I’m not certain there is a particular season for querying an editor or agent, but I thought this a fitting title given that Christmas has just been and gone, and who wouldn’t want a contract tied up with a pretty green, red and gold bow?
When submitting a manuscript to an editor or agent, there are so many things we have to not only remember, but get right. How should we structure our query? What must we include and what must we leave out? And what factors should we take into consideration as we word that wonderful yet critical covering letter?
What is a query letter?
This is an introduction or covering letter to your submission. Whether it be to an agent, editor, film producer or some other audience, there are certain points to bear in mind before you begin.
It’s a colossal list, but every one of the points below is essential.
Dos and Don’ts of the query
DO follow the submission guidelines.
DO research the agent or editor to ensure you’re targeting the right audience.
DO personalize your query – address the agent/editor by name and correctly (check spelling, title, etc.) If your query is the result of a request, mention this in your opening paragraph. If you’ve met them before or attended one of their workshops, you can mention this at the onset of your writer’s bio paragraph.
DO proofread your query letter. I’d also suggest getting a critique partner or two to take a look. Sometimes a fresh pair of eyes will pick up what you’ve missed.
DO include all your contact information. When they decide to ask for a submission, you want them to be able to contact you, right?
DO include brief details of your author platform, particularly if you have a following for related podcasts, blogging or other such activities.
DO include all your social media platforms under your contact details. Make sure to include YouTube, your website, your blog, etc.
DO include relevant non-writing credentials. Note the word ‘relevant’. For example, if you’ve worked in the force or in forensics and your story features detectives and/or crime solving, this experience highlights your credibility and expertise in this area and should absolutely be mentioned.
DO be familiar with current books that the publishing house is releasing or that the agent is representing. This will ensure you know you are targeting the right people for your submission.
DON’T try and be creative or clever by using difficult-to-read, fancy fonts and text colours other than black.
DON’T send out blanket, generic query letters.
DON’T waffle or ramble – treat the query like any other piece of your writing. Make it sharp, succinct and straight to the point.
DON’T gush and tell the agent/editor how wonderful they are, how you value their time and understand how busy they are. Not only does this waste valuable space that could otherwise promote you and your book, but it wastes the reader’s ‘valuable’ time and will more-than-likely have them skimming your words.
DON’T tell them how wonderful you and your book are, compare it to the latest bestseller and state that your best friend’s second cousin’s mother is an author and she just LOVED your story.
DON’T include your age. This has no bearing on an agent/editor’s decision whether to accept or reject your submission. Just focus on your story and your relevant credentials.
DON’T include sample chapters in your query unless the agent/editor submission guidelines specifically request them.
DON’T apologise for being a newbie writer with a lack of experience or awards/recognition. You don’t want to down-sell yourself.
This is a pretty generous list of dos and don’ts, I know. What the above boils down to is be smart, be professional and be succinct. And showcase your writing acumen by crafting a sock-rocking query.
Structuring your query
Like any job application, there are certain critical elements that should be incorporated into a query. For the purposes of this book I’ve split these elements into five subheadings.
This section has two distinct parts:
- The salutation – a personal address to the agent/editor you’re querying. Personal because you’ve done your research and are directing this query to a particular agent/editor. If this query is in response to a request, mention that here.
- The book outline – this comprises a short sentence incorporating the title of your book, the word count and the genre.
- Book blurb
This is your opportunity to hook your reader and use the wonderful blurb you created for your book. If you haven’t done this, never fear, I plan to post on blurbs sometime in the not so distant future.
Just to clarify what your blurb should include:
- Your central characters.
- Their GMC – what do they want, why do they want it, what challenges or obstacles stand in their way of getting it?
- What are the conflicts? The stakes? If they don’t achieve their goal, what is the worst thing that will happen? What must your character(s) sacrifice to get what they want?
- A hook. You want to end on a hook, some question or dilemma that leaves the reader panting for more. The higher stakes that demonstrate you understand what makes an unputdownable story.
- Writer’s bio
This is your opportunity to detail any relevant qualifications and/or awards that will add weight to your submission. Note the word ‘relevant’. If you won your high school creative writing prize or are published in nonfiction with a book on the diversity of native flora in the Hebrides, this is not the place to mention it.
