A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for the Writer magazine about query letters from an agent's point of view. Since then I’ve read learned to see them from a different vantage point through my work editing them for my book editing services. So I decided to take my new knowledge and write an updated article for my business blog.
These tips are mostly geared toward fiction writers.
TIP #1: Watch the Length.
A good rule of thumb is that your query letter should be in twelve-point font, single-spaced, and one page. Beginning writers commonly overwrite and lengthy query letters are the first hint that editing may be tough for them.
TIP #2: Use Comp Titles to Describe Your Book
Mentioning titles that your book resembles gives it a certain legitimacy. Right away, the agent can imagine your book on shelves alongside the illustrious company you’ve brought up.
TIP #3: Allude to the Agent’s Own List
Chances are that if you’re querying an agent, you’ve done some research about their client list. Be sure to say if your book has anything in common with those the agent already represents.
TIP #4: Triplecheck Your Agent’s Guidelines
Every agency has specific guidelines. For example, some want to see no pages with a query, some want to see ten, some fifty. Some allow email, some don’t. Not following proper protocol is a easy way to ruffle feathers or even get tossed onto the reject pile. Send what they want, usually outlined on their websites or found in a reference book like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents.
TIP #5: Lay off the Detail
Often writers want to explain every twist and turn of the plot; drop the names of all their beloved characters; and articulate the themes that are so close to their hearts. However, the query letter isn’t the place to get every detail down. Stick to the main characters and most important plot points. The agent should finish reading your letter wanting to know more.
TIP #6: Go Easy on the Unpublished Manuscript Credentials
Every writer has a manuscript or two (or three or four) in the proverbial desk drawer, but just as you wouldn’t mention past dates on a first date, try not to bring your earlier efforts up. What’s important is what’s happening now, not the past.
TIP #7: It’s Not a Resume
Agents are primarily interested in your book: the writing, the plot, the characters. They welcome learning of some credentials, but don’t overdo it, especially if those credentials aren’t writing related. Bring up points about career only if they’re relevant to your writing–like if your horror novel is about zombie chimpanzees, and you’re a primate biologist.
TIP #8: Reel Them In With Your First Few Lines
A great opening can mean the difference between having the rest of your letter ignored, skimmed or read. Make sure you start off your query with a bang. Establish high stakes. Present a fascinating situation. Ask a tantalizing question.
TIP #9: Choose the Agents Carefully
Do your homework and make sure that the agent you’re sending your query to is currently accepting new clients (best of all if they encourage new writers to contact them), confirm from multiple sources that they’re still at the agency you have them at, and try to make sure that they are interested in books like yours.
TIP #10: Power of Proofreading
Last but not least, proofread carefully. You want your final draft to look polished and professional. Consider giving it to a friend or fellow writer to go over. Fresh eyes can do wonders.
Like all tips, these aren’t written in stone. Be flexible and don’t get too caught up in trying to write the “perfect letter.” If you feel your book necessitates a 1.5 page letter or that there are no comp titles, don’t strain to push yourself in a box you don’t belong in. Your query letter, like your book, should ultimately be an expression of yourself.