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.
Establish that you are a Professional
Prove that you are not doing this on a whim, but have been working to learn the craft, the profession, the business, and the community. That means giving (brief) evidence that you treat writing as a serious and difficult endeavor, not as an easy road to fame and fortune. Examples:
- Won’t be taken seriously: “Hi, I recently decided that I would like to be a writer, so I wrote a book, and then I discovered that you have made the most money selling books of any agent in the entire universe in history, and I am sending it to you because I would like to make a pile of money.” (And yes, this may seem like caricature, but it is based on far too many real emails I’ve had to read.)
- More likely to be taken seriously: “I’ve been writing for years, regularly participate in a number of local writer communities, participate in a critique group and weekly book discussion groups, and have had several short pieces accepted for publication in local journals, etc.”
Basic Email Etiquette
- Confirm the gender of your addressee and then use the correct pronoun! Gender/name correspondence has become highly fluid, and with the melting-pot that this entire world has become, take nothing for granted. Nothing. If you don’t know the gender, avoid using gender-specific pronouns at all.
- Address it to the Correct Person! Many writers use the same query letter text for more than one inquiry. If you are going to cut and paste, double, triple, even quadruple check that the addressee’s name on the text is actually the name of the person at the other end of that magic email pipeline. (Keep in mind that the more generic the letter sounds, the more likely it is to be dismissed. A good letter sounds like it was written from one person to one other person, not to a category such as ‘agent’ or ‘publisher.’)
- Address it to the person’s work address, not to their personal address. Use the address given on their professional media presence, not their personal media presence. If they don’t give an address on their professional media presence, and you have to search through personal information to get an address, chances are really good that person does not want unsolicited queries and you are simply wasting your time (and potentially becoming a stalker).
- Do mention any possible common acquaintances, but only IF they know your work and would recommend it (and you). Do not name casual acquaintances. Examples:
- Unhelpful Networking, “I met one of the authors you represent at a bar two years ago and they encouraged me to submit to you.”
- Helpful Networking, “Author X, who you represent, kindly offered to read some of my work and suggested that I should submit for your consideration.”
- Don’t use your addressee’s first name, as if you were on a first-name basis. Use Mr. or Ms. or Dr. and their last name, as if you were meeting them in polite, business formal company.
- Avoid ‘casual’ introductory personal chitchat. No ‘hi’s,’ ‘hello’s, ‘ ‘Greetings,’ ‘My name is X and I want to’. Your name is on the signature line. You don’t need to write as if you are in a conference and about to shake hands. It’s a waste of words and time. If you absolutely feel you have to make it personal, at least use the personal experiences that relate to your WORK. Examples:
- Offputting: “Dear Agent, “Hi, my name is Y and I have the most fantabulous work that is right up your alley.”
- Potentially appealing: “Dear Agent, After experiencing the tragic consequences of losing a loved one to a hospital-acquired infection, I decided to write a story that addressed this problem . . .”
- No Attachments. (Unless the addressee has officially and specifically stated that is how they want to receive submissions). Attachments pack viruses. Attachments get flagged by spam filters. Attachment contents don’t always translate properly between programs and versions of programs. Include your query letter text in the body of your email.
- Do not send unsolicited writing samples. If the instructions are to send a query letter, simply send a query letter. Don’t add a writing sample in the hopes that it will shortcut the process. All it proves is that you can’t follow instructions (or that you think you are above them). If the addressee’s official submission guidelines request a short writing sample, paste it into the email after the body of the query letter.
- Do not send a resume, a c/v, promotional picture, publication list, birth certificate, your high school or college transcripts, or other certifications (unless specifically stated on that particular addressee’s preferred submission format list). All that comes at a later stage of the process, upon request.
- Edit. Finetune. Cut. Have friends read it and give feedback. Friends who are also writers and are willing to tell you the truth are the best option. Family members are not always helpful. Get rid of anything that does not relate to the project you are pitching, why that project is something that would interest the addressee, and why you are the person who can deliver that project.
Add In Yourself, Your Personality
Even in writing a query letter you are a writer. You are presenting yourself as a writer worth reading; your ‘voice’ should shine through in the letter. Be yourself. If successive edits have cut the letter down to a dry, densely-packed tome, then add yourself back into the mix, and make it fun to read. If you can write a query that is actually enjoyable to read, then not only will it get read, but it will raise some serious expectations that your work might also be enjoyable.
I know that many of our readers are experienced query writers (and readers).Do any of you have any more dos/don’ts for query letter writers?
For query-newbies—do you have any questions about what to do/not to do that were not covered above?
Query Letter Content:
If you want more information on what information to include or how to structure a query letter, a number of our other contributors (who are much more knowledgeable than I am) have already covered the topic, and there are regular discussions about queries on the Writer Unboxed Facebook page. To find other Writer Unboxed posts about queries, then simply scroll down to the search button in the lefthand sidebar and type in “query.”
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!
If you enjoyed this post, feel free to buy me a cup a joe, but please be aware that I donate all the cups to Writer Unboxed’s general fund, to keep the good information (as well as coffee) flowing.
Image By Slaunger – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40209845