Agents are inundated with queries daily, and the whole querying process can be daunting for first-time authors. Manuscripts are rarely better than the corresponding query letters, so if you aren’t agonizing over your query letter, you should be. The letter is your first and only chance to impress the agent, but before you pull out your hair writing and rewriting your pitch, remember to nail a few basics. Don’t give the agent an easy reason to say no.
- Have you done your research? Be sure the agent you’re querying represents the genre you’ve written. Submission guidelines vary slightly from agent to agent, so do your research and follow them. Address the agent by the correct name (you’d be surprised by how often agents are queried with the incorrect name). Additionally, never cc agents on the same email. Always send a personalized email per agent.
2. Is your word count in the acceptable range? Each genre has an accepted word count range, so stick to it. If a manuscript is outside of the range by a decent amount, it’s an easy reason for an agent to pass. If a writer submits something that greatly exceeds the word count, it’s a red flag to agents because they assume that writer doesn’t know how to edit. On the other hand, if the story is too short, it suggests that something integral is missing (developed characters, nuanced plot, appropriate pacing, etc.).
3. Is your query clear and concise? Agents are readers first and foremost, and if the query doesn’t catch and hold their attention, they’re going to pass. Don’t spend a lot of time introducing yourself to the agent. They know you’re querying because you think they’d be a good fit, so there’s no reason to state that. The first sentence describing your story is the most important—hook them with it. Don’t list every plot twist and turn. Keep the suspense up and make them beg to read pages. The writing should be clear enough to understand on the first read through, and the pitch needs to be concise and compelling. Language that shows instead of tells, active voice, and a strong intro are all necessary.
4. Is your query polished? Just like your manuscript, your query letter should be polished–free of misspellings, typos, and grammatical errors. The query letter is a professional document and should be treated as such. Edit it as you would edit your manuscript. Ask people who will give you honest feedback to read it.
5. Do you need to include publishing credentials? At the end of your query, include a brief paragraph stating your publishing credentials. In this section, agents are looking to see if the writer has been previously published by a publishing house (not self-pubbed unless the sales are very good) or written for any major publications—don’t list small ones the agent wouldn’t have heard of or ones that have no connection to your manuscript or target audience. If a writer has a publication history, they are more likely to have a built-in following, which is always important. But don’t worry if you don’t have any credentials to list. The main thing is do not embellish.
When querying, always remember that not every manuscript is right for every agent. Rejection is part of the process, but it’s not personal. Keep revising your query and manuscript, and you’ll find the right home for your work.