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What every writer should know about query letters

If you’ve gotten to the point that you are ready to find yourself representation for a completed or nearly finished novel, then congratulations. Writing the book is only half the battle, though. Now there a dozen hoops you must jump through in order to get that agent or publisher interested in what you are selling. And that is exactly what you must do: sell not only your work, but yourself, through a good query letter.

Query letters are like a hybrid of letters of intent combined with a flat out sales pitch. Most importantly, the query should concisely (key word, here) summarize the novel being pitched, and it should do so effectively. Of course, that’s much easier said than done.

Agents are very busy folks. They get dozens – probably more – submissions a week, many of which are unsolicited, and they don’t have the time to read through each manuscript that is sent to them. What they do have time to read, though, is the query letter that is mailed with the submission. Hence the stress on their importance.

Of course, different kinds of writing require different query letters, but the following will mostly apply to what agents are looking for in fiction submission query letters.

First off, the query letter needs a header. Just like with other types of cover letters and letters of intent, this is very basic. The header is aligned left, with the following info given its own line: agent’s name, name of agency, and two lines of address. A query letter that lacks this simple information may be passed over as one submitted by someone who just didn’t do his or her research. No one wants that.

Next, address who you’re speaking to. You should know the agent’s name at this point, so always address him or her using the last name. Using first names can come off as obnoxious and pretentious. No one wants that, either.

Now for the body of the letter. In the first paragraph, don’t bother with formalities. The agent knows why you’re writing, so don’t tell him. And don’t write about yourself; write the summary of your story. After all, that’s what the agent is hopefully interested in. Talk about your main character, your plot, the conflict, and so on. Be sure to do so as concisely as possible. For inspiration, it’s not a bad idea to look at book jackets at your local bookstore to get an idea of what to do.

Once the story is summarized efficiently and in a captivating way (see, it was easy, right?), now you can move on to your own introduction. Tell the agent about your credentials and your authority to write about what you wrote about. For instance, if you wrote a story about World War II, tell the agent why you’re qualified to do so. Tell him about the hours of research you’ve done. Sell yourself.

In the last body paragraph, let the agent know why you are submitting to him specifically. This is the part where you can show off how much you’ve done your research. Name drop other books he represents and why your book is a perfect match. Be careful here with tone, though; it’s easy to come off as a flatterer. Show genuine interest – it’ll go a long way.

At the end of your letter, be sure to include your own contact information. You probably knew that, though. Other formalities work well here, too, such as “thank you for your time” and “Sincerely.”

Make sure to edit your letter thoroughly, too, before sending it off. Nothing says “avoid this writer” like a query letter full of grammatical mistakes. A letter riddled with problems will find the waste bin quickly. Also, make sure no “I’s” or “me’s” appear in that first paragraph. Avoid trite adjectives like “amazing,” or “beautiful,” and so forth. They are boring words; everyone uses them. Your book is different, remember? That’s what the agent will see in a well-edited letter.

More editing advice for query letters will be posted in the future, so be sure to check back often. Good luck with those submissions!