This post is not about what content to include in a query letter, it is about how it should ‘sound’–the professional tone the letter should take. It discusses how to address an overburdened agent, editor, or publisher in a manner that makes them consider you a potential business partner, not a supplicant, a novice, an egomaniac, or desperate. That increases the chances that your query letter will actually get read, perhaps even all the way through.
In my day job, I work with a researcher who gets dozens of unsolicited email requests daily—for a job, for a position, for help, for collaboration, for reviews, for submissions, for purchasing equipment, for endorsements, for public appearances. While these inquiries are not quite the same as author queries, after wading through mountains of these unsolicited requests on a daily basis, I’ve developed a short checklist about what to do and what not to do in basic letter-writing terms to keep your message from getting immediately rejected. If some of the suggestions I am about to offer seem commonsense, or even ludicrously obvious, all I will say is that I have abstracted all of the examples of what not to do from actual received inquiries.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes:
The goal of the query letter is not to tell the addressee what you want or need; the goal of the query letter is to convince the addressee why they might want to work with you. Don’t write about how badly you want to be a writer/make a living as a writer/become a bestseller/change the direction of literature. Lots of us want that (LOTS!). Stating it in a query letter simply puts extra social pressure on the reader, which does not increase the desire to continue reading.
The decision of whether or not to read a letter all the way through happens within seconds. The opening should sing, better than the fat lady ever did, and in your voice. The first sentences determine whether any more of the letter gets read. The first paragraph establishes whether you have done your research, are professional, would be someone interesting (and sane), someone who might be a good collaborator, and whether you can pitch your work, not your dreams.
- Don’t start with a statement that you are seeking representation or publication. That is obvious. Put that statement (if you must) towards the end of the letter, as a confirmation of your intentions. I know, business letter writing 101 taught us that the opening should start with the goal of the correspondence. Times have changed, particularly for high-volume submission industries.
- Don’t waste the first sentence on dry facts—manuscript length, your MFA, your local writer’s club membership, NaNoWriMo stats. If you must include them, put them later in the letter, and make it painfully brief.
- Don’t treat the first sentence as a personal ‘introduction’ to you, the writer (unless you have already published well, often, and profitably). Think of it as a personal introduction to YOUR WORK. The personal relationship you hope to develop with the addressee would be a product of working together, professionally, on that specific project. Examples:
- Unhelpful Introductions: “I’m an x-year-old otherwise-employed person who has always dreamed of being a writer.”
- Helpful Introductions: “I’ve written a work on topic x, which I’ve been obsessed with for decades because it affects millions of people, and no one else has ever written the truth . . .”
- Do start with the reason you are sending your work to this particular agent or publisher at this particular time. And make it a good, strong, well-researched reason. Show that you have done more than moved on to the next alphabetical listing in the agent directory with the same recycled letter, but that you know what the person represents, wants to represent, how that person wants to be approached, and that you have the product to back that knowledge up.
- Do establish that your work is appropriate for and marketable in this moment in publishing time, that you are the only person capable of writing it as it should be written (and why), and that the manuscript is at a stage worthy of seeing the light of day.