Writing a Query Letter: Tips from Our Agents


Have you ever wanted to get inside the agent’s head about what’s really important in the query letter? Nikki and Rachel are sharing the best and worst things to see in a query and tips on how to put your best foot forward with your query letter.

What makes you want to request more from a query?

Nikki: The first thing I look for is a well-written query.  I want to see that the writer has done their research and understand how to write a query. Then common sense elements: are there spelling or grammatical errors,  is this a genre I’m currently looking for, has the author researched the agency and my submissions interests, is the word count in an appropriate range. And then I read for content. Is the story interesting, marketable? Does the writing compel me to read more? Can the writer…write. I am looking for a lot in a query. That’s why it’s so important that an author get it right.

Rachel: If the manuscript is in my wheelhouse (so one of the genres I represent); if the plot seems strong and compelling, without having been overdone; if the story seems marketable and would fill a need in the marketplace; if the sample writing hooks me in right away and has a strong set-up; if the characters seem fun and memorable; and—most importantly—if it’s obvious the author can write.


What makes you want to reject a query?

Nikki: Grammatical errors, misspellings. Verbosity, i.e. I am the next Dan Brown! You will lose out if you don’t read this query! Too long bio. A summary lost in too much additional information I don’t need at the time. References to self-published materials that direct me to horrible reviews of your books. Multiple fonts and colors.  Queries for genres I’ve clearly stated I’m not interested in reading, or material that is too long for the genre. Writers that seem problematic.

Rachel: If I’m confused from the first sentence about the plot or genre; if the author seems like they’d be difficult to work with; if it’s not in my wheelhouse in terms of genre; if I’ve seen very similar queries and nothing about it feels unique or innovative; if the characters don’t seem likable; if I don’t connect with the voice from the sample pages.

What are your top best qualities in a query?

Nikki: A well-written query for the genre or themes in which I’m interested.

Rachel: All of the book’s relevant information is present and easily findable, preferably upfront: the title, genre, word count, etc. The story is actually in the genre the author says it is. The plot seems intriguing, unique and memorable. The characters feel lifelike and sympathetic from the get-go.


How about your top pet peeves in a query?

Nikki: Mentions of self-published material that have bad reviews or did not sell well.

Rachel: Top two are probably that it’s not a genre I expressly represent, and if clearly no market research has been done (i.e., this concept would never sell or it’s been done to death).


Any other advice you want to add?

Nikki: Research the agency, the agents and their interests. Make sure you find the best agent for your work. And then send him or her the best possible query.

Rachel: Do your homework. It’s overwhelming, diving into the online world of agents and how to get published, but compile a spreadsheet of agents you want to query based on their current client list and sales. Targeting your manuscript appropriately is the best thing you can do when first putting your toe into the water of getting published (aka, looking for an agent). Putting in the effort upfront will ultimately help you get to the best agent for your work, and will save you both time in the long run.

If you’re looking to learn more about sending queries to Nikki and Rachel check out our submission guidelines. Want to learn more about query writing, check out our post outlining the basics of a query.


Writing a Query Letter: The Basics


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.




A Literary Agent Wants You To Revise And Resubmit… Now What?

So you’ve written The Book. You’ve polished The Book. You’ve emailed The Book to an assortment of wonderful, helpful critique partners and betas. You’ve polished more.

You’ve entered the query trenches.

Then you spend a long few weeks probably watching too many episodes of Downtown Abbey or getting lost in a Law & Order marathon.  You do everything possible to distract yourself from the obvious.  The agent has not responded.  They have neither approved nor rejected your query.  It’s like watching grass grow, is it not?  Or is it more like waiting for a pot of water to boil?  Whatever the case, it is a frustrating situation in which to find yourself.

How long must you wait?  Will it be a few days?  A few weeks or even a few months?  Will it be…forever?  Are you waiting on a response that will simply never come?  When do you stop waiting?  When do you stop hoping?  You can drive yourself mad just thinking and waiting.


And then…

AT LAST! A reply! You see the little email from The Agent on your phone, and you rush to the computer because you’d rather read it on the big screen. You’ve read every interview this agent ever posted, stalked her Twitter for three straight months, and now the moment has finally arrived: An offer or a rejection.

Except it’s neither. You get a very long email with a number of “I loved” and “needs work.” The list of suggested edits goes on forever, and so far, the edits don’t seem too difficult.

Your initial thought:

From: titletocome.tumblr.com

Then you keep reading. You get to the paragraph with a MAJOR revision, one that would completely alter your main character and really the entire book.

So what do you do? Well, you email those critique partners and betas again. You forward the agent’s comments and your own thoughts in giant red font (HOMG WHAT AM I GOING TO DO THIS IS INSANE).


Take a deep breath. Now answer these questions:

  1. Do you see the reason behind the agent’s suggestion and how it would improve the story? If yes, continue.
  2. Do you like the agent and all of their comments? If yes, continue.
  3. Do the critique partners and beta readers agree (at least mostly)? If yes, continue.
  4. Is the edit doable? If yes, continue.
  5. Are you willing to do it? If yes, then you should.

If you answered no to any of these questions:

Question #1: Maybe you see where the agent is coming from, but you don’t think it’s necessary. The whole suggestion came out of left field. The critique partners and betas never mentioned it. Maybe you have an idea how to fix it without this exact suggestion. Emailing the agent with your thoughts isn’t such a bad idea. Show him/her a number of options to correct the problem and ask their professional opinion. If an agent took the time to read your full and write such a long email AND ask to probably read it again, he/she is interested in your manuscript.

Question #2: If you don’t agree with the majority of the agent’s edits and they don’t match what anyone has ever told you, then maybe this isn’t the agent for you. It’s your work, and if you have your own vision for it and the agent does not share it, then you should look for an agent that fits better with you.

Question #3: So your readers disagree. A good idea would be to edit your first chapter based on the agent’s edits and send it to them to see what they think is stronger, your original or the revised. If the majority of them still prefer the original (and you do as well), then maybe this isn’t the agent for you.

Question #4: So the edit doesn’t seem fixable. It would completely alter your story into something unrecognizable to the original, and even then, you’re not positive you can manage to fix that underlying problem. Again, I would consider emailing the agent your ideas for any fixes, and perhaps they will clarify or change their suggestion. It’s worth a shot, especially if you see why the agent suggested the edit.

Question #5: You’ve written and revised this book for months, maybe years. The idea of returning to it without an agent contract literally makes you exhausted and sick to your stomach. The agent wouldn’t make you go through such a tiring process of editing if she wasn’t interested in your project, so if you’re not ready to jump right into revisions, give it some time. It’s okay if you never look at The Book again, but sometimes all it takes is a few good books, a Pinterest inspiration board, and a good few days/weeks of rest to get you excited about a project again.

And of course, no matter what stage in the revision process you are, clap yourself on the back. An agent likes your project enough to read it all again, and The Book will be better for the edits in the end.



Amanda Foody is a former intern with Holloway Literary.


Editors and Agents Have More in Common Than You Might Think

editing2                                                                                                                          By Rachel Beck

After being an editor for almost six years, I transitioned to the agent side (the dark side? the light side? I’ll avoid going there…). I thought it may be interesting to hear the differences (and similarities!), from my experience at least. Granted, I was an editor a lot longer than I’ve been an agent so far, but I’m rapidly learning more and more, and it’s interesting to reflect on the nuances of each job—along with the degrees of overlap.

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