How to Write a Great Query Letter

If you’re a first-time author who wants to get published, there is one skill you must master: writing the query letter.

If you want to nail down a traditional publishing contract, the query letter will get you in the door. It’s what you need to get a literary agent, who will shop your manuscript to publishers. If you want a good literary agent, you need to learn how to write a well-crafted query letter. It takes time and practice, but a great query letter is a big first step to publishing success.

Throughout my years as an editor in traditional publishing, I’ve read my fair share of query letters. Some were fantastic, and made me want to hold the author’s book in my hand immediately; others needed work. Recently, my Executive Editor Cristina sat down with me and asked for a few quick tips on how to write a stellar query letter.

Cristina: What’s the worst mistake an author can make in his or her query letter to an agent?

Diane: Provided your query letter is free of mechanical errors and bad writing, the worst mistake is telling the agent that everyone you gave your manuscript to loved it. The reason? It marks you as an amateur. You want to be as professional as possible; coming off as naive right off the bat is hardly a reason for anyone to get excited to take you on.

The second worst mistake you can make is to send your manuscript to an agent who doesn’t handle your genre. It not only marks you as an amateur, but also tells the agent that you haven’t taken the time to research why you think that particular agent would not only be a good match, but would also benefit from taking you on. You have to do your research. I often recommend Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. It tells you virtually everything about the pitching process, and offers an invaluable list of agents and their individual needs.

C: A great query letter is not only a well-written glimpse of a manuscript — it’s also a sales pitch. How can an author really get on an agent’s good side?

D:  Let the agent know why you chose him or her. Literary agents are people, too. They want to know that they’re not just getting a mass-mailing. Either mention a book you like that the agent represented or give some other reason why you’re selecting this particular agent. A little bit of etiquette goes a long way.

C: Is it okay to query multiple agents at once?

D: In this day and age, when it’s so difficult to get published, agents do recognize that you have to give yourself the best shot. So, it’s okay to query multiple agents. If a top-level agent requests your manuscript, you can even use the fact that you’ve already generated interest among other agents as leverage. Some agencies, however, frown on this, so it helps to do your research to see what their preferences are. Typically, for example, you shouldn’t query two agents at the same agency.

C: Authors are condensing a ton of info into a concise, three-to-four-paragraph-long letter. What’s the best way to order all the information?

D: First paragraph: name of your manuscript, genre and number of words. Second to third paragraph: What your manuscript is about. Last paragraph: Any information about you that would be appropriate.

C: What is appropriate?

D: Don’t include your educational history unless you majored in the subject of your book; don’t include hobbies unless they relate directly to your book; don’t include personal information unless it applies to the book. The only thing that matters is the book, and why it’s worth the agent’s time.

C: Agents, of course, aren’t the only people who get queries. Editors like you do, too! What is the key difference people need to remember about querying editors versus agents?

D: Often, I think a lot of book editors feel like it doesn’t occur to authors to sell themselves. This doesn’t mean using a lot of bells and whistles. It means taking the time to craft a professional, courteous, thoughtful and informative letter that not only gives the editor a sense of what your publishing and editing needs are, but why she should want to take you on as a client. You don’t necessarily have to compose a professional query, but it’s crucial to be polished, even in an email. Be sure to proofread. No editor gets excited about a manuscript when she sees the author can’t draft a proper email.

So, there you have it — how to write a query letter. Any questions or comments? Ask me below! Until then, happy writing!

8 comments on “How to Write a Great Query Letter

  • I’ve heard before about Jeff Herman’s great book, but this fantastic blog post certifies it. I also love how you break down exactly what is and is not appropriate. Less is truly more. Thanks for the great tips, Diane! Looking forward to the next posts.

  • Wow! I had no idea you could actually USE the fact that multiple agents are interested as leverage….I never thought about it in that way. I feel like that is a great testament to how authors have to act and think like businessmen — I know you’ve tweeted tweets about using a business mind to get published, but this is a great concrete example. I’ve been writing a novel set during the Elizabethan age and have been having so much discouragement. I’m trying to gear up and start anew. This is a great resource.

    • Hi Flora,
      Glad you found the post helpful. Don’t give up! Some of our most successful authors faced rejection after rejection before getting a publishing contract. Legend has it that Stephen King was rejected by 26 publishers before getting his first book deal. And we all know what happened after that!

    • Noora — Thanks for your interest in the audio. This Q & A was not done on audio, but stay tuned for some further Q&A’s that I will record.

  • My colleague forwarded me this very informative, detailed blog post and I was quite pleased. I have been focusing so much on trying to write a short story and also a novel that I feel quite baffled at how exactly to take it from my computer desktop to the publishers. This, as well as your suggestion of the book resource that is included within, is very pleasing to me. Many thanks to you and your blog.

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