Writing a Query Letter: The Basics

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Getting your query letter just right could make the difference between a request and a rejection. It doesn’t matter how fantastic your manuscript is if the agent doesn’t request and read it. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that articles over query letters are littering the internet with their advice and tips. So much so that sometimes it’s hard to figure out which articles to listen to and which to avoid.

These tips, however, won’t make much of a difference if you’re not sure about the outline, the basics, the structure and what you really need in your query.

A query is really just a one page cover letter introducing you and your manuscript. It is made up of three main sections: the hook, the mini synopsis and the biography. Basically, you have to grab the agent’s attention, get them invested in your story and introduce yourself in about 250-300 words.

The Hook: This section of the query is a one sentence tag line for your story. In this one tiny sentence there should be three (or four) elements included: the protagonist and conflict, the stakes, what sets your story apart, and (for some genres) the setting or time period.

The character, conflict and stakes will, hopefully, get the agent interested in your story. Telling what sets your story apart appeals to the part of the agent thinking about potential marketing. The purpose of this power packed sentence is to make the agent pause and want to read more not only of your query but of your manuscript.

 girl-typing-at-laptopThe Summary: Once you’ve tackled your hook, the summary will be easy. For this you have a whole paragraph to expand on your hook and give the agent something to get invested in. Here you’ll want to cover the main plot, stakes, setting and characters. For characters, I wouldn’t recommend talking about more than one or two that are essential to the main plot. One thing to never include? The ending! The ending is only included in the full synopsis, which will be requested by the agent if they would like to see it. To study up on writing a great summary head to your bookshelf, or local bookstore if you want an excuse to go, and read the summary included on either the back of the book or inside the cover.

The Biography: Keep this section short and related to writing. If you have any publishing credits, mention them here and be specific enough so the agent can find them. You might also mention any writing related degrees or membership to any major professional writing organizations. Another great option is to include anything that gives you credibility on the subject matter such as special research. If you spent a year in Paris researching the setting of your story, by all means mention that here! What you don’t want to do is apologize for any lack of writing credentials. Not mentioning and tells the agent you don’t have any without drawing attention specifically to the lack.

 2-fingers-typingThe Conclusion: This part of the query letter is so short it really doesn’t warrant being called a section. Here you’ll want to say “thank you for your consideration.” If your manuscript is under consideration at another agency make sure to mention it here. Letting the agent know that “this is a multiple submission,” while thoughtful, is assumed at this point, so if you’re query letter is getting pretty long, feel free to leave this little tidbit out.

Formatting: Once you have the words down, make sure all your hard work doesn’t go to waste and double check the formatting. 12 point standard font in black. Please no fun colors or fonts. While these look pretty and may express your creative side, they distract from what’s really important, your story. A good rule is if it isn’t professional enough for your resume, don’t put it in your query.

In order to ensure that your query doesn’t fall victim to the wonky email formatting, exclude the paragraph indents and just add a line break between paragraphs. A good fail safe is to test your formatting by sending the query to yourself and a few friends to make sure there aren’t any surprise changes. Plus, while your friends are looking for formatting issues they can check for grammar and spelling as well.

And that’s that! The ever-daunting query letter broken down into easy to understand sections. If you’re looking for more on query writing check out our post with tips from our agents.