple errors definitely raises a red flag. Make sure your query is polished and error-free. Have others read your query to catch errors you may have missed.

  1. Include relevant publishing credentials

If you have relevant publishing credits, be sure to mention them in your bio! This includes other publications that have featured your work and any writing awards you’ve won. On the other hand, if you don’t have relevant credentials, don’t include them. Include a bio if at all possible, but no bio is often better than one full of irrelevant or outdated credits.

  1. Don’t over self-promote

It’s great to be passionate about your work, but don’t go overboard. It’s best to avoid subjective statements about your manuscript altogether. Pitch your book with objective statements describing what your book is about, not opinions of its quality.

  1. Start with your hook

It’s generally best to open with your hook to get the agent or editor’s attention, and save your author bio for the end. You want to entice us right away!

  1. Be creative

Try to avoid overused or clichéd hooks in your query. Rhetorical questions like “What would you do if…” are hardly ever effective. I also see a lot of “In a world where…” in fantasy and sci-fi submissions. Saying that characters “risk everything” is also pretty common; be specific about what they’re risking instead. Be as creative as possible with your hook to grab the agent or editor’s attention.

  1. Don’t panic

Don’t overthink it too much. A single typo or trivial error probably isn’t enough to get a rejection. Remember that we want to like your work. Just do your research and write the best letter that you can.

And that’s it! Keep your query letter short and simple, and you’ll make a great impression on the agent or editor reading your work. Pair a professional query letter with an outstanding manuscript, and you’re on your way. Good luck!

Do you struggle with writing queries? Are there any tips I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Want a professional evaluation of your query before you send it out? Check out my query critique service. Looking for other editorial services? Check out my Services page for more information about working with me.

This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to publishing houses, literary agencies, and more, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Related Links:

-Query Letters 101: Links and Resources

-10 Tips for Querying Agents

-The Querying Process 101: Links and Resources

-5 Steps for Researching Literary Agents


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