Beyond the First Draft—The Query Letter
This post was written nearly ten years ago, and much has changed in the industry. Most agents and editors (probably around 99.9%) are now taking only electronic submissions, so you need not worry about paper, envelope, SASE, or any of the physical aspects of the query letter.
However, do still pay attention to how your query letter is formatted. Even though it’s an email, it’s still formal business correspondence, so go ahead and format it that way—from the name and address of the recipient to your closing salutation and “signature.”
Best rule of thumb on whether to do a physical/snailmail letter or an e-mail is to visit the agent/editor’s website and view their submission guidelines. Or ask specifically if you have a face-to-face appointment.
Learning how to write a good query letter is something that every writer needs to do. It can serve you in so many functions, not just in submitting fiction proposals. I actually learned the basics of writing a query letter in a magazine writing course I took as an undergrad . . . along with some input from one of the editors at the newspaper where I worked at the time. So, if you want to be published—whether it’s a novel or an article about ice fishing in the Alaskan outback—spend some time practicing your query letter writing skills.
TECHNICAL ASPECTS OF THE QUERY LETTER
Your query letter is your introduction to an editor/agent. You do not want to immediately label yourself as a “newbie” or an amateur when they open the envelope. So here are a few tips about the letter’s technical appearance:
Paper: Just like any other business correspondence, your query letter should be on white or ivory business/stationery-grade stock paper. Resume paper is great for this. Regular white paper (20-24 lb. stock) is okay if you cannot afford the nicer paper. Stay away from colored paper or “stationery” with graphic borders. And whatever you do, don’t use scented paper!
Envelope: If you are sending just the query letter (not a full proposal with sample chapters), try to get envelopes that exactly match your paper in color/weight. In the U.S., the standard envelope size is #10 to fit a tri-folded piece of 8.5×11″ paper. If you don’t already know how to do it, figure out how to print the address directly onto the envelope. This will look much more professional than labels or hand-writing it. If you are sending a full proposal, use one of the flat-rate letter envelopes available for free at the post office. You can print your own label at home to use on these envelopes (Avery 5164—3.33″ x 4″—or the equivalent store-brand label is great for this).
SASE (Self-Addressed, Stamped Envelope): “Self-Addressed” should be self-explanatory. For the return address, you can use either the address of the editor/agent you are querying or your own. If you use your own, you may want to include some kind of code (initials, or if you keep some kind of submission record, the number of that particular submission) so that you know whom it’s from when the envelope appears in the mail. And great news for writers, with this most recent postage increase, the USPS introduced a forever stamp that doesn’t expire when the next rate hike comes along. Buy some of these and then you never have to worry about whether your SASE has enough postage or not! Tri-fold the SASE to put it into the mailing envelope. If it’s going in with a full proposal in the flat-rate mailer, it doesn’t have to be folded. If you want your full proposal returned to you, be sure to enclose another flat-rate mailer with the appropriate amount of postage (a stamp, not the dated-printed postage the postal worker prints for the outside envelope).
Colors and fonts: It’s okay to use a little spot-color on your letter—(see the posted example of mine, which has a little color in the letterhead). But don’t use colored fonts. If you’re going to design your own letterhead, make sure it looks professional and uses a professional-looking font—nothing too froufy or frilly (like scripty or calligraphic fonts). Remember, this is a business letter.
Format: Your query letter is the same as any standard business letter, so it should be written in standard block-letter format. Examples:
http://www.writeexpress.com/business-letter-format.html (this one’s great, because it shows how many line spaces to leave for each component)
CONTENTS OF THE QUERY LETTER
Some editors/agents are now accepting electronic (e-mail) queries. For that, you don’t have to worry about any of the technical aspects except for the block-letter format and colors/fonts info—you’ll still want to make sure your e-mail is laid out just like you would do it if you were printing it for snail-mail.
Addresses: If you are not using your own letterhead, be sure to include all of your contact information at the top of the letter. Do not address your query letter (or the envelope) to Dear Editor/Sir/Madam or To whom it may concern. Nothing else will get your query tossed into the trash faster (except maybe misspelling the editor/agent’s name). Show them you’ve done your research—address it by name, complete with title: Mr. Agent Alberts, Ms. Editor Edwards. You do not have to use the person’s job title, but it sure does look better if you do (but only if you’re 100% sure it’s correct):
Mr. Agent Alberts
Ms. Editor Edwards
Fiction Acquisitions Editor
Salutation: Just in case you haven’t picked up on it yet, remember–this is a BUSINESS letter. Show off how professional you can be:
Dear Mr. Alberts:
Dear Ms. Edwards:
Opening Paragraph: What goes in your first paragraph is different based on whether or not you’ve discussed this query with the agent/editor beforehand. If you have, you should thank them for speaking with you and mention the specific event when it occurred:
- Thank you so much for meeting with me at the 2007 ACFW Conference in Dallas, and for extending the invitation to submit Happy Endings Inc.
