Taking the Mystery Out of Query Letters
One of the most common complaints writers have these days is how hard it is to write a query letter. I agree, it’s a difficult task. You may not realize that agents have to write query letters (“pitch letters”) too. Whenever we send a manuscript to an editor for consideration, what do you think accompanies it?
You’re right—a letter. A letter we’ve slaved over, making sure every word is just right, making sure we’ve done everything humanly possible to GRAB the attention of that editor, make them sit up in their seat and think, “I’ve GOT to read this!”
In other words, I have to do the same thing you do. That manuscript I send to an editor will land on a pile (perhaps a “virtual” pile) of dozens or hundreds more submissions. It’s my job to make them pay attention despite the competition.
So the letter is extremely important. And while it’s certainly not an easy task, it’s not really complicated either. It’s the ultimate in simple. You may see differing agent guidelines, but we all want basically the same thing, with the only major difference being that some agents want sample pages in the query, and some don’t.
Here’s what we want:
A reasonably intelligent letter, addressed to us personally, that pitches the book in a way that makes us understand it, makes it sound fascinating and makes us really want to read it.
(If the book is non-fiction, then a bit about the author and the platform is also necessary.)
When I keep that simple sentence in mind, it makes the letter-writing much easier. I’m able to come up with ways to make the project “pop” on the page. I can allow myself to brainstorm, trying out various ways of pitching it, discarding and rewriting until I have it just right. Keeping a simple focus allows you to do the job without getting all tangled up in knots over trying to meet every agent’s perfect fantasy of a query letter.
Most of the problems with queries are in the writing itself. This has nothing to do with differing agent guidelines. You’ve got to learn to write a strong letter, as well as a strong pitch for your book. This is all part of being a professional writer!
Sure, every agent has their little preferences and pet peeves. And we DO want you to read our guidelines because the biggest time waster is reading queries for genres we don’t even rep. But basically, if you have a well-written letter that is free of grammatical errors and typos, avoids grandiosity and ridiculous claims, and makes your book sound intriguing, you will get fair consideration.
Stay educated about industry basics such as genres and acceptable word counts, read agent guidelines so you’ll know what they rep — and stop worrying so much.
What do you think makes writing query letters so hard? Do you have any tips or techniques to share with your fellow writers?