How to Write a Query Letter [+ Free Querying Toolkit]
A query letter is an inquiry sent to multiple literary agents to gauge their interest in representing your book for publication. The best agents receive dozens of queries a day, but only sign a few authors per year, so crafting a successful query letter is a crucial step to literary success.
In this article, we’ll share how to format, structure, and write your query letter in order to hit the right chords and increase the chances of getting published.
How to write a query letter:
- 1. Open the query with a greeting
- 2. Write a strong “hook” for the book
- 3. Include a story synopsis
- 4. Pitch your author credentials
- 5. Personalize to stand out from other queries
- 6. Close the letter by thanking the agent
- 7. Proofread your submission
- 8. Hire a professional editor for a query letter review
To facilitate your querying process, we put together a free toolkit that includes:
- An in-depth guidebook on querying
- A query letter template
- A submission tracker
1. Open the query with a greeting
First off, keep the salutation simple. “Dear Carrie" is perfectly fine, assuming that is the agent's name. Addressing agents by their surname ("Dear Ms. Greaves") is also fine, though the formality may feel outdated, and you risk accidentally misgendering them.
The next line should make the agent prick up their ears. Here are some ways to achieve that effect:
Lead with previous success or accolades
If you’ve published before, you can start by briefly mentioning any critical recognition or awards you've received for your previous work.
I’m seeking representation for my second novel, Cobalt Eyes. This book is the follow-up to Inferno Hearts, which I self-published and which was shortlisted for the Jay Malcolm Independent Prize last year.
An agent will always want to find publishable clients — and if you’ve already had some publishing success (no matter how small), that will likely work to your advantage. It doesn’t have to be full-length novels; it could also be short stories in literary magazines or novellas.
Reveal a personal connection
If you haven’t published before, another good way to start is with a personal connection:
We met last year at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and chatted briefly about your work with up-and-coming suspense authors.
Or better yet, get a referral from an established author or a publishing insider. “You want something that will bring the submission directly to the agent rather than an assistant or an intern,” says editor and former agent Fran Lebowitz (no relation to the NYC-based author/raconteur). “Showing that you are connected never hurts.”
Jane Doe at Del Rey Books suggested that I contact you regarding representation for my debut science fiction novel, Arbormancer.
But if you don’t have any industry connections to speak of, don’t fret.
Or just pitch the book
Your main sales tool should be your book itself. If you can’t think of a clever way to hook an agent in, just jump straight into your pitch by sharing three key pieces of information that will instantly paint a picture of your book:
- The title
- The book’s genre
- The word count (rounded to the nearest thousand)
I’m writing to seek representation for my 92,000-word crime thriller, Operation Kill.
These three pieces of info are what every agency reader will want to know, and they will thank you for sharing it upfront. In particular, they will want to know if your genre fits in with the sort of book they’re looking for and whether your word count meets current market expectations.
💡 Tip: With your debut novel, it’s always worth keeping your length within the word count range of successful books in your genre.
Download our query letter checklist 一 it will help you as you write and perfect your queries.
The next step is all about gripping the agent's attention with a powerful story hook.
2. Write a strong “hook” for the book
Just as your novel must get readers involved within the first few pages, your query letter must pique an agent's interest within a few lines. This part of the letter is known as the hook and it’s a short description of your book’s concept which helps agents get the gist of it at a glance.
The hook should present the most interesting elements of your story, like an original concept, a powerful conflict, or a compelling question that leaves the agent intrigued. Let’s look at these approaches one at a time:
An exciting concept
Let’s consider a hook for the classic fantasy novel The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe:
Four siblings play a game of hide and seek and wind up entering a magical land. Once there, they discover a world inhabited by beasts, dwarfs, and giants and find themselves in a battle to defeat a witch.
You have a magical world, mysterious creatures, and main characters fighting a villain 一 it's certainly an exciting concept worth reading more about.
A powerful central conflict
You could also build your hook around an intriguing central conflict. For example, here’s a hook example for Liane Moriarty’s Nine Perfect Strangers:
"Nine Perfect Strangers" follows nine very different people who arrive at Tranquillum House, a mysterious wellness retreat that promises "total transformation". Once there, the guests fall under the spell of the enigmatic Masha, who will stop at nothing to heal them. As the days unfold, however, Masha’s unorthodox methods threaten to push this combustible group over the edge.
Instantly, one can feel tension arising from the participants' desperate yearning for healing, juxtaposed with the mysterious and questionable nature of the leader who is tasked with providing it.
A compelling question
Perhaps your book's driving force isn't much of a conflict, but rather a question. So let’s look at a potential hook for the historical fiction novel Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid:
In 1977, Daisy Jones & The Six were on top of the world. Fronted by two heat-seeking missiles in Daisy Jones and Billy Dunne, the band had risen from obscurity to fame. And then, after a sold-out show at Chicago's Soldier Field, they called it quits. Now, decades later, the band members finally agree to reveal the truth.
