How to Write a Query Letter in 7 Steps
A starving writer stands in front of a mailbox, clutching a hefty brown envelope addressed to a publishing company. They say a prayer, push their manuscript in, and begin the long wait for a reply that could make or break their career. It's a romantic image, but most major publishers don't actually accept "unsolicited manuscripts" these days. If that writer were serious about being published, they’d first seek out an agent. And for that, they'd need a query letter.
With the help of our brand-new infographic, this post will show you how to write a query letter that gets results.
Note: a lot of research needs to happen before you start querying agents. This article will focus on the query letter itself, and specifically, queries for fiction. You can learn about queries for non-fiction submissions in this post and how to write a non-fiction book proposal right here.
How to write an effective query letter
A query letter is a note asking an agent if they’re interested in representing a book. Agents may receive a dozen or more queries a day — and might only sign four or five authors per year. So you can see how making a good first impression in your query is crucial!
Now, there's no "standard" format that all authors use for their letters. However, a query is a business document and as such should look like a formal one-page business letter.
Before we start, let's answer this popular question right off the bat: how long should a query letter be? Our universal piece of advice is to keep the letter short. (Think 300 to 400 words at the very most.) Many agents field queries using their phones, so think about how your will letter look on a small screen. Does it give the impression of being a huge wall of text, or a disjointed series of singles sentences? If so, revise to make it more concise, orderly, and organized.
Now, without further ado, here’s how to write a query letter in 7 steps.
Step 1: Capture the agent’s attention with your greeting
Keep it simple. “Dear Ms. Tyler” is perfectly fine (assuming that the agent’s name is Tyler and she is, indeed, a woman).
- The following line should then make the agent prick up their ears. If you’ve published before, why not start with that? Also make sure to mention any critical recognition or awards you've received for your previous work.
I’m seeking representation for my novel, The Bedlam Stacks. This novel is the follow-up to The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, which was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, and a finalist for the Locust First Novel Prize in 2016.
- If you haven’t published before, another great way to start is with a personal connection.
We met at last year’s Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and chatted briefly about your work with up-and-coming romance authors.
- Or, better yet, get a referral from an established author or a publishing insider. Networking is crucial in publishing. “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. “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.
- If you have no connections to speak of, don’t panic; just jump straight into your pitch. You can go the factual way, by stating the title, genre, and word count: three key pieces of information now out of the way.
I’m writing to seek representation for my 92,500-word debut thriller, Operation Kill.
- Alternatively, you can try gripping the agent's attention by starting with your hook (more on that in the next step!).
Tip: Always mention your genre, word count, and target audience somewhere in your query.
Step 2: Craft an irresistible hook
"Sell the book, don’t apologize for it, and know how to condense its true meaning to a couple of sentences.” — Jonny Geller, CEO of Curtis Brown (John le Carré, David Mitchell, Susanna Clarke)
Within the first few pages of a novel, you need to make it impossible for readers to put your book down. In a query letter, you have to make do with just a few lines. This part of the letter is known as the hook. Your hook should show agents how your book is different from the thousands of others in your genre. It could be an awesome concept that makes the reader wonder why someone hasn’t thought of it before. Just look at the hook for Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter:
Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He’s a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likable: he only kills bad people.
Another great hook might involve an intriguing central conflict, like the one in Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight:
About three things I was absolutely positive. First, Edward was a vampire. Second, there was a part of him — and I didn’t know how potent that part might be — that thirsted for my blood. And third, I was unconditionally and irrevocably in love with him.
Not only does this introduce the genre and tone (dark paranormal romance), it sets up the narrator’s dilemma: she knows she’s in love with a man who might kill her. What will happen next? Is she walking into a trap? Will her love conquer the vampire’s bloodlust? Perfecting your hook might take days — but it’s the most important part of your pitch, hands down.
Step 3: Write a tantalizing synopsis
Now that you’ve “hooked” the agent, it’s time to reel them in with your synopsis and get them to request your manuscript.
“The synopsis should serve to really get an agent interested in your book,” says Erin Young, a literary agent with Dystel, Goderich & Burret. “Think about this as if you're writing the back cover of your book for future readers.” This is your opportunity to shed some light on:
- The plot
- The primary characters
- The central questions or conflicts that drive your story
Following Erin’s suggestion, let’s look at the back cover of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and see how its blurb addresses those points.
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? Without a grand mystery at the center of your book, you can still build up to a gripping cliffhanger by defining the central conflict and stakes. "High stakes" help your readers invest in your characters and stories; without them, we have no reason to care about the outcome of your book. So make sure the letter-reader knows what your protagonists stand to win or lose.
