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 was serious about being published, they’d first seek out an agent. For that, they 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 only focus on the query letter itself, and specifically, queries for fiction. You can learn about queries for non-fiction submissions in this post.
- Writing an Effective Query Letter
- Infographic: How to Write a Query Letter
- Get a Professional Query Letter Review
Writing an Effective Query Letter
A query letter is a note asking an agent if they’re interested in representing a book. Agents can receive more than ten queries a day — and might only sign four or five authors per year. So you can see how it’s crucial to make a great first impression.
There is no ‘standard’ format that all authors use for their letters. However, a query is a business document and, accordingly, it should look like a formal one-page business letter.
Keep the letter short. Think 300 to 400 words at the very most. Many agents field queries using their phones, so how will your letter looks on a small screen? Does it give the impression of being a huge wall of text, or a disjointed series of singles sentences? Neither is desirable. Keep it concise, orderly, and organized.
Without further ado, here’s how to write a query letter in 7 steps.
Step 1: Capture the agent’s attention with your greeting
“Dear Ms. Tyler”
That’s 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?
I’m seeking representation for my novel, The Bedlam Papers, 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 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, even better, get a referral from an established author or a publishing insider.
Jane Doe at Del Rey Books suggested that I contact you regarding representation for my debut science fiction novel, Arbormancer.
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.”
If you have no connections to speak of, don’t panic; just jump straight into your pitch.
I’m writing to seek representation for my 92,500-word debut thriller, Operation Kill.
The title, genre, and word count: three key pieces of information are right there in your first sentence. With that out of the way, let’s really grab their attention!
Tip: Always mention your genre, word count and target audience in your query
Step 2: Craft an irresistible hook
"Sell the book, don’t apologise 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 get an agent interested in your book, not tell them everything about 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.”
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
At some point after 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 14 dogs. 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’s Fingersmith.”
You want to make the agent think, “Ooh, I like that book. 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 probably won’t be impressed that you read books that nobody else has.
- 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: let the agent 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.
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
Before you finish, go back through the letter and double-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 over-egg the ending. Don’t try to arrange a meeting and tell them how amazing it would be to work together. Just thank them, and sign off.
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.
Infographic: How to Write a Query Letter
To ensure that your query letter ticks all the boxes, click this link to download the full-sized checklist!
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?
Get a Professional Query Letter Review
Consider getting a professional query letter review from a Reedsy professional. Many of the editors on our network have been acquiring editors and literary agents at some point in their careers. Their expertise and understanding of what agents look for can make all the 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 is desperate to work with you — but that won’t happen unless you convince them to take a chance on your book.
If you have any questions, thoughts, or comments on writing query letters, drop us a message on the comments below.