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What to Write in the “Bio” Section Of Your Query Letter

Screen Shot 2013-05-26 at 11.49.53 PM [1]GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM [2] or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS [3]. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: jenniferkirkeby won.)

In my opinion, a good query letter is broken down into three parts – the quick intro, the pitch, and the bio.  Strangely enough, the third section (the bio) often generates the most questions and uncertainty with writers. In fact, when I speak at writers’ conferences [4] on the topic of how write a query letter, there are typically a ton of questions about this small paragraph. So with that in mind, I have tried to cobble together some notes on what to include and what not to include in a query letter at the end when you’re talking about yourself and your writing.

FICTION VS. NONFICTION

Before you read on, you need to realize that the bio section of a query letter is a completely different beast for fiction vs. nonfiction. If you’re writing nonfiction, the bio section is typically long, and of the utmost importance. This is where you list out all your credentials as well as the greatest hits of your writer platform [2]. The importance of a nonfiction bio cannot be overstated. It has to be fat and awesome. Fiction bios, however, can be big or small or even not there at all. Most of the questions and notes I address below are discussing the murky waters of fiction query bios.

YES: INCLUDE THESE ELEMENTS IN YOUR BIO

NO: SKIP THESE ELEMENTS IN YOUR BIO

THE MOST COMMON QUESTION PEOPLE ASK ME

“If I do not have any writing credits to my name, what should I put in the letter?” My answer: Nothing. As long as you are not writing nonfiction, then the bio paragraph is just gravy. If an agent gets two dynamite pitches on Tuesday morning, and one of the letters is from a writer with some short publication credits while the other lacks said credits, I bet you there is a 99% chance the agent will request pages from both scribes. If you create a great pitch and show you’ve got voice on your side, then agents will want to read more — period.

If you have nothing impressive to say about yourself, then just end your query with the standard finale, which is, “Thank you for considering my submission. I look forward to hearing from you.”

OTHER FAQs TO HELP YOU

  1. What if you have nothing about yourself to discuss, but the agent specifically requests a “bio sheet” or “bio paragraph” or something like that? If that’s the case, then this would be the one time to simply fill white space and talk about lesser things of importance. It’s a tough situation; just write whatever you can.
  2. I know you said I shouldn’t mention that my book was edited, but does an agent want to know if the edit took place by a professional writer acting as my mentor? My guess is that this will still not help you. The only time this will act as a boon is if you’re positive this literary agent knows the writing mentor personally. (Perhaps they’re friends on Twitter.) If the agent knows the mentor, then such name-dropping is a good idea. Otherwise, you’re just listing a person’s name that the agent has never heard of.
  3. Should mention nonfiction writing (articles/books) even if I’m pitching a novel? I say yes. These credits won’t be a magic carpet to getting your work bought, but any such accomplishments do convey the sense that you are a professional writer who has experience with content, deadlines, and dealing with editors. It also shows you’re in touch with members of the media, which equals platform [2].
  4. I’ve done writing in the past, but it was way in the past — like 20 years ago. Can I mention these credentials? Simply don’t mention the years. Just have a sentence like “I have previously contributed articles to the San Francisco Chronicle.” Done.
  5. Is this “bio” section of the query the best place to mention series potential for the book? There is no perfect place to bring up series potential, so it’s fine to write it here, if you like.
  6. Last piece of advice for composing a query bio? A cover-all piece of advice I have is this: No matter if you are discussing something notable (perhaps a past book that sold well) or something that is small (a local award), my best advice is to mention the point quickly, and then back off. If you blabber on about an impressive accomplishment, it may come off as egotistical. If you yammer about something not impressive, then it may look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Mention things quickly and humbly.

WAIVER

Please note that all agents (and editors) are different. They all have their quirks and “likes” and opinions and eccentricities. Some may even pop up in the comments here to say “But I really ADORE it when writers list their influences.” You need to keep in mind that these comments are the opinions of one individual, not a collective whole. If an agent’s webpage requests that you explain in your query all about how long it took you to write the book, that is their style — their bag, their quirk. That does not mean it’s a good across-the-board principle. My job is not to listen to the likes of one agent, but rather consult 20 different opinions and synthesize the best answer for you. And with that said, I think the above guidelines are pretty solid for aspiring authors. Good luck!

GIVEAWAY: I am very excited to again give away a free book to a random commenter. The winner can choose either CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM [2] or the 2013 GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS [3]. Commenters must live in the US/Canada; comment within one week to win. Good luck! (Update: jenniferkirkeby won.)

Photo credit: Megan Myers/Flickr [5].

 

About Chuck Sambuchino [6]

Chuck Sambuchino [7] is a freelance editor of query letters, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts. As an editor for Writer's Digest Books, he edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS [8] and the CHILDREN'S WRITER'S & ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET. [9] His Guide to Literary Agents Blog [10] is one of the largest blogs in publishing. His own books include the bestselling humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK [11], which was optioned by Sony Pictures, as well as the writing guide, CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM [12]. Connect with Chuck on Twitter [13] or at his website [14].

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