How to Write a Query Letter Part One: Introduce yourself

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how to write a query letter

This is what people ask me about most. And this exact phrase, how to write a query letter, ranks high on search engines.

I think it’s worth asking ourselves why writers struggle with this so much. I mean, for goodness sakes, there are thousands upon thousands of articles on the Internet telling people how to write query letters. And it’s not like one person says one thing and another person says something else and the answers vary so broadly that writers simply can’t understand what advice they should follow.

So why do writers struggle with writing query letters? You’re all intelligent. You’ve managed to finish a book and revise it and polish it up. So how can you not know how to write a query letter?

I think we need to talk about why you need a query letter. Once you get why you will see that how is not that hard. Query letters are not some mysterious things. There is no pixie dust that can sprinkle on them to make them convince an agent to represent you. No “love potion number 9.”

Sorry.

So ask the right question, dear writer.

Why do I need to write a query letter?

Now you’re on the right track. I’ve come up with several reasons—too many for one post. So here is the first reason you need to write a query letter. More will follow.

1) You need to write a query letter to introduce yourself

When you meet people, you shake their hands (in the US, anyway), and you introduce yourself. When you want to meet an agent, you need to write a query letter to introduce yourself.

Now that why should give us a couple of hows.

If you want to make a good impression when you introduce yourself, look at your query letter this way:

Your query letter is your handshake

You don’t want spinach in your teeth when you shake my hand, and you don’t want giant typos and poor grammar in the first paragraph when you query me. We all know that, right? You don’t want to call me Jane when my name is Sally. I don’t really care, but you will be embarrassed. So try to get my name right. So far, nothing new here.

But what about this? What’s your body language tell people when you shake their hands? Is your query letter a firm handshake or does it feel weak and insecure? Is your palm sweaty?

Why are you writing this query letter? To introduce yourself and your book in a way that makes you appear to be someone I want to hang out with. Someone who is not insane, who is not needy, who is not dumb, who is not arrogant, who is not clueless about publishing.

To put it positively, you want my first impression of you, from your query letter, to be, “Here is a person who understands publishing, who understands that I’m busy, who will not demand that I pay attention to her, who is confident but not arrogant, who is happy and well-adjusted, and who has a good sense of humor and doesn’t take herself too seriously.”

Your query letter should be dressed for success

The clothes you’re wearing? They are not that important to me. We agents talk about not sending queries written in pink ink with glitter, and I suppose nowadays that would translate to: Don’t send me a query with neon green marquees that travel across the top of the email saying, 

But these days people don’t insist that you wear a suit and tie to work. Some offices want slacks and a nice shirt with a collar. Others are OK with clean jeans, as long there are no holes. Many businesses want you to take the rings out of your nose and lips, and some won’t hire people with facial tattoos.

So, to be safe? Don’t go with comic sans. Times New Roman is always good. Twelve-point font always works well. These are standard. But if you want to deviate a bit—put on a bowtie to stand out from the crowd—I don’t think anyone really cares if you use Georgia instead of Times or even if you go with Calibri. All that really matters is that the font is easy to read (so no fonts that look like messy handwriting) and that it’s clean and pleasing to the eye. When we are looking at a hundred queries a day, you want us to feel rested when we look at yours, not overwhelmed.

Okay, more on this another day. Now it’s your turn to tell me. Why do you think writers struggle so much with query letters?

17 comments

  • Good advice. As for me, the struggle has always been how to condense the story into a few sentences. I needed someone to tell me how to format it–that is good information. But writing those two or three short paragraphs? So hard! Going forward, one of my pre-writing activities is writing a short and long pitch, as well as a synopsis. Doing that first helps to keep me focused and for some reason makes writing the query easier.
    Thanks for the information!

    • Thanks. Yeah, you’re right. That is the hardest part.

      I’ll get to that part. I wasn’t even ever going to do this topic because there is so much info on it. But then I thought about how many time people query this and I decided I needed to do a series I can put together into a FAQ.

      So the part about the actual content will come down the road. Stay tuned.

  • Oooh, I love writing the query first too, Jenn! I started doing that after reading Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method book. So so helpful. I’m constantly working on the query and proposal as I write the story so that by the time I’m actually done, the proposal and query should be mostly done, too. Let’s see, I think writing a query is so hard for the same reason that an introduction to someone is hard. There is a huge difference in the balance of power between an agent and an author simply because the agent has the power to say yes and there are a whole lot of authors out there who get a no, Meeting someone who has power over the situation you are in is always unnerving. Like meeting a potential boss, the building inspector, a movie star, or someone you would like to date. Of course the advice is just what you mother would say “Just be yourself” but polite and not gushing and don’t throw up on them and … see the problem? I think practice helps though.

    • I also started writing my short and long synopses after reading Randy’s method and I use his method heavily when I teach my plot classes. I wish everyone wrote this way because their books would be easier for me to sell–the beginning would present a problem and the end would solve the problem and books like that are easier to pitch.