However, if you are a romance writer and you’ve won contests run by Romance Writers of Australia, New Zealand or America, this is very definitely relevant.
If you have personal knowledge of the agent/editor, for example if you follow them on social media, have met them in person or have attended one of their workshops, you can mention that here. Make sure you make this comment relevant and professional, and if it demonstrates that you understand the type of story/author they are looking for and why you fit the bill, even better.
If you are targeting a particular line, especially in relation to category romance, it might pay to mention the trope of your submission, particularly if the agent/editor has mentioned on their blog or website that they’re interested in acquiring that trope. This will help hook their interest and assist them in identifying whether your story fits the line you’re targeting. It also demonstrates you’ve done your homework.
In the case of an agent submission, if you have any standing requests with other agents/publishers, mention them here.
One thing you mustn’t do is wax lyrical on your life and history in this paragraph. The purpose of a query is to sell your book. You are incidental to that. So only include personal information if you’re confident it will strengthen your submission and not bore the editor to tears.
- Closing paragraph
Thank you for your time and consideration.
That’s really all you need. No need to say you’re looking forward to hearing from them or that you hope they like your story. Both statements are obvious, redundant and a waste of valuable space.
- Contact details
Don’t forget to provide your address, phone number and any other avenues of contact available to the agent/editor. As part of this signature section, list any and all social media platforms.
Bear in mind that there are other resources out there that suggest a different order to that prescribed above. For example, Query Shark – for whom I have a lot of respect and admiration – suggests you dive straight into the blurb and hook the reader with the story before you detail the name, word count and genre. In both her and my cases, the personal information goes last.
I don’t see any problem with this, unless of course the submission guidelines state otherwise. Providing your query contains the five essential sections above, whether the blurb is the first or second paragraph really shouldn’t matter, as long as both are succinct and to the point.
Formatting your query
Check the agent or editor’s submission guidelines before you format your query and hit ‘send’. One of the quickest ways of putting an agent or editor off-side is to ignore their instructions and format your query however you like.
If there are no specific instructions on formatting in the submission guidelines, use the settings below.
- Your query should be formatted in standard letter format.
- Black 12 point Courier or Times New Roman font – no fancy colours or scripts.
- One-inch margins all around. Single-spaced text with double spaces between paragraphs.
- Left justified.
- Date of query at the top, left-hand corner.
- Attention <name of agent or editor> just below the date – include their title and postal address. If you’re unsure of these details, check their website or call their offices and ask.
- After the closing paragraph, sign off using your real name and then, if relevant, add ‘writing as <your pen-name>’ beneath it. This is an official document, and as such you should use your legal name in the signature.
- Only leave a space between the closing paragraph and your name for paper queries where you need to sign.
- Provide a list of attachments beneath the signature line.
- List your contact details, including website address and social media platforms.
And there it is: a brief ‘how to’ for crafting a rock-solid query letter to sell your story.
Don’t forget, once you’re done…
Check, double-check and triple-check your letter. Make sure it’s tight, to the point and targeted appropriately – an accurate reflection of your professionalism and understanding of the industry as a whole.
Your query is an agent/editor’s first encounter with you. It’s the handshake that can either make or break your chances at winning their interest. Do it right and turn the tables in your favour.
And last of all, good luck!
Tune in next week when the entire blog will be filled with examples of queries ☺
Sooo, as a thank you for reading and supporting this post, I have a special prize for this month’s winner. I’m offering one lucky commenter a half hour skype session to discuss anything writing related. It could be your query, your synopsis or 300 words from your current work in progress. Yes, you heard right. We get to chat, face-to-face – or computer screen to computer screen – and chat about whatever it is about your synopsis you’d like to discuss.
To enter the draw, please comment below and share the most surprising or useful thing you’ve learned since reading my Simply Writing blogs.
Any and all comments welcome! I love reading your feedback and input each month ☺ and much as this blog isn’t set up for notifications, I always ALWAYS answer your comments. So make sure you pop back to check my replies ☺
If you’d like extra chances to win, share links to this blog on any or all social media sites. Tag me so I know you’ve shared, and the more shares, the more times I’ll place your name in the draw.
