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A diamond in the slush

And it gets worse...
And it gets worse...
Courtesy of stock.xchng

As anyone who has worked in the publishing industry knows, the slush pile is a container of some kind (wire basket, wooden tray, cardboard box, in some cases a ready-to-pop mail bag) brimming with unsolicited (i.e. un-agented or unrequested) query letters, sample pages, and, in the cases of those authors that wonder why they always receive rejection letters, family photos.

It’s Darwin at his best. The competition for survival in that basket, tray, or mailbag secures the future of your writing at that particular establishment, however short or long that future might be. Who reads the slush pile? Only the bravest souls – usually the interns. What are they looking for? They are looking for good writers with a fascinating/intriguing/original concept who can write a compelling and tantalizing letter, and preferably a platform, previous publications, or an established expertise in the topic’s field.

However, there are many, many, many letters that meet these qualifications and the competition today is far more intense than it was at this time last year or even the year before. Here are few tips to make your query letter the diamond in the slush.

1. Write well and demonstrate that in your ONE PAGE LETTER. I emphasize that because, remember, if you’re querying a book you wrote, you’ve already accomplished the enormous feat of writing the book, editing it and polishing it. All we’re talking here is a ONE PAGE LETTER. I think you can handle it.

2. Research what a good query looks like. There are countless online resources available that talk about how to write a good query. Make sure your letter is professional, courteous, engaging, and that it includes all of the necessary components. One such resource is from an earlier post on this blog.

3. Follow the submission guidelines. Whether you’re submitting to a literary agency, a production company, a monthly publication, or a literary magazine, it speaks volumes when an author follows instructions. This isn’t the time to be creative. This is the time to be respectful and at least act like a professional.

4. Always include a tantalizing taste of your actual writing. It goes without saying that the opening of your article, book, or screenplay should captivate your audience and make them drool for more. With the increasingly improved caliber of query letters these days (no doubt thanks to posts like these), it’s hard for an intern or assistant to really get a feel for your expansive literary talents from a one page letter. So, when the submission guidelines call for a query letter and nothing else, send a query letter and the first three pages of your book. This will help them make their decision – and hopefully, it will get your foot in the door. (*I know this is a bit contrary to my point in #3, but sending only a few pages doesn’t read as egotistical or rude. Sending a full chapter or more might. Keep it to three pages if it’s not requested.)

5. Write creatively. Alright, I’m not encouraging falsehoods here. Do not lie in your query letter to make yourself sound better. That is always a bad idea and it will lead you to the same circle of hell reserved for those who lie in memoir form. All I mean by the “write creatively” part is to think like a marketing professional. How can you spin your experience, any pertinent details about yourself, any relevant accomplishments, and past publications to make yourself the strongest candidate you can be? This isn’t lying. It’s taking the sentence: “I taught English at the college level for a while and was published in a few trade publications,” and turning it into: “I am a former professor of English and Linguistics at Northwestern University and have been published in the American Journalism Review, Editor& Publisher Magazine, and IndustryWeek.”

6. Learn how to pitch. When talking about the “pitch” for your book, think the dialogue in a movie trailer or the jacket copy. This is what you want to put in your query: a brief overview with the taste of what is in store, but keep it as a tantalizing glimpse rather than a book report from sixth grade. Remember, the point of the query letter is to hook them into requesting more.

And a few final words on the subject. Remember that a query is not only a first impression of you and your work, it’s a business proposal. Don’t let emotion cloud the business aspect of this. Remember to conduct yourself professionally at all times and write professionally. After all, you do consider yourself a “writer” as others list “doctor” and “waitress” and “animal therapist.” Take pride in your accomplishments and your chosen profession, and best of luck in the jungle.


  • mare s. 5 years ago

    sara: i'd love to see some of your worst queries. perhaps a "do not do" column?