Jane Friedman

The Complete Guide to Query Letters

by Oberazzi / via Flickr

This post was originally published in 2014; it is regularly updated with new information. If you’re seeking one-on-one help with queries, I offer a critique service.


The stand-alone query letter has one purpose, and one purpose only: to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work.

The query letter is so much of a sales piece that you should be able to write it without having written a single word of the manuscript. For some writers, it represents a completely different way of thinking about your book—it means thinking about your work as a product. And it helps to have some distance from your work to see its salable qualities.

This post focuses on query letters for novels, although much the same advice applies for memoirists as well; nonfiction book queries are addressed here.

Before you query

Novelists should have a finished and polished manuscript before they begin querying. Even though I repeat this recommendation again and again, numerous writers ask if they’re the exception. “But what if I’m two-thirds of the way done?” Or, “What if the manuscript is currently being copyedited and it’s almost finished?”

Well, sure, you can query if you want. But what will you do if the agent/editor immediately asks for a partial or full manuscript, and you don’t have it? You may end up rushing your writing or editing process (undesirable to say the least), or admitting to the agent/editor that it will take you X weeks or months to follow up, which makes you look foolish.

To avoid creating a high-pressure or awkward situation, I recommend you wait until you feel the manuscript is totally done—the best you can make it. That doesn’t mean you have to hire freelance editors or copyeditors or proofreaders, but it does mean fixing or revising anything you know needs attention.

5 basic elements of every query letter

I recommend that every query letter include these five elements, in no particular order (except the closing):

This post elaborates on each of those elements—keep reading!

How to open your query letter

You should put your best foot forward, or lead with your strongest selling point. Here are the most common ways to begin a query:

Many writers don’t have referrals or conference meetings to fall back on, so the hook becomes the lead for the query letter. Some writers start simple and direct, which is fine: “My [title] is an 80,000-word supernatural romance.”

Personalizing the query letter

Remember, your query is a sales tool, and good salespeople develop a rapport with the people they want to sell to, and show that they understand their needs. Show that you’ve done your homework, show that you care, and show that you’re not blasting indiscriminately.

However, you will not be rejected if you don’t personalize your query. Still, I think it can set you apart from the large majority of writers querying—if it’s done meaningfully, and that’s the point. Here’s an example of a strong, personalized lead.

In a January interview at the Guide to Literary Agents blog, you praised The Thirteenth Tale and indicated an interest in “literary fiction with a genre plot.” My paranormal romance Moonlight Dancer (85,000 words) blends a literary style with the romance tradition.

If you personalize the query by saying, “I found you in Writer’s Market,” and you add nothing else, that’s not a meaningful context. You need to go further than that, and say something that can’t be added to practically every query letter you send.

Identifying what you’re selling

Your book’s title, word count, and genre are generally stated upfront, although you can wait until the end of the query to spell out this information.

3 elements of the story hook

For most writers, the hook does all of the work in convincing the agent/editor to request your manuscript. You need to boil down your story to these three key elements:

  1. Protagonist + his conflict
  2. The choices the protagonist has to make (or the stakes)
  3. The sizzle

Or, you can think of the hook in terms of: what does your character want, why does she want it, what keeps her from getting it?

Some genres/categories should also be sure to clarify the setting or time period.

The “sizzle” is that thing that sets your work apart from all others in your genre, that makes your story stand out, that makes it uniquely yours. Sizzle means: This idea isn’t tired or been done a million times before.

How do you know if your idea is tired? Well, this is why everyone tells writers to read and read and read. It builds your knowledge and experience of what’s been done before in your genre, as well as the conventions.

When a hook is well written but boring, it’s often because it lacks anything fresh. It’s the same old formula without distinction. The protagonist feels one-dimensional (or like every other protagonist), the story angle is something we’ve seen too many times, and the premise doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. The agent or editor is thinking, “Sigh. Another one of these?”

This is the toughest part of the hook—finding that special je ne sais quoi that makes someone say, “Wow, I’ve got to see more of this!” And this is often how an editor or agent gauges if you’re a storyteller worth spending time on.

Sometimes great hooks can be botched because there is no life, voice, or personality in them. Sometimes so-so hooks can be taken to the next level because they convey a liveliness or personality that is seductive.

In Laurie Scheer’s The Writer’s Advantage, she well demonstrates the difference between a boring story hook and an exciting one:

I have heard an eternity of pitches featuring women as victims, survivors, single mothers, etc. If someone pitches me a story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child … I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story.

And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is their story.

To which I say, “Who cares?” Seriously, who will care about that storyline? No one. We have seen numerous stories about women wanting to have children later in life. I could produce a list at least two pages long consisting of books and movies with this plot line.

However, if one of the main characters is a 43-year-old single businesswoman having her first child and, at the same time, her 22-year-old niece is also having her first child—because the niece does not see the benefit of having a career and only wants to be supported by a rich husband—I suddenly see some conflict here.

Whenever I teach a class where we critique hooks, just about everyone can point out the hook’s problems and talk about how to improve them. Why? Because when you’re not the writer, you have distance from the work. When you do come across a great novel hook, it feels so natural and easy—like it was effortless to write.

Examples of brief story hooks

Every day, PublishersMarketplace lists book deals that were recently signed at major New York houses. It identifies the title, the author, the publisher/editor who bought the project, and the agent who sold it. It also offers a one-sentence description of the book. These hooks are inevitably well-crafted, and can help you better understand what hooks really excite agents/publishers. While your hook would/should probably get into more detail than the following two examples, these hooks help illustrate how much you can accomplish in just a line or two.