Right away you have a cocktail of ambition, fame, and power that begs the question: why did the band decide to split at the peak of their career? Of course, you can also combine all three or either two of the above to make agents sit up straighter in their chairs: a central conflict plus a compelling question, or an exciting concept plus a central conflict, and so on.
💡Need more inspiration to craft your hook?
Perfecting your hook might take a while, but it’s hands-down the most important part of your pitch as it gets the agent to read the rest of the letter, so it’s worth putting some effort into getting it right. If you’re unsure whether it’s “grabby” enough, try testing it out on your friends — or better yet, have an experienced editor take a look.
You can find more tips and hook examples in our Insider's Guide to Querying, which you can download for free below.
3. Include a story synopsis
Now that you’ve “hooked” the agent, it’s time to reel them in with your book synopsis. “The synopsis should really get an agent interested in your book,” says Erin Young, a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. “Think as if you're writing the back cover of your book for future readers.” In other words, your synopsis is your opportunity to shed more light on:
- The plot
- The primary characters
- The central questions or conflicts that drive your story
Plot, characters, and central conflict
Following Erin’s suggestion, let’s look at the back cover of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and see how its blurb introduces these elements.
On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s clever and beautiful wife disappears.
Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy's diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media — as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents — the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior.
Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter — but is he really a killer?
With just over 100 words, this synopsis lays out the plot, offers an impression of two multi-layered characters, and leaves us with the question that serves as the book’s engine: Did Nick kill his wife?
Even without a grand mystery at the center of your book, you can still grip agents by vividly defining the central conflict and stakes. High stakes help readers invest in your characters and stories; otherwise there's no reason to care about the outcome of your book. So make sure the query letter clearly shows what your protagonists stand to win or lose.
🧮 Combined, your hook and synopsis should make up around 50% of your letter. Since the letter should be max 400 words in total, that’s 200 words or less.
Use comp titles to communicate the tone
At the end of your synopsis, you can mention some comparable titles and authors 一 showing that you’re going to be an informed publishing partner with an awareness of the market. There are a few ways you can go about it:
“X meets Y” This classic “Hollywood formula” shows how your book combines elements from two different titles.
This book has the sprawling fantasy feel of The Starless Sea with the dark feminist bent of Mexican Gothic.
“For fans of” You could also identify a few authors whose writing style is reminiscent of your own and mention them as a reference point.
For fans of Vera Kurian and Deanna Raybourn, this book is a sharp, riveting thriller.
“Comparable titles include:” Or directly mention a couple of comp titles, as long as you’re confident the agent will know them and get the reference.
Comparable titles: The Iliac Crest by Cristina Rivera Garza, The Wonders by Elena Medel, Brickmakers by Selva Almada.
Overall, you want to make the agent think, “Ooh, I like those books! Maybe I’ll like this one as well.” However, avoid comparing your manuscript to:
- Mega-successful books. You probably don’t have the next Harry Potter.
- Hyper-obscure books. They won’t be impressed, they'll just be bewildered.
- Books that are too dissimilar. “High Fidelity meets War and Peace” paints a weird picture.
- Outdated books. Comparing your book to The Da Vinci Code might have been impressive 20 years ago, but today would make you seem totally out of the zeitgeist.
And now that the hard part is over, let’s talk about you: the author!
4. Pitch your author credentials
After your synopsis, write a short author bio to show what you’ve accomplished as a writer. This will give the agent a little bit more context about your publishing experience and potential. If you’ve already shown off some credentials in the greeting part, you can either skip this one or add more relevant information.
Here are some ways in which you can (subtly) toot your own horn:
Share your accomplishments
When presenting yourself, avoid rambling about your day job or literary ambitions. Instead, stick to your accomplishments. For example:
- Have you had any books or short stories published?
- Have you won any awards or writing contests?
- Are you a graduate of a creative writing program?
- Have you attended any writing conferences, workshops, or retreats?
If yes, mention the most impressive feats in a line or two. Here’s an example:
If you also have a significant social media following, this is the time to bring it up. It will let the agent know that you can help your book become a success. However, having an audience is more important for nonfiction authors than for novel writers. You could write something along these lines:
I gave a TedX talk about the Metaverse, was a speaker at Lisbon’s Web Summit, and have 35,000 followers on Twitter.
Besides your accomplishments, you can share some relevant info about your background and why you’re the right person to write your book.
Reveal why the subject matter means so much to you
You could mention your inspiration for writing this book, or explain why you’re particularly suited to do this story justice. For example, this is what Sonora Reyes mentioned in her query letter for The Lesbiana's Guide to Catholic School:
I've written largely from my own experience as a queer first-generation immigrant who attended a Catholic high school.