      Good comments on the “perceived” power the agent has. I’ll have to think about that one. Because the agent only has power over her own life, not over yours. But I can see why if you want THAT agent and she doesn’t want you it would seem that she’s wielding power over your life.

      • I think that is why pitching again and again and again at conferences helps. No one can stop you from writing and pitching and seeing people who are interested or not interested in your writing every year, will take some of the stress out of the process. Realizing that a “no” is actually a “not this time and at this place” can help one to just keep plugging along waiting for just the right book and just the right connection.

  • Such an apt comparison, Sally. I think just settling into this idea will be helpful.

  • Arghh. Speak of spinach in the teeth. I worked long hours yesterday and I had on my list to go back and proofread this last thing, but I was too tired to do it. So now I’ve just spoken to my whole email list with spinach in my teeth.

    :oops:

    :doh:

    :tongue:

  • Sally, you’re so funny! That’s why I enjoy reading your posts.

    I’m thrilled that you’re doing a series on the elusive query letter. I understand what Kristen was saying. I feel like when I’m submitting, the agent holds my future in her/his hands. It’s very personal for me. I guess some people can submit and submit and whatever happens, happens. Technically that is the reality, but for me it’s like sending my child off to the very first day of school. I send my submission off with high (usually too high) hopes, wanting the most positive results. I stress about my query letter being just perfect enough to entice the agent to read on.

    Your first two steps above are teaching us the way to have a great start. But like Jennifer said, it’s squishing my story down to 5 or 6 sentences that are fantastic enough to grab the agent’s attention which is the frustrating and scary part. I’m truly looking forward to your future posts about a query’s actual content.

    Thx for taking the time to teach/help us with this.

    • Thanks for commenting. I know it feels personal. But the more you submit the easier it will be. It’s not personal. We all have lists that are really full. We all have clients who take time. And that leaves no time for evaluating new projects. So when we look at submissions we are moving fast. It is definitely not personal. I feel awful about the people I never answered who submitted to me three years ago. It’s a pretty brutal business. So if you submit and don’t get an answer, don’t read anything into it. Chances are the agent never got around to opening the submission. And if you submit and get a form rejection, don’t read anything into it. Chances are everyone got one of that that month because it was a busy month for the agent.

      In the end, it’s a numbers game. The more you submit the better chance you have of finding the right agent at the right time with the right manuscript. The stars align, so to speak.

      Have you ever read Nicolas Sparks’ story?
      http://nicholassparks.com/for-writers/how-i-found-an-agent/

  • Once again, you’ve penned a great post. I love your sense of humor.

    I’ll tell you why writers are constantly searching online for how to write a query letter.
    Because some refuse to believe a “love potion #9” does not exist. They’d rather spend precious time searching for editors’ elusive “pixie dust” than waging war with their own pens.

    Please don’t ask me how I know this. :huh1:

  • StarletteNyte

    Hi Sally,
    You are so right, there’s so much out there about query letters, and I’ve read some of it. I must say. I have improved over time, but brushing up never hurts. When you query an agent, you need to put your best work in front of them, the first time, because that may be your last time for some agents.

    I said, when I started your class; you’re so down to earth. I think, I could really approach, someone like you with my work, and not feel intimidated. So, thank you for being approachable. Also, when you meet a potential boss, for the first time, face-to-face I mean, you have more than one way to make a good impression: the way you dress, your smile, your tone of voice, and the keys to your soul (your eyes). But on paper or in an email, your only shot’s communicated through words, and its got to be on point. The query letter, for me, can’t be less than my very best. So like many others, I’ve always been on the look out for ways to improve, my first impression (on paper). And, you’ve helped me to work on grammar, the area suffered with the most in my writing.

    Thanks, Star

    • Thanks for commenting, Star. I am approachable and I want to stay that way. Unfortunately, that also makes me very busy–more people are approaching me than I can handle. In this Internet age, it’s hard to find the time to answer all the people who email.

      I’m so thankful for my wonderful interns who work for me (and for all the writers who are writing to me) for free.

      But you don’t need to worry about that. Just keep working and when the time is right you will find the right path for you manuscript.

  • Thank you so much Sally for your query information and for asking us to comment. I think I could sum up how I feel about my query letter in one word….NERVOUS! I believe it has to be perfect, and work and work and sometimes nothing happens on my end. I am trying to trust God and do my best.

  • Hi Sally

    For me it is just trying to come up with the right words. The words that fit who I am. The hardest thing is writing about ones self. Being an artist I know this all to well, when it comes to writing a bio or artist stament. I have gone throught the internet, and have brought writtings from other authors on the subjuct an still struggle. I feel however that I am getting better, it will just take time. I think it is just something we would really perfer not to do. We would love it if we could just send agents all of our books and writing. Have them sit on a big comfy couch and read them. And tell us they love each and every one of them and wish to publish them. Writting is the fun part.