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Query Letter Anatomy: What To Include In A Letter To Literary Agents

When you send out a query letter to a literary agent, you have to know what to include. The letter has approximately two seconds to grab an editor’s or agent’s attention before being relegated to the Round File. But what if you don’t know how to write a query letter or what to put in it? If your query letter doesn’t contain the proper information, your book probably won’t get a second glance.

Getting Ready To Write Your Query Letter

Many writers rush through the process of writing the query letter, thinking that the focus should be on their manuscript, not their introductory letter. But editors and literary agents do not have the time to evaluate manuscripts individually. That’s what your query letter is for—to succinctly state your case for representation.

Your query letter must be convincing on its own, both in its ideas and the quality of the writing. Any number of common query letter mistakes can get your query passed over, and although it may seem unfair to be judged on a one-page letter, that’s the nature of the business.

There is no magic formula to help sell your ideas. The most writers can do is to educate themselves on the art of the query—by adhering to industry guidelines, studying successful query letters, heeding the advice of editors and agents, and through practice.

There are four necessary parts to a query letter, and it’s up to you to decide how to effectively order them. Writers with impressive backgrounds, publishing credits, or expertise in their subject matter may choose to highlight their credentials first thing. An unpublished writer may choose to wow the editor with the premise of his story right up front. The important thing is to cover all the important points:

1) Opening lines

Many writers are tempted to start their query letters with a snazzy attempt at humor, a rhetorical question, or some witticism. Unfortunately, if the first line of a query letter is too flashy or splashy, it will fall flat. Read more: Cover And Query Letters: Striking The Right Tone In Your Writing.

At this early stage an agent will likely make the decision to read further based on book genre and marketable word count alone. Make it clear what you are offering, and define your work in terms of genre and length.

My book falls into the women’s fiction category and was inspired by a family member who struggled with bulimia.

Or: My book is a science fiction novel based on my experience in DNA research and is complete at 150,000 words.

2) The synopsis (aka blurb, aka overview)

Describe the plot of your story (or the concept of your nonfiction book). Keep it to one paragraph or two, and give just enough information to describe the general plot, the setting, central characters, the conflict, and the resolution. Be specific. Your plot paragraph should include the time frame of your novel as well as the location or setting.

This novel takes place in rural Georgia in the 1960s—a time of strife and racial tension.

Introduce your main characters, but leave the minor characters for your full-length synopsis. At this point you want to avoid slowing the editor or agent down with any unnecessary information. Keep it interesting and keep it moving.

Read more: How To Write A Killer Book Blurb For Your Query Letter: What Literary Agents Want To See.

3) Your credentials

Composing your professional writing bio is an easy task for previously published authors and experts, but a daunting task for the unpublished writer. Whether you’ve got a string of best-sellers behind you or this is your first writing endeavor, make sure you come across as confident (but not arrogant). If your query letter is good, your lack of experience need not count against you.

Highlight any publishing credentials, writing experience, and education. Know the best way to highlight self-published books in your bio.

Examples:

I’ve published numerous short stories in Literary Magazine and have a degree in journalism from Impressive College.

Or: This book is based on my findings while on an archaeological dig in Africa for Snooty University, where I currently teach archaeology.

If your background experience has no bearing on the subject, leave it out. However, if your writing credentials are not impressive, by all means highlight anything in your background that merits writing your book.

As a mother of a child with Down syndrome, I feel uniquely qualified to write about the subject.

If you don’t have any publishing credentials, there are few things you can do to help convey that you’re serious about your craft. Read more: How To Build Up Your Writing Bio Super Fast.

Writer’s Relief helps our clients query literary agents and build up their writing credentials in the literary magazine market.

4) Thank you

In closing, be sure to thank the editor or agent for his or her time and offer to send sample chapters (if not enclosed) or the complete manuscript. Enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope for convenience, and sit back and wait—or start working on your next submission.

Don’t want to write your own query letter? Since 1994, Writer’s Relief has been helping authors compose query and cover letters that get great results.

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: Got a question about writing your query letter? If you ask, we answer! Post your question as a comment and “subscribe to comments” or stop back later to read our answer.

6 Responses to Query Letter Anatomy: What To Include In A Letter To Literary Agents

  1. Do all agents want a full-length synopsis with the query letter? How long can a synopsis be?

  2. Dear Nancy, thanks for your question. Not all agents want a full-length synopsis with the query letter. You’ll need to check each agent’s specific submission guidelines for that information. While you should check the agent’s guidelines for the requested synopsis length, we usually advise our clients that between 1 and 3 pages is best.

  3. Oh, thank you so much! The last advice I heard was that my synopsis should be “no longer than ten pages” and that was killing me! It’s good to know it can be shorter.

  4. I have no publishing, volunteering, or writing experience really at all. Should I still include a bio section of my query? I’m only a teenager in college. What could I put in the bio section?

  5. Will an agent or editor clearly state whether they want a short synopsis or a full synopsis or is it proper to send both? My publishing credentials are also weak as I am attempting to begin a new chapter in my life as a writer after experiencing a life altering accident. I was a part time dancer/teacher and also wrote the lyrics to a song that is on iTunes. Do these as well as life experiences count as credentials for my Bio? Thanks for your help and best regards, Jim

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