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 An unpublished writer may choose to wow the editor with the premise of his story right up front.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.
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.
QUESTION: 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.
Do all agents want a full-length synopsis with the query letter? How long can a synopsis be?
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.
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.
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?
Brooke: Any educational accolades would be fine.
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
I have a 170000 word count in my first book, I also have no previous experience, and this is my first time looking to publish… Will this be held against me?
Can you company assist?
Most certainly, Tiffany! We currently have an open call for submissions to be considered for our Full Service that runs until April 16th. You can submit here: https://writersrelief.com/review_board/. Otherwise, you can take a look at our other services here: https://writersrelief.com/pricing/. Having no previous experience will not be held against you, so long as your writing holds up!
Hi. I’ve completed a children’s picture book that rhymes. I know, I know… Everything I’ve read tells me this is bad. I can’t NOT write this charming story in anything other than rhyme. I’ve tried! It simply must rhyme. Should I apologize for this in my letter? HA? Should I mention my decision to rhyme or just let it speak for itself? THANK YOU!
Shannon, since this is a children’s picture book, your choice to rhyme should be fine. You should mention it in your query briefly, but you don’t have to apologize!
Hi. In your opinion, should I include the title of my book in the opening sentence of the query letter, especially as it may help to elucidate what the book is about?
Yes, Miriam! The opening sentence of your query letter is absolutely the right place to include the title of your book. You should also mention the title again in the final paragraph when you let agents know that your book is complete and available for review.
If and what contact details should I put in my query letter?
Your letterhead should include your name, address, phone number and email address.
I’m a mother of four and have no university, accolades, writers courses or job that’s worth mentioning. I’ve just completed my first YA dystopian/fantasy novel of around 80,000 words. Can you suggest something that I can mention to boast my bio?
Antonia, a general bio telling the agent/editor a little about yourself (occupation, hobbies, etc.) is usually the way to go. If you would like tips on how to boost your writing bio, check out this blog post.
I am looking to send out query letters via email as requested by most agents. It’d be great if you could let me know where to put my contact details in the cover and query letters.
Should it be right at the top so that it is easy to find like in a resume or elsewhere in the letter?
Please help. Thank you.
Binit, We would recommend putting your contact information at the top of your letter, much like a resume.
I, Shari DeVore, through Author House, published a 24-page Children’s Picture Book in 2014. In my “Little Lou” Adventure Series, I have one unpublished completed manuscript and ten others in various stages of rough draft. I am now seeking an agent to assist in publication. Therefore, in my query letter to a potential agent should I: 1) include a softback version of my first book, 2) include the 2-page typed manuscript of my second unpublished book, 3) should I likewise mention the titled rough drafts that would be a part of the series, and 4) should I mention I have a website. These short story books are/will be approximately 24-30 pages each. Any guidance would be appreciated. Thank you.
Shari, do not include 1-2 as you should follow the particular agents’ guidelines as far as number of pages to query. 3-4 are appropriate and encouraged!
Should I copyright my writings before I submit my query letter to a literary agent.
It’s never a bad idea to get your work copyrighted. You may find this article that discusses copyright law of interest: https://writersrelief.com/blog/2012/06/copyright-law-for-your-book-novel-story-or-poems/