Three Steps to Setting Your Query Letter Apart

By Catherine Matthews

What makes you pick up a book, or click on it, or temporarily steal borrow it from your best friend’s “To-Read” pile? Is it the celebrity book club sticker? Is it the new bestseller status? Or is it the fact that the film adaptation is about to come out and you just can’t resist declaring that “the book was sooo much better”? The point here is that while published books have an entire bag of tricks designed to entice the senses, what ultimately draws readers to stories is the pitch. The same is true for query letters; what draws agents to request submissions is the quality of the pitch contained therein. The perfect pitch is a cumulative approach, a combination of that tag line on the cover, that blurb from another author you already love, and that intriguing synopsis on the back. A great query letter features a pitch that combines interest (the tag line), information (the synopsis), and reference (the author’s blurb). 

Step One: Ignite Interest

Because the ideal query letter is less than a page (single spaced), you’ll need to sift out what’s meaningful about your work by focusing on what makes it an exciting opportunity for agents who see hundreds of queries a day. This is that tag line moment, the elevator pitch that starts off your letter and should finish in three sentences or less. In terms of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, think: ‘Writer Nick Dunne had the perfect wife, until Amy suddenly went missing…and took his perfect life right along with her. Is this the tragic end of a perfect marriage? Or the beginning of the perfect crime?’

Step Two: Provide Information

Creating a short, clear, synopsis that follows your intriguing entry with some context is absolutely essential for minting a perfect pitch. This isn’t the time to explain every plot twist in detail. Pick the highlights. Paint a coherent, impactful picture of your story’s general arc with writing that communicates the tone of your story, as well as its key events. Think of the back cover of your favorite book; what did it reveal, what did it hint at, and what did it leave out? Use that synopsis paragraph to format your own. 

Step Three: Build on a Reference

Who would you want to blurb your story? Think of established authors as points of reference for your own work. When rounding out your pitch, don’t be afraid to compare your submission to published books that you would want your own story shelved next to. Will readers that enjoyed one author also enjoy your work for similar reasons? How is your work different (in a good way)? These points of reference give your pitch a shape, and a stake in the real literary landscape. 

Always remember that while pitching is the heart of your query, it’s also only part of your query. Technical information like word count, intended genre, and the name of the specific agent you’re querying should always be included. Always be sure to follow your chosen agent’s guidelines for queries; visit their professional profiles to make note of what they require. And don’t forget that the perfect pitch sells itself, no gimmicks required!

Catherine Matthews is an assistant at Holloway Literary.