Agents are often looking for unique and culturally relevant perspectives, so you can leverage yours as a selling point.
But a simple one-line bio is fine
Overall, if you don’t have any quantifiable writing chops, it’s okay to write: “I live in Poughkeepsie with my wife and three kids. This is my first novel.” Many agents are open to debut authors and will mainly judge your letter on the story premise.
Now that you have all the essential ingredients of your query letter, it’s time to customize it and perfect the finer details.
5. Personalize to stand out from other queries
Querying is a numbers game 一 you’ll likely have to send dozens of letters before (hopefully) finding representation. While you might be tempted to blast agents with a one-size-fits-all letter, a bit of personalization can go a long way.
“You can tell when the letter’s just a generic copy-and-paste job,” says Amy Bishop, another agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. “It indicates that the author hasn't done their research on the agent or agency they're querying.”
That said, the personalization should be sincere and thoughtful, or else it’s better left off. You can include it in the letter opening, as mentioned in the first step, or after your author bio as a final note to conclude the letter on.
☝️ Agents who prefer online submissions will sometime add a specific form field (e.g. “Why A+ Literary Agency?” or “Why do you want to work with me?”) where you can write your custom message.
Reference their client list
There are several ways you can add a personal touch to your letter. One of the easiest one is to reference the agent’s existing clients:
I am a huge fan of your client, Michael Chabon. The setting of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union was a major influence on my novel.
Of course, don’t lie about liking a book or over-egg your praise and enthusiasm. Most agents won’t want a sycophant for a client!
Reference their wish lists
Many agents make known their manuscript preferences by sharing their wish list on Twitter or their own website, which you can reference to personalize your pitch.
I see you’re looking for cozy mysteries, geared towards an audience of Millennials. For this reason, I thought that Murders and Avocado Toasts might fit well on your list.
Agents are always looking for reasons to take a chance on a new author — and giving them a good reason (like how it would help their career) is a good idea.
Mention something they’ve said in public
Or if you want to do one better, mention something that the agent has written or said in public.
I saw your presentation at the Literary Writers Conference last year. Your comments on the dearth of female protagonists in fantasy really resonated with me. My book attempts to redress that balance.
As with your praise of their clients, don’t lay it on too thick. If you tell an agent that something they tweeted “changed the course of your destiny,” they might find the prospect of meeting you in person a bit uncomfortable!
Keep track of the agents you contact with our free query tracker spreadsheet:
6. Close the letter by thanking the agent
Finally, end the letter with a formal salutation.
Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
No muss, no fuss. Don’t try to arrange a meeting or tell them how amazing it would be to work together. Just thank them and sign off!
7. Proofread your submission
Besides crafting a great letter, you’ll have to make sure it’s formatted according to each agent’s submission guidelines, or else it could be automatically (and regrettably) disregarded.
There are two primary methods to send queries: online submission forms (e.g. QueryManager) and email (e.g. Gmail or Outlook). Snail mail is extremely rare these days. Many authors prepare the letter in a Word or Google document, and then copy-paste the text in the online form or the email body. But you could also be asked to send your letter as a Word or PDF attachment.
Formatting rules of thumb
If in doubt, keep things simple with your letter formatting:
Arial or Times New Roman 12pt
1.5 or double line spacing
Separate your paragraphs with a simple blank line
Avoid indented paragraphs, colored fonts, or excessive bold and italics
💼 A query letter is effectively a business email, so keep it as clean and professional as possible.
Similar formatting rules apply to the first few chapters of your manuscript, which you’re often asked to send alongside the letter. To ensure it looks professional and ready to impress, download our free template below:
8. Hire a professional editor for a query letter review
Finally, if you want to guarantee that your query letter is firing on all cylinders and taken seriously, you can get a query letter review from a professional editor. This will ensure that every part of your letter is perfectly honed — and perhaps more importantly, that you aren’t sending up any red flags to agents.
Why is getting a professional query letter review so much better than, say, having a friend read it over? Well, because you can work with an editor who’s actually been an acquiring editor for a publisher, or maybe even an agent themselves. This insider industry knowledge can be a game-changer for authors struggling to sell their books.
Not to mention that, compared to most editing costs, the cost of a query letter review is a real bargain — most Reedsy editors charge between $50 and $150 for this service. Considering that a compelling query letter could be your gateway to a generous advance and lucrative career as an author, it might be the best return on investment you'll ever get.
And that concludes our post on how to write a query letter! To see a few query letter examples (and what you can expect from a query letter review), check out the next post in this series. We've posted five examples of query letters from a range of genres that have been reviewed and improved by Reedsy editors.