Query Letter Writing: Dos and Don’ts

Let’s delve a little deeper into writing a query and some of the do’s and don’ts to consider when polishing your letter.

The “hook” is always the key and there are a few opportunities to hook your reader in a good query. The first is in the opening paragraph where you illustrate why you are reaching out to the particular agent or editor. A referral from a client of the agent, author of the editor, or someone involved in the publishing world is a great start! Failing that, state some of the works of clients they represent or have worked with in the past. One of the best ways to find an agent or editor to submit a query to is to go to the acknowledgements section of some your favourite authors’ books—agents and editors are generally thanked, and once you have their names, the internet is your friend. Look them up, review an agent’s submission guidelines, see what other authors an editor has published. Mention how much you love a particular client or author’s work. This shows you have done your research and carefully considered the specific agent or editor, as a professional. Publishing is a business like any other and agents and editors want to deal with someone who understands that.

The second opportunity to hook an industry professional’s attention is a bit more complicated. It is a few lines that summarize your novel and make the agent/editor want to read more.  Focus on the protagonist and the problem they are facing. You can get an idea of what an effective “hook” looks like from reading some of the first lines of your favourite novels, or even the first line of your own novel. From there, go into a very brief summary of the major plot elements. Mention the setting, the stakes, a few of the major characters. Don’t go into many sub-plots or minor characters. Do keep your sentences short and adverbs at bay. Agents get a lot of queries and often skim work, out of necessity. It can be a bad habit but as soon as a plot gets a bit convoluted, we will click “close” and that will be that.

Try to use a similar voice as is used in the book. Don’t use the point of view of the character. But, for example, if there is humour, you’ll want to give your reader a taste of it. I once requested a manuscript solely because the author made me laugh out loud in their bio.

Don’t oversell yourself or your book. Be confident, but please don’t tell me that I need to sign you as I will make a great deal of money doing so, or that your work is guaranteed to be a bestseller, or that it will be scooped up in a movie starring…name your actor. Remember, this is a relationship and agents, like anyone else, want to work with people that we feel are a good fit. Be positive but any sign of arrogance can turn an agent off. I know this can be a very fine line.

Keep your bio short—include any published works, any degrees (especially an MFA or attendance at a major writing conference) but keep it relevant to what the agent needs to see.  Don’t tell me that you needed to write this book because it came it to you in a dream, or that you have never studied writing, or that you just feel the need to write. If that is the case, that’s fine but leave it out of your bio. Tell me instead that this is your debut novel.

Finally, proofread and spellcheck your query. Have others read it. While typos happen all the time (and to agents as well), it is always easier to see someone else’s mistakes and we will, unfortunately, view it as unprofessional and careless.

Finally, thank me for my time and consideration. Time is valuable to everyone and it is nice to be recognized. Politeness and professionalism can go a long way, in writing and in life.

Need an industry professional to take a closer look at your query before you send it out? Join our query workshop and get an agent’s perspective!

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