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Writing

How to Write a Query Letter an Agent Will Read in 9 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

Query letter writing is a later step of the traditional publishing process that comes after you’ve completed a full manuscript, and are ready to find a literary agent to help you get it published. This is something almost every unrepresented author will need to do, especially for their first novel. Writers will need to submit a query letter to an agency—however, agencies receive thousands of these all year round, so your goal should be to write one that really stands out.

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What Is a Query Letter?

A query letter is a condensed version of a book proposal: a brief, one-page letter containing all of the relevant information pertaining to who you are, what your novel is about, and who its target audience is. A good query letter is your ticket to capture an agent’s attention.

The Importance of Writing an Effective Query Letter

If you’re not interested in taking the self-publishing route, you’ll need an agent to help you get published—and a successful query letter will determine whether an agent even reads your work, let alone takes you on.

A query letter serves the same function a cover letter does for a resume. It neatly summarizes the most integral and enticing information about you and your submission. A successful one will grab the agent’s attention, and keep them interested enough in your novel to want to read more—and, best case scenario, take your work to a publishing house.

How to Write a Query Letter in 9 Steps

The perfect query letter is short and to the point. It contains everything you need to sell someone on your novel. A good query letter makes an impression and brings you one step closer to getting your book published.

Reading successful query letter examples is a great way to get familiar with the query letter format. If you think you’re ready to start writing one of your own, the following steps can help get you on your way:

1. Write an Outline.

What are the bullet points? What do you want to accomplish with this letter? What are the selling points for your book? Why is this story important to tell and why are you the one telling it? You only get one page to make your case, so going in knowing all the things you want to include will make the process slightly easier.

2. Follow the Rules.

Every agency is different, so make sure you brief yourself on the submission guidelines for each agency you’re sending queries to. An agent shouldn’t get the impression that you don’t know how to follow directions, and any submission that does not meet proper criteria is likely to be instantly rejected.

3. Tell Them Why.

The (short) first paragraph of your letter should inform the agent of why you want them to represent your manuscript. Whether they gave you their contact information, you were referred by another client of theirs, or you’re submitting cold, say why you’re sending this query to them specifically. Include how you found out about them—if it was at a conference, public speaking event, or even if you’re just a fan of the people they represent—let them know whatever your connection to them may be.

4. Provide the Hook.

A query letter is asking another human being to do something that’s going to be difficult for them—spending six or seven hours with your manuscript. What’s the most interesting aspect of your book? Why will people care about the main character? Why is this world worth exploring? You want an agent to see the value in your concept right away, and a solid hook will help them do that.

5. Summarize Succinctly.

You need to give an agent the big picture in a short amount of time. Along with the title, genre, and word count, a mini-synopsis will be critical in catching an agent’s interest and should be included in your query letter. It should be concise (no more than three paragraphs) but just as exciting and suspenseful as your novel. Here is where you can provide an example of your tone and voice, and give the agent something to look forward to in the rest of your writing.

6. Make it Personal.

Provide personalization in your query letter for the specific agent you’re targeting. Begin with the agent’s name, not “to whom it may concern.” You don’t just want to find any agent, you want to find the right agent for you. Knowing which agent you’re querying and why (and including it in your letter) will show you’ve done your research, and have knowledge about the industry you’re trying to enter. Avoid over-flattering the agent you’re after, though, as your work should speak louder than your compliments.

7. Include a Short Bio.

You may not have a long list of publishing credits, but disclose any relevant writing experience you do have. Keep it short, though, as you don’t want to bog down the agent with innumerous details about your life. If you don’t have much experience and you’re just a newbie with your first book, you can include that too, but give the agent something about you that lets them know what kind of writer you are.

8. Sign Off.

Thank the reader for their time, include your contact information like phone number and email (if it’s not already an email query), and just keep it simple.

9. Proofread.

Typos in your query letter are a red flag. An agent isn’t expecting you to be a professional editor, but they want to see that a writer knows the basics of grammar and spelling. A poorly proofed letter may give agents the impression that that is the level of editing they can expect from your novel as well, deterring them from wanting to read it.

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