The Query Letter

You get only one chance to make a first impression and, for new writers, that chance is typically the query letter.  So how do you make that first impression a good one?  How do you let the prospective agent or editor know that you have a good concept and that you can write it well?  After all, every agent and editor is ultimately looking for a good story well told.  The clues to whether you are holding such a treasure can be found in how you make your first impression. 

The following suggestions apply whether you are sending your query by snail mail or e-mail.  Don’t think that just because you’re using e-mail, it’s not a business letter.

The first part of first impressions is appearance.  Is your hair brushed or combed?  Are you wearing clothes suitable for the occasion?  Is there spinach in your teeth?  Never discount the importance of appearance.  So how does this translate to your query?  Well, it should, on its face, appear professional and well done.  For starters, it should not be more than one page.  After all, as Shakespeare said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”  It’s also at the heart of concise writing.

The query should be typed, not hand-written, on clean stationery.  Letterhead is not necessary but does help with appearances.  The margins should be clear and distinct, and there should be plenty of white space on the page.  Make it easy on the reader’s eye.

Address it to the agent or editor by name, not “Dear Sir or Madam,” or “To whom it may concern.”  Let the agent or editor know you’ve done your research and that you know specifically to whom you are making your pitch.

There should be no mistakes or typographical errors.  Don’t merely rely on spell check for this.  Spell check doesn’t know if “here” or “hear” is the right word or “there” or “their.”  Use your own eyes and a dictionary.  If you can’t spell, have a friend proofread it for you.

Once you’ve taken care of appearances, you’ve got to concern yourself with the substance of the letter.  Just as in personal meetings where even the best appearance can lose its luster if you have nothing worthwhile to say, the same is true of your query letter.  Start by briefly telling the reader the title and, if fiction, the word count and genre of the work.  If non-fiction, let the reader know what kind of non-fiction it is, such as how-to, self help, political, biography, and so on. 

Next, give a brief description – and by brief, we mean no more than two paragraphs (and preferably one) of four or five sentences each – of what the story is about.  For fiction, this means identify the central character, tell what his or her dilemma or goal is, what the obstacles are to getting out of that dilemma or achieving that goal, and how it is resolved.  For non-fiction, follow the two-paragraph rule, but tell the reader what your central thesis is, how you’re going to prove the thesis, and what your conclusions are.  Be very straightforward, without including your own rave assessment of the book.  Let us decide that for ourselves.

In a final paragraph, tell a little about yourself.  Show how you are qualified to write this book.  If you’re in the medical field and you’ve written a medical thriller or scholarly work, tell us that.  If it’s simply a subject you are interested in and have done research about, tell us that.  If you’ve written or published before, or if you’ve won awards or accolades for your writing, include that information, as well.

Conclude by asking if you may submit your work for consideration.  And be sure to include a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE).  Then sign your name and mail it or click “send.”  You’re through. 

DO’S AND DON’T’S

·   Do include an SASE.

·   Do address it to an agent or editor by name.

·   Don’t let typos or grammatical mistakes creep into anything you send to agents or publishers.  You’re trying to convince these people that you’re an author.  Typos and gaffes won’t do it.

·   Don’t exceed one page.

·   Don’t tell us that your family and friends loved it.

·   Don’t tell us how fantastic it is.

·   Don’t query us if the novel isn’t finished. The exception is for non-fiction, but a completed proposal is mandatory whether the work is finished or not.

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