Tip: your hook and synopsis should make up around 50% of your letter. That’s 150 or 200 words at most.
And now that the hard part is over, let’s talk about you: the author.
Step 4: Reveal your credentials and your publishing savvy
Following the synopsis, you’ll need to push an agent over the edge with your bona fides as a writer. Unless it’s relevant to the book, don’t mention your day job or your hometown. It’s much better to focus on your publishing history:
- Have you had any short stories published?
- Have you won any writing awards or competitions?
- Are you a graduate of a creative writing program?
- Have you attended any writing conferences, workshops, or retreats?
If you don’t have any writing chops per se, it’s okay to say, “I live in Poughkeepsie with my wife and three kids. This is my first novel.” You can also mention your inspiration for writing this book, or mention why you’re the only person who can do this story justice: “I was inspired to write Bad Teacher by my decade of experience teaching in state prisons, in my home state of Missouri.” When in doubt, keep it simple! You should also show that you’re going to be an informed publishing partner with an awareness of the market. A great way to do that is by identifying comparable titles. That’s where you say that your book has “the supernatural feel of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell with the dark feminist bent of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith.” 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.
- Mega-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.
If you’re a popular blogger or have a large social media following, bring it up! This lets agents know you come with a built-in fanbase. Again, show them that you’re approaching this like a professional and that you can help your book become a success.
Step 5: Personalize the letter for each agent
“You can tell when the letter’s just a generic copy and paste job,” says Amy Bishop, an agent with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret. “It indicates that the author hasn't done their research on the agent or agency they're querying.” Personalization is crucial: without it, your letter is just spam. The easiest way to give your query a personal touch is to reference the agent’s existing clients. You'd treat someone who specializes in picture books differently from someone who specializes in R-rated thrillers, after all.
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.
Or if you want to do one better, refer to 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 fiction really resonated with me. My book is, in part, an attempt to redress that balance.
Don't lay it on too thick. Just show that you've put thought and effort into choosing which agents you query.
Step 6: Proofread everything you’ve written
Don't overlook this step, as it's very important. Before you call it a day, go back through the letter and triple-check that you’ve included the following details about your book:
- Word count
- Comp titles
Get a friend to read the whole thing to make sure your spelling, grammar, and punctuation is all on point.
Step 7: Thank the agent and sign off
No muss, no fuss.
Thanks for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
Don’t overdo the ending. Don’t try to arrange a meeting or tell them how amazing it would be to work together. Just thank them, and sign off!
Now, we’ve just thrown a lot of information at you. If it seems like a lot to absorb, no need to worry: we’ve created an infographic checklist to help you remember it all.
Checklist: How to Write a Query Letter
Query letter examples
If you're wondering how to action all of this, we've also come up with a few query letter examples for those who want a more concrete idea of what to write. Again, no two query letters are the same, but these examples should provide some helpful guidelines to set you on the right path. One sample pitches a historical romance, one pitches a science fiction novel, and one pitches a psychological thriller, so you can see how query letters for different genres might vary.
1. Romance query letter
Dear Ms. Montgomery,
I’m seeking representation for my 80,000-word historical romance novel, Fire and Silk: a steamy forbidden romance that unfolds against the thrilling backdrop of the American Revolution. This book is a sequel to my previous novel, Midnight Rose, which was shortlisted for the Katie Fforde Debut Romantic Novel Award last year.
The fiery half of Fire and Silk, blacksmith Joseph Ramsey, has never been interested in ladyfolk — nor does he have time to pursue them, working from dusk till dawn to fulfill his commissions and covertly supply the Continental Army with weapons. But when Joe meets Elizabeth Davis, a young woman who comes to him with an unusual request, he’s smitten by her striking looks and sparkling wit. So much so that he agrees to her request, free of charge.
The only problem is, Eliza has just gotten engaged — to a British officer, no less. But judging by what she wants from Joe, it’s not off to a very auspicious start. And as the connection between the blacksmith and the lady heats up like red-hot iron, Joe finds himself caught in the crossfire... in more ways the one.
Fans of Alyssa Cole and Hamilton lore are sure to find their fix in this tantalizing colonial-era romance. I have spent the past year of my life researching the Revolutionary War, on top of an MA in American History from Ashland University, so readers will not be disappointed by the historical rigor.
As for my writing credentials, in addition to being a finalist for that RWA award, I have published several short stories with HarperCollins’ Escape Publishing. I am also currently working on the next installment in my “Revolutionary Lovers” series, entitled A Touch of Fancy. This one, set in eighteenth-century France, bears some thematic resemblance to the writings of your client Claudette Sauvageot, whom I absolutely adore.