If you have not spoken with this particular editor/agent, just start off with a bang—and with exactly what it is you’re querying. This is the second paragraph if you have spoken with them previously.
- Wedding bells are ringing! Happy Endings Inc. is a complete, 90,000-word contemporary inspirational romance with a Cajun flavor that will leave readers hungry for more.
This is when your research into the publishing houses becomes vital. For example, if I sent this query letter to HeartSong Presents, they would know by the second sentence that they’re not interested—because they’re looking for stories half the length of the one I’ve just mentioned.
Story summary: Try to keep this to one paragraph—and this is where you use that one-paragraph summary I mentioned before (see 2b). This is a quick overview of the plot, introduction to the characters, and a hint at the internal and external (and spiritual) conflicts. Obviously in one paragraph, you don’t want to go into too much detail. Remember, unlike the dreaded synopsis, this is a marketing piece—more like back cover copy than just a dry recap of the story.
Marketing info: Is this the first book in a series? If so, what’s the series about? Give a little more info here on the mass-appeal of your book. Who is the target audience? What’s the tone/theme? Does it deal with any serious social issues? In this short paragraph, give a little more information on the book and what its broader message is.
About the author: Who are you and what qualifications do you have for writing this novel? If this is a nonfiction query letter (for a freelance article, for example), you would use this paragraph to explain your background with the subject matter. This is not where you share your life story. Unless your story deals with a mom raising a family with five kids, the editor/agent doesn’t need to know you have a passel of little ones underfoot (in fact, it’s probably better not to tell them that). What is your writing background? What other things have you written for publication (even unpaid markets, such as in-house newsletters at work or the quarterly for your RWA chapter)? If you have published titles with other traditional publishers or e-publishers (not self-published), give the title and name of the publisher. Be prepared to provide sales figures if asked, but do not include them in the query letter. What kind of education in writing have you pursued (conferences count)? Are you a member of any professional writing organizations (national groups such as ACFW, ACW, RWA MWA; and local chapters/groups too). Make sure everything in this paragraph relates to (a) your experience as a writer and/or (b) specific elements of the story.
In closing: Just like the opening paragraph, there are two ways to close the query:
- If you are interested, I can send you a full proposal along with synopsis and three sample chapters. I look forward to hearing from you.
- Keep the query letter down to one page in length
- 1″ margins, 11–12 point font (11 if you are using a “large” font like Arial or Georgia, 12 if you are using Times New Roman)
- Be professional. Just in case I haven’t gotten the point across yet, this is a business letter, even if it’s an e-mail.
- Don’t call an editor/agent to ask if they’ve received your query the week after you send it. If you have not heard back from them in three to four months, then follow up with them.
- Be confident but not pompous. Talk only about your story—not about the fact you feel it’s going to be the next runaway best-selling title with the possibility of multi-million dollar movie rights looming on the horizon.
- DO NOT apologize for being an unpublished author. Calling attention to your lack of publishing experience will not encourage an editor/agent to want to work with you.
- Don’t say anything along the lines of: “If there’s anything in the manuscript you see that you don’t like, I’ll be happy to revise.” This smacks of lack of confidence in the strength of your story.
- Simultaneous submissions are typically frowned upon, especially by agents. If you’re submitting to multiple agents/houses, don’t mention it in the letter.
- “I think you’re the most wonderful editor ever, and I really want to work with you.” Flattery will get you nowhere. Again, it comes across as more of a lack of confidence in your own ability/story.
- EDIT, EDIT, EDIT, EDIT, EDIT, EDIT. Then when you’re finished editing it, get your crit partners, English professor, or a freelance copy editor to read it for any mistakes (you can find freelance copy editors at The Christian Editor).
- Most important of all—GET IT WRITTEN AND GET IT OUT THERE!
- Enclosed is the proposal, synopsis, and first three chapters of Happy Endings Inc. I appreciate your time in reviewing my submission and look forward to hearing from you.</ul
A FEW TIPS TO KEEP IN MIND
SAMPLE QUERY LETTER:
Happy Endings Inc. Query Letter