How to write a delicious query letter that will leave an agent craving more (and save you loads of time)
A query letter is essentially a professional story pitch to a literary agency or publishing house.
Sometimes, it is your only shot to intrigue the very person who could further your writing career. Therefore, to get published, you need to prepare a query letter that will blow minds and quicken heartbeats. No pressure or anything.
Before we get into how to write a query letter, I need to have a frank discussion with you. A heart-to-heart. A slap in the face, you might say.
The querying process is brutal.
You will receive rejections or you may receive nothing (which will probably make you feel quite insignificant).
In order to survive, you need to reframe the way you think about the process before you begin.
I’m guessing that to you right now, success = being a published author. Although this is a great goal, a large part of it is outside of your control. If you start querying with your focus on what you can’t control, you will end up feeling discouraged and probably give up.
Instead, reframe your goal into something that is ALL YOU, a goal that gives you the best chance possible to become a published author.
One task under your control is sending out query letters. For example, you could set a goal to send one query letter a week. Or you could write 1,000 words every day, revise your story based on feedback, or send out your story to 10 beta readers for revision suggestions.
Reframing your definition of success will help you focus on what you have control over more than what you don’t.
Instead of feeling discouraged, you’ll feel empowered. No matter the outcome, if you complete this goal, you can consider yourself successful. You’ll see your progress even as you receive rejections.
Okay, now that we’ve redefined success in our heart-to-heart, we are ready to tackle the query letter. This post will help you get from a blank page to a query letter that will leave an agent craving more.
You’ll also find helpful checklists and templates. Checklists can help you feel successful while doing the small things (and we need that when we’re facing a lot of rejection). Templates provide a foundation. If you follow every step, you will be well on your way to becoming a published author.
Step #1: Write a generalized query letter.
Because you will probably query multiple agents, start by writing a generalized query letter that you can personalize for every agent. A large chunk of your letter will be similar across agents (like your hook and book summary), so writing a generalized query letter will save you loads of time. Then you can adjust your comp titles, bio, and reasons for contacting the agent based on your agent research.
A generalized query letter should include:
An email subject line
A 1-2 sentence hook
A 1-2 paragraph summary of book: word count, genre, type of book, age range, and comp titles
A 1-2 sentence bio (optional for unpublished authors) that includes credentials or any connections with the agent
Your reasons for querying this particular agent
A closing line of gratitude
Your contact information like name, email address, website, phone number, and home address
Your manuscript (include this based on individual agent instructions)
Use this query letter template to get started:
Email subject line: Query for [Literary Agent Name] - [Type of book] - [Title of book]
Dear [Literary Agent]:
Hook: When [protagonist] faces [conflict], they must [overcome conflict] in order to [achieve ultimate goal].
[1-2 paragraphs that identify your protagonist, the setting, and the protagonist’s conflict. Include the inciting incident, major plot turns, any crucial characters, and the conflict resolution]. [Title of book] is a [word count] work of [genre] that may appeal to fans of [comp title] and [comp title].
I am querying you because [state personalized reason here based on your agent research]. [1-2 sentences of bio that includes credentials like education, experience, published books, connection with the agent, or background].
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Check out this Writer’s Digest article for a step by step breakdown of each section.
Step #2: Research agents.
Now that you have written a generalized query letter, you can start organizing the names and contact information of agents or publishers you wish to query.
I like to start with QueryTracker, because it is free and I can easily organize a list of agents by genre. AgentQuery is also good. For example, if I recently finished writing a picture book, I can filter the list of agents by “picture book” and collect the names of agents I want to query.
I keep track of my agent research using a spreadsheet with these column titles:
Once I submit a query letter to an agent, I highlight their row in yellow to signal that I’m waiting for a response. If I receive a positive response, I highlight their row in green. If I receive a rejection or don’t hear back by the agent’s typical response deadline, I highlight their row in red. This helps me organize important information and track my progress.
Now that you have organized a list, it is time to research individual agents. Google their names and look for wish lists, websites, interviews, and social media pages. Take notes on what they are looking for, books they have represented (to potentially use for comp titles), and submission instructions. If certain agents seem to fit better with your book, reorganize your list to query them first.
Step #3: Personalize
Once you have information about a literary agent, it is easier to personalize your query letter. If your book is similar to a book an agent represented, include it in your comp titles. Mention something specific about your agent in your “I am querying you because…” section. Consider adjusting your bio to connect with the agent in some way. Show that you have done your research without being too much of a suck up. Reedsy and Jane Friedman provide some great examples of how to personalize your letter.
Step #4: Revise and send
Remember that this letter is your chance to intrigue an agent. DO NOT send a query without revising it many times. Check out my nine favorite revision techniques.
These questions will guide you as you revise your query letter:
Did I format my manuscript like the agent wanted?
Did I follow the agent’s submission process exactly?
Does the first line hook the agent?
Is my introduction only 1-2 sentences?
Did I keep the hook and synopsis to under two paragraphs?
Do I tell the story instead of just talk about the story?
Did I avoid including broad questions in the opener?
Did I include the title, genre, word count, target audience, and comparable titles?
Does my letter reflect the quality of my manuscript?
Is my letter professional in tone and format?
Does my synopsis focus on the main plot, setting, and characters? Did I introduce too many characters? Did I center my synopsis on the story’s central conflict? Did I describe what’s at stake for my characters? Is every line moving the story forward somehow instead of providing extra description?
Did I include publication credits, connections, experience, education, awards, competitions, workshops, conferences, author platform, and/or expertise?
Does my letter indicate why I chose this particular agent?
Do my comp titles accurately indicate where my book fits in the market? Did I avoid comparing my book to huge hits (like Harry Potter)? Is at least one of my comp titles no more than 2-3 years old?
Did I close with appreciation?
Once you do as much as you can on your own, check out the query shark blog for detailed revision advice. Read as many successful query examples as you can. You can even look them up by genre. After you revise your query, follow the agent’s submission instructions exactly. Format and attach your manuscript in the way THEY want you to do it.
Take a deep breath. Click send.
Let yourself feel proud of doing everything in your power to get your book published. Remember that a rejection letter gives you one more connection with all of your favorite authors. Embrace it and keep going!
Your query letter is an important step to FREEING THE WRITER!
So go and do. If you have any additional questions or ideas, feel free to share them in the comments below.