How to Write an Effective Query Letter

So you’ve written a novel. Now what? The next thing you need to do is write an effective query letter that will grab the attention of agents and publishers and persuade them to request your manuscript.

A query letter is a one-page letter that introduces you and your book to literary agents and publishers. It should be clear, concise, and professional, and it should showcase your writing ability while giving a sense of the story you’ve created. Although I’m currently a freelance editor, I worked as the managing editor for a book publisher for fifteen years. In that time, I read countless query letters, so I know what works and what doesn’t. Below are some tips for writing an effective query letter.

An Effective Query Letter Starts with a Hook

The first sentence of an effective query letter grabs the reader’s attention and makes them want to read more. This could be a catchy tagline, a compelling question, or a brief summary of the story. Here are some ways to create a compelling hook:

  1. Use a tagline: A tagline is a catchy phrase that summarizes your book in a few words. For example, a good tagline for Jaws by Peter Benchley is “Don’t go in the water.”
  2. Ask a question: Ask a question that piques the reader’s curiosity and makes them want to know more. For example: “What would you do if you woke up with no memory of who you are?”
  3. Start with a surprising fact: Share a surprising fact that relates to your book. For example: “Did you know that a person’s sense of smell can trigger memories that are otherwise inaccessible?”
  4. Begin with a quote: Use a powerful quote that sets the tone for your book. For example: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (from Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina).
  5. Start in the middle of the action: Begin your query letter with a scene from your book that immediately draws the reader in. For example: “As the sun set on the deserted highway, Sarah realized she was being followed.”

Introduce Yourself

Introducing yourself in your query letter is an important opportunity to make a good first impression on literary agents and publishers. It’s your chance to establish your credibility as a writer and showcase any relevant experience or credentials you may have. Here are some tips for introducing yourself:

  1. Keep it brief: Your introduction should be brief and to the point. Agents and publishers are busy people, and they don’t have time to read a long-winded introduction.
  2. Mention your writing experience: If you have any writing experience, such as previous publications or awards, be sure to mention it briefly. This can help establish your credibility as a writer.
  3. Share your relevant credentials: If you’re writing a book that requires specific expertise or knowledge, such as a medical thriller or a historical fiction novel, mention any relevant credentials or experience you have in that field.
  4. Be professional: Your query letter should be professional in tone and format. Avoid using humour, slang, or overly casual language.
  5. Make a personal connection: If you have a personal connection to the agent or publisher you’re querying, such as a shared interest or mutual acquaintance, mention it briefly. This can help make your query letter stand out.
writing an effective query letter on a laptop

Summarize Your Book

In the next paragraph, provide a brief summary of your book. This should give the agent or publisher a good idea of what your book is about. Here are some tips for summarizing your book effectively:

  1. Focus on the main character: Focus on your main character and their journey. Who are they, and what do they want? What obstacles do they face?
  2. Identify the conflict: Your summary should also identify the conflict of your book. What is the main challenge that the main character faces? What are the stakes?
  3. Keep it concise: Your summary should be brief, usually no more than two or three paragraphs. Avoid getting bogged down in too many details or subplots.
  4. Highlight the unique elements of your book: What makes your book stand out from others in the same genre? What unique elements or themes does it explore?
  5. Use active language: Use active language to convey a sense of urgency and momentum. Avoid passive language and vague phrases such as “things happen.”
  6. Be specific: Your summary should be specific and concrete. Use details and examples to bring your story to life.

Include Comparative Titles

Including comparative titles in your query letter can be a great way to give agents and publishers a better understanding of your book’s market potential and where it fits in the current publishing landscape. Comparative titles are books that are similar to your own. Here are some tips for including them in an effective query letter:

  1. Choose relevant titles: Choose comparative titles that are similar to your book in terms of genre, style, and audience. Make sure that the titles you choose are recent, popular, and well-regarded by readers and critics.
  2. Be specific: Be specific about how your book is similar to the comparative titles you’ve chosen. What themes, style, or genre elements do they share?
  3. Don’t choose overly popular titles: Avoid choosing overly popular or well-known titles. For example, comparing your debut novel to the Harry Potter series or the Twilight Saga might not be the best approach.
  4. Show market potential: Including comparative titles can help agents and publishers better understand the market potential of your book. If you can show that there is a market for books similar to yours, it can increase the chances of your book being picked up for publication.
  5. Don’t rely on these titles too heavily: While comparative titles can be useful, don’t rely too heavily on them. Make sure to also highlight the unique elements of your book and what sets it apart from other books in its genre.

Personalize Your Letter

It’s important to personalize your query letter because it shows agents and publishers that you’ve done your research and that you’re serious about your writing career. It can also help your letter stand out among the many others they receive. Here are some tips for personalizing it:

  1. Address the recipient by name: Use the agent’s or publisher’s name in your salutation. Avoid using “Dear Sir/Madam” or “To Whom It May Concern” if you can.
  2. Show that you’ve done your research: Mention why you’ve chosen to query this particular agent or publisher. Have you read some of the books they’ve represented or published before? Do you share any interests or connections?
  3. Be specific: Don’t be generic in your personalization. Mention specific books or authors that the agent or publisher has represented or published that are similar to your book.
  4. Avoid flattery: While it’s important to show that you respect and admire the agent or publisher, avoid flattery that might come across as insincere or desperate.
  5. Keep it professional: Your personalization should be professional in tone and format. Avoid getting too personal or sharing personal information that isn’t relevant to your book.

An Effective Query Letter Is Also Brief

It’s important for a query letter to be brief because agents and publishers receive many submissions, and they don’t have the time to read through long letters. A concise and well-crafted query letter will grab their attention and make them want to read your manuscript. Here are some tips for keeping your query letter brief:

  1. Stick to the essentials: Focus on the most important information that you need to convey in your query letter. This includes a hook, a brief summary of your book, comparative titles, and your personalization.
  2. Avoid unnecessary details: Don’t get bogged down in too many details about your book or your writing process. Stick to the essentials that will pique the agent’s or publisher’s interest.
  3. Use clear and concise language: Make sure that your language is clear, concise, and easy to read. Avoid using overly complicated words or phrases that might confuse or distract the reader.
  4. Keep your letter to one page: Aim to keep your query letter to one page, with a maximum of four or five short paragraphs. This will ensure that your letter is easy to read and won’t take up too much of the agent’s or publisher’s time.
  5. Edit and proofread carefully: Before submitting your query letter, make sure to check it for spelling and grammatical errors.

An Effective Query Letter Ends with a Call to Action

Ending your query letter with a call to action encourages agents and publishers to take the next step in the submission process. Here are some tips for an effective call to action:

  1. Be clear and specific: You should be clear and specific about what you want the agent or publisher to do next. Do you want them to request your full manuscript? Do you want them to schedule a call with you? Make sure your call to action is tailored to your specific goals.
  2. Be polite and professional: Always be polite and professional in tone. Avoid using pushy or demanding language that might turn off the recipient.
  3. Give a timeline: If you have a deadline for your submission or if you’ll be following up at a certain time, include that information in your call to action. This will show that you’re organized and serious about your writing career.
  4. Thank the recipient: End your query letter by thanking the agent or publisher for their time and consideration. This will show that you appreciate their efforts and are respectful of their busy schedule.

Remember, your query letter is your first impression on an agent or publisher. It’s important to take the time to craft a well-written, professional letter that showcases your writing ability and your book’s potential. Good luck!

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