Thank you very much for your consideration, Ms. Montgomery. I look forward to hearing from you.
2. Science fiction query letter
Dear Mr. Osbourne,
I am writing to seek representation for my 120,000-word science fiction novel, Elysium Dying. It concerns a dystopian society in a not-so-distant future which has been ravaged not only by mass infertility but also by an alien invasion that threatens to wipe out all existing life. You might think of it as P.D. James’ Children of Men meets Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead.
The protagonist of Elysium Dying is sixteen-year-old Hazel Windrow, one of the youngest people alive since the Peruvian flu struck fifteen years ago, killing 50% of Earth’s population and leaving the rest infertile. Having more or less come to terms with their inevitable extinction, humanity now faces the double-whammy of it happening much sooner than anticipated — with the arrival of an alien colony determined to kill everyone in sight.
In all the chaos, only Hazel (herself a devotee of classic science fiction) sees the connection between the disease and the invasion, and knows that the aliens are not as malevolent as they seem. But with power lines down, she has no way of communicating her theory to the higher-ups… and no reason to think they’d believe her, anyway. So she sets off for Washington, D.C. — not to confront the government, but the aliens themselves, who have taken over the Pentagon and the White House.
Elysium Dying is my first full-length novel, but I do have an MFA from Temple University, where I studied under the tutelage of Nebula Award-winner Samuel R. Delany. I have also won several short fiction contests hosted by the SFWA, and recently compiled those works into an anthology entitled The Fall of Dawn, which I self-published under the pseudonym Jocelyn Rice.
Mr. Osbourne, I understand you represent many up-and-coming young sci-fi writers, such as Russell Fleming and Mina Morrell, and I would be thrilled to count myself among their ranks. Fleming's The Blue Abyss has been of particular inspiration to me, as you may be able to tell from reading my manuscript.
In any case, I look forward to your reply, and thank you for your time and consideration today.
3. Thriller query letter
Dear Ms. Brooks,
The Woman in the Black Saloon begins with a terrible death: a cattle rancher strangled by his own lasso. But when the forensics come back clean, the police have no leads whatsoever. Flash forward to one year later, and the strange murder not only remains unsolved, but the bad publicity surrounding it has destroyed the town’s tourist economy.
Enter Jesse Foster, proprietor and sole remaining bartender at the Lone Star Saloon. Once a thriving local business and tourist attraction, Lone Star has dried up with the rest of the town — and Jesse is sick and tired of waiting for things to get better. Taking matters into his own hands, he soon discovers what the police have been hiding from the public, and realizes that he himself may hold the key to this terrifying case: a faint memory of a mysterious woman in his bar, just hours before that rancher was brutally throttled.
The Woman in the Black Saloon, my debut novel, is a 100,000-word psychological thriller. This story has all the dark small-town secrets of a Gillian Flynn novel with a distinctive southwestern spin, as it's about a small town in Texas that’s turned upside down by a twisted, Western-inspired murder. It should appeal widely to fans of all kinds of suspense, from classic murder mystery to contemporary thriller. I’ve also already started promoting it to my own fans — I run a true-crime blog called “Crime Time with Detective Jay” that gets about 500 unique viewers a month. This novel was actually inspired by a case I wrote about on the blog (though I won’t say which one).
Diana Preston from Chicory Books mentioned to me that you’ve represented similar titles in the past, so I’m hoping it might pique your interest! Finally, I’d just like to say that I’m a great admirer of your client Genevieve Moore’s Gun in the Grave series. Before researching you, I hadn’t known who represented her, but trust me that she’s been a huge influence on my own work. Please give her my highest compliments, if you would. And thank you very much for your consideration.
My very best,
PS — all these (sadly imaginary) titles came from our awesome book title generator! Check it out if you still need a title, or if you're just curious to see what comes up.
Get a Professional Query Letter Review
Of course, the road to drafting the perfect query letter can turn out to be a minefield — seemingly innocuous sentences can send up red flags in the eyes of an agent. So how can you guarantee that your letter fires on all cylinders?
By getting a query letter review from a Reedsy professional. Many of the editors on our network have been acquisition editors and literary agents at some point in their careers. Their expertise and understanding of what agents look for can make a huge difference when you’re trying to stand out from the pack.
Reedsy professionals tend to charge between $50 and $150 for this service: not a lot, considering how much time you’ve already spent getting your manuscript to this stage.
These few hundred words can determine your writing career. There’s probably an agent out there who'd be thrilled to work with you — but that won’t happen unless you convince them to take a chance on your book.
[updated: 10/23/2020 UTC]