A name will be drawn next week, on Monday 18th February, by 5pm DST and winners will be notified on the blog, so keep your eyes and ears peeled ☺
Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a fabulous month, and I’ll see you all again in March.
Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she’s a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she’ll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.
She lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making, and Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia’s 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.
In between books, she runs workshops – both face-to-face and online – for writers wanting to hone their craft. The first book in her Simply Writing Series, Simply Synopsis, is changing the way writers craft this vital, yet perplexing, writing tool. And through her Simply Writing series of blogs, she hopes to simplify so much more.
You can find out all about Michelle, her adventures and her books at her website or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.
Thank Michelle. I had no idea about querying letters, until lately and had no idea where to start. Taking notes 😉
My pleasure Jan. Glad you found the post useful.
Hope it helps get you in fromt of an editor or agent of your choice!
Thanks Michelle. The hook, the hook, and then it’s all about the hook. I hadn’t thought about featuring it so prominently in the query letter. Now back to revise my hooks.
Thanks so much for stopping by! Yes, the hook is the clincher. And it’s so versatile. Great to use in an elevator pitch, a query letter, a synopsis… Pretty much anything that you use to sell your book.
Good luck with revisiting your hooks!
And heaps of luck in the draw 🙂
This is so succinct and straightforward, Michelle. A really handy checklist!
Newbie authors: If you want to see how brutal editors/agents can be when it comes to culling queries then an insight into how they think is here: http://snarkives.blogspot.com
Miss Snark no longer posts but she is an agent so she’s STILL OUT THERE. All the more reason to try and be as professional as possible.
I also suggest looking for #MSWL which is agent/publisher speak for Manuscript Wish List. This helps you narrow down who to send your query to.
Thanks so much for all that information. Knowing what an editor/agent looks for when keeping or culling queries is so useful.
Great to see you here 🙂
Heaps of luck in the draw 🙂
Great succinct summary of how to ace a query letter. You’re a natural at writing clear, practical posts, demystifying all the stuff that normally gives me hives e.g. synopses, blurbs. Look forward to next month’s post!
Thanks so much for those kind words Sandra!
You’ve just made my day, because that’s exactly what I’m trying to do. I’m so glad you find my posts helpful.
Thanks for stopping by and commenting. You’re in the draw – heaps of luck.
Thank you so much. I willl use this space to gush 😉 and say how kind and generous you are in sharing your expertise. Truly valuable information for a Newbie like me. You also made me smile with some of your comments. You’ve dashed my hopes and dreams of my manuscript on native fauna and flora found on the surface of Mars ever being published. 😉😉 I look forward to future posts.
Aww, Debbie, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you find these posts helpful 🙂
Sorry about Mars’ native fauna and flora not being a publishing option for you. But the good news is that you’re in the draw! Heaps of luck, and thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.
If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to post them here. Happy to help 🙂
Thanks Michelle, this is a great post! I’ve been pitching my first ms since mid-Jan and have had two rejections with four still out for consideration… Your information is gong to be very useful for my next version!!
So glad my post is in time for your next query. Did you see my previous post on blurbs? This is the link: https://romanceaustralia.com/simply-writing-the-blurb-paints-a-thousand-words/
The information in this post might help you with crafting your pitch. Heaps of luck with it all.
And best of luck with the draw 🙂
Thanks for stopping by and commenting.
To Michelle thanks so much for your post on query letters. I found it really helpful. Kind Regards
So happy you found it helpful 🙂
Thanks so much for stopping by each month! Heaps of luck in the draw!
I can’t believe how the month has flown! I’m late with this announcement, but better late than never, right?
The winner for this month’s session is . . .
DEBBIE G 🙂
Please email me at email@example.com to organize to reclaim your prize.
Thanks to everyone for stopping by and commenting. Please don’t be disheartened. There’ll be another opportunity for a session next month, so make sure you come back, learn and comment 🙂
Have a wonderful rest of your month!
Hello I just saw the FB notification. I think I’m the winner you are looking for. So excited.
Wonderful you came back! Mega congratulations and I look forward to skyping with you sometime soon 🙂