Writing

How to Write a Query Letter: All the Dos and Don’ts

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Dec 2, 2019 • 5 min read

Let’s say you’ve just put the finishing touches on the next great American novel but lack the representation or know-how to get it published. If you’re feeling at a loss and can’t find the right agent, it might be time to consider writing a query letter. A query letter is an introductory letter sent to a literary agent to see if they’d be interested in representing your book and helping get it published. Though query letters may sound straightforward, learning the ins and outs of writing a successful query letter is important for anyone hoping to break in as a writer.

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7 Query Letter Writing Dos

If you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of reaching out to prospective agents and you’re not sure how to begin writing your query letter, you’ve come to the right place. Below are some tips on how to craft a successful query letter:

  1. Do make sure you have the correct contact information. It may sound obvious but making sure you have the correct email address for the specific agent you are querying is essential. If you can find a public phone number for the agency, it’s good to double check the email address with a receptionist or assistant. One of the advantages of being a writer in this day and age is that you don’t have to rely on snail mail to deliver your query letter. That being said, a misspelled or outdated email address can prevent a good query letter from reaching the agent you’re querying.
  2. Do research the agent you are querying. As you think about whether or not an agent would be a good fit for you, it’s worth knowing if they represent a published author whose writing is similar to your own. It’s also useful to know how much experience they have in traditional publishing and the extent of their network in the publishing industry.
  3. Do mention connections. If you have connections with the agent, you should absolutely play them up and bring them to the agent’s attention. You might have a mutual friend or the same alma mater. Whatever the case may be, drawing upon areas of commonality can help you get your foot in the door. If you’ve been referred to the agent by someone who knows them, it’s important to point that out in order to get the agent’s attention and make sure they give your letter a second glance.
  4. Do personalize your letter. Remember that you aren’t just writing a dry and lifeless business letter addressed “to whom it may concern.” Query letter writing is hard work, and if you’re sending out a large number of letters, it’s okay to cut and paste large chunks—but don’t forget to include some personalized details for each agent. The first paragraph is a great place to introduce yourself, mention any connections, and put in a personalized line or two specific to the agent.
  5. Do craft a compelling pitch. The purpose of querying is primarily to interest an agent in your book proposal. Your book pitch should be short and enticing. You should indicate tone and genre, describe the main character, and lay out the basic contours of your plot. The agent doesn’t have time to read through a short story-length plot synopsis. As far as word count goes, you should aim to keep your synopsis at around 200 words. A great query letter will have a synopsis that conveys necessary information and makes the agent want to follow up to learn more.
  6. Do sell yourself. The perfect query letter should sell you and your achievements, in addition to the specific story you are pitching. You should absolutely mention any relevant publishing credits you have and any professional or academic honors that will bolster your cause. If this is your first novel, make sure to mention any short stories you’ve published. If you’ve mostly written fiction and are submitting a query letter for your first nonfiction book, play up any relevant writing experience in the nonfiction world. If you have an MFA in creative writing or reputable awards, you should also make sure to include that information.
  7. Do ask to see friends’ query letters. There’s no shame in asking friends if you can look at query letter examples they have sent, especially if they have a successful query letter that was able to get them representation.

5 Query Letter Writing Don’ts

Agents receive many query letters a day, and most won’t get much more than a cursory glance from the agent or their assistant. As you write your query letters, it’s important to avoid writing a letter that appears unpolished or unprofessional. Here are some red flags agents look for that you’ll want to avoid as you write your letters:

  1. Don’t be overly personal. Personalization is great, but a little goes a long way. Unless you’ve met the agent before, avoid being too chummy and casual in your writing. This doesn’t mean being overly formal or deferential, but try to strike a balance between being friendly and overly familiar.
  2. Don’t use obscure fonts. A query letter is not the time to explore bold choices in font or color. Writing queries is all about selling your writing, not your visual aesthetic. When in doubt, Times New Roman does the trick.
  3. Don’t write an overly long letter. Agents often receive 10 or more query letters a day. They don’t have time to read through much more than a one-page letter, and you should aim to keep it shorter if possible.
  4. Don’t skip the proofread. Always proofread your letters and look for typos in your work. Nothing screams amateur writer like consistent grammatical errors or typos.
  5. Don’t include unnecessary credits. You should absolutely sell yourself and your accomplishments, but you’ll diminish your legitimate credits if you include a long list of lesser credits. Highlight the work and credits that you feel showcase you the best.
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