Updated October 2023
Want to write a query letter that will really get the attention of literary agents? There are plenty of ways to do it, but not all of them are right. Many people ask us for examples of great letters that they can base their own query on, but the truth is that each letter must be a reflection of both the writer and the book being submitted.
So while we can’t offer a specific example of a good query letter, here is a really bad fake example of exactly the kind you never, ever want to write:
Dear Sir and/or Madam:
Are you ready to have you’re mind blown?
Please find enclosed my entire 300,000-word erotic romance thriller novel, The Tale of Blah, the first part of a five-book series based on events in my own life.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to rule the world? When the main character, Bob, wakes up after a bender in Las Vegas, he finds himself in the White House as the President of Earth. Bob is short and fat with thinning hair. He has a best friend name Bart whose wife Candy is the sister of the owner of an evil corporation named Jeff.
This book starts off slow, but really picks up around the third chapter. Members of my prison writing group really liked it. Together, we could sell millions of copies to fans of Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, and the Bible.
Please call me with your thoughts. As this is a top secret project, this is the only copy, so please return it with the contract ASAP.
Let’s make some money,
Crazy L. Person
Are you done hitting your head on the desk yet? Good. Now let’s go back and examine exactly why this query letter is so very, very bad.
“Dear Sir and/or Madam:”
Other than implying gender confusion on the agent’s part, this shows that Crazy L. Person didn’t take the time to research the name of the agent he or she is querying. Even if you are querying an agency that doesn’t mention the specific names of its agents, stick with a generic “Dear Literary Agent.” It’s just safer that way.
“Are you ready to have you’re mind blown?”
If you can’t tell why opening your letter with something like this is a huge no-no, you might be beyond our help. Not only is there a glaring error (you’re instead of your), but the lead is needy and bombastic.
“Please find enclosed my entire 300,000-word erotic romance thriller novel, The Tale of Blah, the first part of a five-book series based on events in my own life.”
First of all, most novels top out at 100,000 words. And even if you can pull off a ridiculously long piece, sending the whole manuscript without an invitation to do so is bonkers. There’s a reason submission guidelines exist.
Second of all, while it’s common for contemporary novels to be a hybrid of multiple genres, you don’t want to write yourself into a corner that doesn’t appeal to the fans of any genre involved. Furthermore, you should just focus on the specific book at hand. An agent can only take on one project at a time. And it doesn’t make sense to try and sell book two unless you can sell book one. Learn more: Query Letters: When (Not) To Talk About Multiple Books, Including Sequels, A Series, And Other Projects.
“Have you ever wondered what it’s like to rule the world?”
Now we’re up to two rhetorical questions, both of which are way too cliché.
“When the main character, Bob, wakes up after a bender in Las Vegas, he finds himself in the White House as the President of Earth. Bob is short and fat with thinning hair. He has a best friend name Bart whose wife Candy is the sister of the owner of an evil corporation named Jeff.”
Where do we even begin? Ignoring the fact that this too-brief synopsis tells nothing of what actually happens in the book, it’s full of too many secondary characters (not to mention the “evil corporation named Jeff”). You should mention only the main character (without having to identify him or her as such) and bring up other characters only if they are integral to the story.
“This book starts off slow, but really picks up around the third chapter. Members of my prison writing group really liked it. Together, we could sell millions of copies to fans of Harry Potter, Catcher in the Rye, and the Bible.”
We say this often, but it bears repeating: Write a story that starts with a bang! Don’t make someone wait three chapters to see things heat up, especially considering that most agents only want to see the first few pages. And while it’s great that your prison writing group (uhhh…) really liked it, they probably have no clout in the industry: The agent’s response will likely be a big “Who cares?” Learn more: Five Tips For Your First Five Pages.
Sometimes it can help to draw comparisons to other books in the same genre—but especially if you’re writing nonfiction, unless the comparisons are careful and strategic, it can come across as cocky—almost as cocky as the assumption that it will definitely “sell millions of copies.”
Be realistic in your query letter! And as many other blogs before us have said: Don’t. Mention. Harry. Potter. The chances are pretty good that every agent has heard this over and over again, ad nauseam. It just ain’t happening.
“[Insert writer bio here]”
You’ll notice that this writer has no biographical information whatsoever. In a best-case scenario, a writer will have at least some writing credits. Read more: Building Publication Credits.
“Please call me with your thoughts. As this is a top secret project, this is the only copy, so please return it with the contract ASAP.”
It’s a bit presumptuous to assume an agent will call you (generally, they shy away from phone calls to anyone but clients). And—ignoring the fact that you should never send your whole manuscript—make sure whatever you send isn’t the only copy! Any number of bad things can happen to pages in the mail.
When in doubt about how to best communicate, follow the agent’s lead. More and more, agents prefer to read submissions via email—which is lucky for writers who want to save time and trees!
“Let’s make some money,”
What are the chances this phrase was the prelude to Crazy L. Person’s prison stint?
In all seriousness, a query letter should give just enough information to whet an agent’s appetite and leave him or her wanting more pages. Ditch the flowery language, rhetorical questions, and grandiose statements. Print your letter with a nice, neat letterhead on clean paper—no coffee stains. While the notion of a troubled writer chain-smoking over his or her typewriter is romantic, a query letter that reeks of stale smoke is not.
Read more about query letter writing:
- Cover And Query Letters: Striking The Right Tone In Your Writing
- Top Query Letter Mistakes: Avoid These Amateur Errors
- Pseudonyms: Using A Pen Name In A Cover Or Query Letter To Agents Or Editors
- Your Professional Bio: Query Letter And Cover Letter Tips For Writers
Need a little more guidance? Check out the rest of our blog for articles on how to construct a query letter that will knock ’em off their feet. Use the search box on the top right of the screen. Or, if you aren’t up for the challenge, let us do it for you! Most of our services include the writing and printing of your query letters.
QUESTION: If you were a literary agent, what one thing would be a query-letter deal breaker for you?