Back in December, when I started offering an editing service on Fiverr to help fellow writers fine-tune their query letters, I anticipated that most of the work would revolve around refining their pitch so that it sounded as interesting and marketable as possible. Instead, I found that a lot of people are missing out on the basics.
Of course, I’m by no means an expert. I’m just an author who had success querying, and noticed a few patterns when helping others. There are a hundred different query letter guides out there, but this is mine: the seven most common tips I find myself giving to clients.
Divide your query into three concise parts
- The Hook. This is the meat and potatoes of your query letter. Think of it as the early stages of your book’s back cover blurb. The teaser to make them want to read the story. It introduces the main character(s), the setting, and the conflict. Unlike a synopsis, it shouldn’t give away the ending.
- The Details. This is where you give them your title, your word count, and your genre. You can also include any comparison titles and personalization, where applicable.
- The Bio. Lastly, tell them a bit about yourself. I suggest two or three sentences written in the first-person POV (third is best reserved for your website or blog—it’s a little weird to talk in third person in a letter that’s from you).
I tend to place them in the above order, so that you’re opening with the most attention-grabbing part of your query letter. The exception would be if you’ve had previous contact with the agent, in which case it’s a good idea to open with a quick refresher on that (i.e., if they requested your materials during an event like #pitmad). All together, your letter should land in the range of 300-400 words or so.
Now to break down some advice about each part of your query:
Let your hook speak for itself
Your hook is where you can let your imagination run wild—to an extent. It should read sort of like the back cover blurb, not like a review. A lot of authors go to great lengths to talk up their book, but that’s not doing them any favors. Yes, your book might be witty and unique and action-packed, but it’s not your job to tell the agent that. They can form those opinions for themselves.
Instead, if you think your book is witty, incorporate that wit directly into the hook. How can you introduce your story in a way that will make it sound witty without having to outright say it? Take, for example, this opening line from a blurb for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “It’s an ordinary Thursday lunchtime for Arthur Dent until his house gets demolished.” Immediately, we can tell that this is going to be a quirky story about a normal guy dealing with extraordinary circumstances. But notice that the sentence doesn’t directly tell us any of that. It lets us come to our own conclusion. That’s a sign of a strong hook.
In the same vein, the opinions of your beta readers aren’t a helpful addition, either. Yes, you might have had fifty people read it and tell you it was great, but that isn’t going to sway an agent’s opinion one way or another. Only your hook (and your actual writing) can do that.
Mentioning that they’re seeking your genre isn’t very personal
This brings us to the details section, which is easily the most straightforward of the three sections. Still, I see a lot of people do strange things in this section, and it almost always centers around personalizing the letter for each agent.
It’s pretty common advice that you should personalize your letter to help grab the agent’s interest. At the same time, you probably don’t know the agents you’re approaching on a personal level, so it might feel like you’re floundering for something—anything—to say. I’ve seen a lot of people try to solve this by using a generic sentence like this: “I saw on your agency website that you’re seeking [genre], and thought my book would be a good fit.”
The problem with this is that it’s not really very personal. It demonstrates that you’ve done the bare minimum by looking at their website to confirm they’re actually interested in your genre. Instead, take the time to look at their Twitter. See if they’ve tweeted anything using the #MSWL hashtag. Check the Manuscript Wish List website, where they may have listed some of their all-time favorite books (and maybe one is the perfect comparison title for your manuscript). Find something that’s just a little more personal, and a little more relevant to your specific project. Why is this agent going to want to read your book over a thousand others in the same genre?
Keep your bio relevant to the book you’re pitching
A lot of aspiring authors tend to go one of two directions with their bio. Either they wax poetic about how they aren’t published yet but it’s their dream, how hard they’ve worked to perfect their writing, how they envision their future career looking—or they ignore the bio entirely.
In both cases, this usually has something to do with them having no traditional publication history, and no relevant writing experience. Which is completely okay. No one expects you to have an MFA or a bestseller under your belt before querying. But it’s still good to offer a sentence or two about who you are.
My advice is to focus less on your writing qualifications and goals, and instead focus on why you’re the person to tell this particular story. Maybe you’ve written a mystery set in London, and the semester you spent abroad helped shape the setting. Maybe your coworkers’ antics inspired you to write a lighthearted office rom-com. What makes you, the author, capable of telling this story in a unique way?
Additionally, if applicable, you can also use the bio section to mention your Twitter following, your blog, your YouTube channel—whatever might demonstrate that you’re actively building a relevant platform.
There’s no need to state the obvious
Query letters are expected to be short and concise. You only have so many words to pitch your story, and you risk losing an agent’s interest if you ramble on. So why do so many aspiring authors waste precious space stating the obvious?
Cut-and-paste lines like “I’m seeking representation for . . .” and “the completed manuscript is available upon request”—these sorts of things are a given. If you weren’t seeking representation, you wouldn’t be querying. And if you don’t have a completed manuscript available, you shouldn’t be querying. I suspect a lot of writers are probably scared to cut these lines at risk of sounding rude. Leaving out a “thank you” is rude. Addressing your letter to a generic “Dear Agent” is rude. But otherwise? You’re not expected to explain the readiness of your manuscript or the purpose of your query. So don’t sweat it—just leave it out.
Keep your goodbyes short and sweet
On a similar note, a lot of authors seem to hesitate when closing out their query letter. I’ve seen all sorts of things, but there are a handful of go-to phrases that pop up more frequently than others. The worst offenders: “I’m positive my book is going to be a good fit for your list” and “I look forward to hearing from you.”
The first (and the many variations of it) just comes across as pompous. Even worse if you pair it with something about the “great opportunity” you’re offering the agent. The second is the lesser offender, but I’m still inclined to advise against it because so many agents have “no reply” response policies, and to assume these won’t apply to you sounds a little presumptuous. Remember, a hypothetical agent is going to be working to get your book published, so you want to look like an ideal person to work with. If you seem like you’re cocky or expectant, that’s going to be a red flag.
Your best option is to follow your bio with a brief “thank you” and then your signature. When signing off, there’s no set standard for what you should use: “best,” “warm regards,” “sincerely,” all of those are acceptable. I have noticed a weird pattern where a lot of people use phrases like “yours in anticipation,” which I think sounds a bit stuffy and outdated, but you should go with whatever feels most natural to you.
Agents can probably tell if you’ve copied from a template
Last but not least, keep in mind that query templates and samples you find online are a great way to get started, but they’re not the end-all solution for querying. I can’t tell you how many queries I’ve edited where it was blatantly obvious they’d all copied from the same sample letter. Look at it this way: if your query follows the exact same format as a hundred others in the slush pile, is it really going to stand out?
This isn’t to say you have to do something totally crazy and off-the-wall to grab an agent’s attention. Don’t attach pictures or links to other media to spice things up (both of those are a bad idea and will probably land you in junk mail). But if you do start from a template, be sure to judge that template with a critical eye. A lot of the examples floating around the internet aren’t actually examples of great queries—they’re just an example of a query.
There’s no magic formula
Of course, there’s no such thing as a perfect query. But I believe these tips make for a solid start. If you feel you’ve done everything right and would like additional help, you can find my Fiverr service here.
I’ll close with a question for anyone who happens across this article: do you have any additional tips for querying authors?