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Query Letters, Horrifying Made Simple

According to Merriam Webster the definition of a query is: a question or inquiry. My definition is slightly different. For me, the query letter itself, and the act of writing one, has been no less than horrifying, confusing, and an exercise that leaves me wondering why it is I try so hard to write something that should be so easy? It is after all, a one page letter describing my own book, so why then, is it so difficult?

A query letter is a single page letter sent to literary agents with the hopes of getting them excited about your book. A writer has approximately 300 words (or less) to convince a literary agent that they want you, and your book, for publication. If you are successful, the agent will ask you for your manuscript, if you aren’t, one of two things will happen: the dreaded impersonal rejection, or worse, no reply at all.

The very short, one page letter must describe not only your 80,000+ word book, but also your background, previous publications, and why you chose the particular agent. )In some cases, the agent will also ask for a marketing plan, but that comes separately, and is no less horrifying.)

Lucky for us, there is a tried and true formula for writing a successful query letter, which I have found helpful. It is important to remember that now is NOT the time to get creative, or cute, now is the time to be vague, general, and not get bogged down in details. Agents know that the same query letter is sent to multiple agents, so it is perfectly acceptable to not use specific details that only suit that one agent. Now is the time for a broad overview, that will give them enough information to make a decision as to if your book is right for them.

As for the formula, it goes like this: like any other letter, format it with your address at the top of the page, right justified. Next, type the agent’s address, this time left justified. You can use a personalized greeting, where you acknowledge the agent by name, or you can simply write, “Dear Editors.” There is some debate about which is better, I tend to prefer a personalized approach, but either is acceptable.

The body of your query letter must be kept from three to five paragraphs. Short sentences when possible can help you stay focused, and allow the agent who will likely read hundreds of query letters that week, stay on point without skimming, or if they do skim, they will not lose the information you are trying to convey. A good tip in the body is to mention that your final work has been edited by a professional, and you are ready!

Once your one page query is written, be sure to check the submission guidelines for what each agent is accepting. It can be a daunting process, and your final query letter must be impressive, but it need not be impossible.

Take a deep breath, double check, even triple check your letter for typos or “bumps,” and hit send!