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The Query Letter

Every writer’s goal is to see their work published. Whether you’re writing a fiction novel or nonfiction book, you’re going to need to know how to write a query letter. After all, a query letter is a way to make connections with agents and editors and garner interest in your work. Let us guide you through the query letter writing process and find out what a query letter is, why it is important, basic formatting tips, and much more.

What is a query letter?

Writers use query letters to pitch article ideas to magazine editors or book ideas to agents and publishers. It’s a one-page letter used to get an editor or agent interested in the work you’d like to send them. Sometimes writers submit a query letter about a piece they’ve already written—such as a manuscript for a fiction novel. Other times, you query to determine if you should write the piece, such as a nonfiction book.

Essentially, a query letter is a way to introduce yourself and your work to a literary agent or editor. It is a letter you send to convince agents or editors that you have a project that not only will interest them but also make them money. If they like your query, they will ask to see your work. Depending on the editor or agent, this entails seeing a book proposal from a nonfiction writer. If you’re a fiction writer, be prepared to send a full manuscript or a few chapters of your novel.

Why is a query letter important?

If you want your best chance at getting published, you need to write a query that stands out from the competition. Your query letter is a chance to impress an editor or agent with your idea—it’s your sales pitch. After all, you are trying to sell your writing to an agent or editor before they have even read your manuscript or book proposal. Your query letter will help them determine if your idea or story is worth knowing more about or not worth their time. Therefore, to catch an editor’s or agent’s attention it’s important to craft a concise and compelling query letter.

What should I do before I send a query letter to an agent or editor?

First and foremost, before you even begin writing a query letter, you must do your homework. Do you know who are querying and why? Targeting the right editor or agent is a crucial component of writing a successful query letter. If you do enough research, you can avoid some of the common mistakes beginners make. For example, if you are pitching a fiction novel, don’t query an agent who specializes in nonfiction. An easy way to find agents and publishers who are currently accepting the type of work you’ve written or are interested in writing is to go online to WritersMarket.com. There you will find specific, detailed listings of agents and publishers with their contact information, submission guidelines, and much more. 

You can also find this information from our line of Writer’s Market books. From these books, you can look up the right agent, what they are looking for, how quickly they respond, how much they pay, what type of writing they are currently accepting, and if they accept unsolicited queries.

How do I format a query letter?

In order to make an excellent impression on agents and editors, you must format your query correctly. This entails being aware of an agency’s or publication’s submission guidelines and following them completely. In the case where there are no specific guidelines available, here are some general formatting tips for query letters:

  • If you query via e-mail, be sure your e-mail address is professional.
  • If querying by mail, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE). This way an editor or agent can notify you when the work has been accepted or rejected.
  • Keep it to one page. Agents and editors are very busy and are looking for a lot of information in a small amount of space.
  • Format it to industry standards. This means white paper, black ink, and Times New Roman size 12 font.
  • Include the date, the editor’s/agent’s name and title, the magazine or agency name and address, and your name and contact information (address, phone, fax, and e-mail).
  • Address it to the right editor or agent. When in doubt, call the publisher or magazine and ask who to send it to. Or buy one of our Writer’s Market books for detailed listings.
  • Spell the name of the publisher or magazine correctly and have an accurate address. Sometimes companies have multiple addresses or locations. If this is the case, know which location or address your contact works at.

What makes a query letter successful?

Remember, a query letter is your chance to introduce yourself to an agent or editor—someone who could potentially publish your work.

The first element of a successful query letter is the referral. When you write a query, don’t generalize your letter with a “Dear Mr. or Mrs.” Instead, be sure to address the agent or editor specifically. Make the extra effort to find out about them. Search online and see what they’ve written about or have mentioned what they are looking for. Then reference the information you learned about them in your query. For example, if you both attended the same writing conference, mention how you met. For more ways to approach editors and agents, read the Guide to Literary Agents or go to WritersMarket.com.

A secondary element to include in your query is the basic information about your proposed story or idea. If you’ve written a fiction piece, mention the title and genre your work fits best in. If you are a nonfiction writer, talk about your proposed title or category for your book. You should also include a one-sentence summary of your story and your final manuscript’s word count or proposed word count of your nonfiction book.

The third element is the hook, which makes up the bulk of your query letter. This is where you talk about the subject matter (for nonfiction) or the characters, plot, and conflict (for fiction). This section should be between 100 and 200 words long.

For fiction writers, focus on who your protagonist is, the conflict the protagonist faces, and the setting—where and when does it take place? You can mention a couple major story beats, but do not give away the ending. For both nonfiction and fiction writers, it’s important to mention how your particular story or idea is different from other books on the same topic. Remember, you are trying to sell your work or idea to a potential publisher. Make sure your unique selling proposition is compelling. One way to achieve this is by avoiding addressing minor plots or characters in a fiction query. For a nonfiction query, you could mention the subject matter, your unique approach, and who the intended audience is.

The fourth element is the bio. In essence, the bio allows you to share with an editor or agent who you are and what expertise you may have. What makes you an authority on your subject? If it is relevant, nonfiction writers can mention their academic background, amount of research they’ve conducted on their proposal’s topic and their most recent (but relevant) published articles. Additionally, writers of either genre can mention their platforms. In this case, it’s okay to include how many Facebook, Twitter, or blog followers you may have because editors and agents want to see the ways in which you connect with your audience and how people know you and your work.

The final element of a query letter is the closing. This is when you should politely thank the agent or editor for their time and make them aware that you are prepared to send the appropriate additional materials at their request. Then sign your query and include your contact information at the bottom of the letter.

Here is an example of a successful query letter:

 

In summation, a good query letter should show the agent or editor you’ve done your homework; provide them with the key pieces of information they are looking for; get them interested in seeing more; and make them aware that you are prepared to send the appropriate additional materials. Good luck!

Additional Resources

 

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