How to write a query letter

editor/publisher of CommuterLit

Copyright is held by the author.

A number of contributors have recently asked me to take a look at their query letters before they send them off to literary agents and publishers. So I thought I would jot down a few thoughts on the subject here.

If you would like me to comment specifically on a draft of your query letter, you can submit your letter through our  Query Letter Critique service. The cost is a nominal $15 (including all applicable taxes).

Very basic stuff

The first thing to do, of course, is to decide which literary agent or publisher would be the most suitable for you and your work. If you’ve written a sci fi novel, there’s no point in submitting it to a publisher or literary agent who only deals with literary novels. Do your homework.

The second thing to do is to read carefully the publisher’s or agent’s query/submission guidelines. Many differ in terms of the amount of manuscript (none, first three chapters, the whole manuscript, etc…) they want you to submit with your initial query letter. As well, the guidelines usually tell you what specific bits of information they want you to put in your letter, i.e. length of manuscript, genre of book, age group (adult, young adult, children).

Stuff you probably already know, but I thought I’d mention anyway…

Keep your query letter to one page. Publishers and agents get a lot of these things — assume that none of them will read past the first page.

Have someone proof your letter. Proof it yourself, of course, but fresh eyes will catch more mistakes. No one will take you seriously if you spell the name of the company wrong or have trouble punctuating. And I know what you’re going to say. Yes, despite all my best intentions and proofing, there is an occasional typo on CommuterLit. No one is perfect, but you need to try to be. And be sure to tell me when you catch a mistake on CommuterLit. I’ll fix it.

Query letters in three paragraphs

The classic query letter has three paragraphs:

1. Your Hook. Your first paragraph should be a hook to get the reader interested in your manuscript. It’s one or two sentences — basically your story’s tagline. Think of it as the back jacket promotional blurb: “Conned into selling the family cow for a handful of magic beans, Jack is ridiculed by his mother, but plants the seeds anyway. When a gigantic beanstalk grows from the seeds, Jack climbs it to find a world of riches, danger and one really angry giant.”

2. The Synopsis. In your second paragraph mention the title of your story, the word count, the genre, and age group. Then summarize, in a little more depth then the first paragraph, your protagonist, the main plot and the main theme of your story. Do not leave the ending out to intrigue the reader of the letter; clearly state how your story concludes. The tricky part is to keep this as succinct as possible.

3. Your bio. The third paragraph is where you boast about yourself — mention your writing credits, any writing awards you might have won, your education, if you have mentored with a well-known writer, if you come with a recommendation from a writer the agent or publisher would know. If your manuscript is based on your real life experience, for instance as a crocodile hunter in Tahiti, mention it. If your education or experience is not particularly relevant to your story, don’t mention it.

If you want to delve into the subject more, a simple Internet search for “How to write Query Letters” will lead you to numerous sources.