Six Simple Steps to Writing an Effective Query

I'd like to direct your attention to the funniest thing I've read in ages, Slushpile Hell, where "a grumpy literary agent wades through query fails."

The site's quotes are definitely great examples of how not to write a query. But I'm often asked about the right way, so I thought I'd devote a brief post to the topic.

A solid query letter (or e-mail, as often as not, these days) does the following:

1. Conveys that you have done your homework, checking in the most recent edition of the Writer's Market or, better yet, the agent's or publisher's website (for more up-to-date information) to find out if this submission is appropriate for this publishing pro and if he/she is accepting unsolicited queries. If you can't do even that much research, you're wasting everybody's time.

2. Quickly lets the recipient know what it is you're shopping. For example: "I'm seeking representation (or a publisher) for Sparrows in the Storm, a 90,000-word historical romance" or "an 80,000-word novel in the tradition of Jodi Piccoult and (name another remotely similar author the publishing pro's likely to have heard of and hasn't been dead or out of fashion for decades.) The second approach is helpful to let the person know what type of reader would enjoy your book, and (more importantly, from a sales standpoint) how it might be marketed.

3. Encapsulates the book's marketing hook in one to three sentences.
For example: "As a hurricane builds in the Gulf of Mexico in 1821, the beautiful mixed-race mistress of a powerful New Orleans merchant runs away with a handsome British sea captain -- a decision that endangers both their lives and changes the face of the region's slave trade forever." (I'm making this up as I go along, so don't read too much into my storyline.)

The description above not only cues the reader that as a historical romance, this story has all its fingers and toes (attractive, star-crossed lovers and a powerful adversary) but how it's different from other historical romances on the market. (Unusual setting and a story that crosses racial boundaries and isn't afraid to take on the slave trade, which has been almost a taboo subject in commercial romance for quite some time. The agent/editor might be curious about how you handled such a topic, or it could scare her off, but at least it will get her attention.)

Do not attempt to summarize the entire synopsis in the query. If the marketing hook is sufficiently intriguing, you'll get the opportunity to send chapters and/or a synopsis.

4. Provides any pertinent information about you. In the above example, it would be relevant for the agent/editor to know if you happen to be a professor of Southern history at Tulane University in New Orleans, or if you are a New York Times bestselling novelist or a major award winner. A publishing track record (with publishers the pro will recognize) would be good to know as well. But these folks generally don't care about your day job, your hobbies, your family (unless maybe your sister's JK Rowling, and she's promised an endorsement) or your fourteen polydactyl cats. For the most part, your story should speak for itself.

5. Is no longer than one, single-spaced page, in standard business-letter format. (This is relaxed for e-mail, but let's not get too chummy or start with the emoticons.)

6. Is professional and appropriately confident. Groveling is poor form, and boasting's even more off-putting. You're a professional with (you believe) a commercially viable product, and you're looking to enter a mutually advantageous business relationship. Acting as if you're the Eighth Wonder of the World who's destined to make everyone a fortune because your mother loved your story just makes you look like an idiot - and a delusional prima donna to the person you are querying.

Querying publishing professionals can be a time-consuming, stressful process. But by following these common sense tips, you're at least assured of not ending up on some agent's "query-fail" site! And you have a good, fighting chance of finding a partner that can take your career to the next level and put your book in readers' hands.


For another agent's hilarious (and frustrated take) on the crucial element many writers forget, please check out

Thank you, Janet Reid!
Sheila said…
Great tips Colleen. I'll use this as my checklist.
Best of luck to you in the querying process, Raven!
Emily said…
We love SlushPile Hell over at StyleMatters. Great stuff. Here's our own two cents about writing query letters:

You might find some of it useful! Thanks for your tips too.

Thanks for the comment, and I enjoyed your post as well. I like the added personalization you suggest of mentioning why you're querying that particular individual, agency, or publisher. It's definitely a good way to show you've researched an appropriate, reputable place to send your valued work.

Clicking the link doesn't work, so readers, try using copy and paste.

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