Bridget Boland’s DOULA, an emotionally controversial novel about a doula with a sixth sense [protagonist] who, while following her calling, has to confront a dark and uncertain future when standing trial for the death of her best friend’s baby [protagonist’s problem] [a doula with a sixth sense? cool.]

John Hornor Jacobs’s SOUTHERN GODS, in which a Memphis DJ [protagonist] hires a recent World War II veteran to find a mysterious bluesman whose music [protagonist’s problem] — broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station — is said to make living men insane and dead men rise [twist]

Check for red flags in your hook

How to tell if your hook could be improved:

Writing about your background (your bio note)

For novelists, especially unpublished ones, you don’t have to include a bio in your query if you can’t think of anything worth sharing. But it’s nice to put in something. The key to every detail in your bio is: Will it be meaningful—or perhaps charming—to the agent/editor? If you can’t confidently answer yes, leave it out. In order of importance, these are the categories of pertinent info.

If you have no meaningful publication credits, don’t try to invent any. If you have no professional credentials, no research to mention, no awards to your name—nothing notable at all to share—don’t add a weak line or two in an attempt to make up for it. Just end the letter. You’re still completely respectable. 

On the other end of the spectrum: avoid cataloguing every single thing you’ve ever done in your writing life. Don’t talk about starting to write when you were in second grade. Don’t talk about how much you’ve improved your writing in the last few years. Don’t talk about how much you enjoy returning to writing in your retirement. Just mention a few highlights that prove your seriousness and devotion to the craft of writing. If unsure, leave it out.

If your bio can reveal something of your voice or personality, all the better. While the query isn’t the place to digress or mention irrelevant info, there’s something to be said for expressing something about yourself that gives insight into the kind of author you are—that ineffable you. Charm helps.

Novel queries don’t have to address market concerns

Don’t be tempted to elaborate on the audience or market for your novel. This is often misunderstood since nonfiction writers do have to talk about market concerns. However, when it comes to selling fiction, you don’t talk about the trends in the market, or about the target audience. You sell the story.

Also, novelists don’t need to discuss their marketing plan or platform. Sometimes you might mention your website or blog, especially if you feel confident about its presentation. The truth is the agent/editor is going to Google you anyway, and find your website/blog whether you mention it or not (unless you’re writing under a different name). Keep in mind that having an online presence helps show you’ll likely be a good marketer and promoter of your work—especially if you have a sizable readership already—but it doesn’t say anything about your ability to write a great story. That said, if you have 100,000+ fans/readers on Wattpad or at your blog, that should be in your query letter.

Close your letter professionally

You don’t read much advice about how to close a query letter, perhaps because there’s not much to it, right? You say thanks and sign your name. But here’s how to leave a good final impression.

  1. You don’t have to state that you are simultaneously querying. Everyone assumes this. (I do not recommend exclusive queries; send queries out in batches of three to five—or more, if you’re confident in your query quality.)
  2. If your manuscript is under consideration at another agency, then mention it if/when the next agent requests to see your manuscript.
  3. If you have a series in mind, this is a good time to mention it. But don’t belabor the point; it should take a sentence.
  4. Resist the temptation to editorialize. This is where you proclaim how much the agent will love the work, or how exciting it is, or how it’s going to be a bestseller if only someone would give it a chance, or how much your kids enjoy it, or how much the world needs this work. Basically, avoid directly commenting on the quality of your work (whether to flatter yourself or criticize yourself). Your query should show what a good writer you are, rather than you telling or emphasizing what a good writer you are.
  5. Thank the agent, but don’t carry on unnecessarily, or be incredibly subservient—or beg. (“I know you’re very busy and I would be forever indebted and grateful if you would just look at a few pages.”)
  6. There’s no need to go into great detail about when and how you’re available. At the bottom of your letter, including your email address and phone number.
  7. Do not introduce the idea of an in-person meeting. Do not say you’ll be visiting their city soon, and ask if they’d like to meet for coffee. The only possible exception to this is if you know you’ll hear them speak at an upcoming conference—but don’t ask for a meeting. Just say you look forward to hearing them speak. Use the conference’s official channels to set up an appointment if any are available.

Appropriate query length

In its entirety, the query shouldn’t run more than 1 page, single spaced, if printed, or somewhere around 200 to 400 words. I recommend brevity, especially if you lack confidence. Brevity gets you in less trouble. The more you try to explain, the more you’ll squeeze the life out of your story. So: Get in, get out.

The following stuff doesn’t belong in the query

Special advice on email queries

Email queries tend to get read and rejected more quickly than snail mail queries; with that in mind, you may want to create two separate versions of your query letter, one for email and another for printing. Here’s a formatting process I recommend:

Some writers structure their e-queries differently than paper queries—they make them shorter or add more paragraph breaks. Consider how much the agent can see of your e-query on the first screen, without scrolling. That’s probably how far they will read before responding or hitting delete. Adjust your query accordingly. Usually the hook should go first, unless you have a strong personalization angle.

If you have an e-mail address for an editor/agent who doesn’t accept e-mail queries, you can try sending your query on a hope and a prayer, but you probably won’t receive a response. In fact, I’ve heard many writers complain that they never receive a response from email queries. (Sometimes silence is the new rejection.) This is a phenomenon that must be regrettably accepted. Send one follow-up to inquire, but don’t keep sending e-mails to ascertain if your e-query was received.

You’ve sent your query—now what?

If you don’t hear back, follow up after the stated response time using the same method as the original query. If no response time is given, wait about 1 month. If querying via snail mail, include another copy of the query. If you still don’t hear back after one follow-up attempt, assume it’s a rejection, and move on. Do not phone or visit.

If an agent asks for an exclusive read on your manuscript, that means no one else can read the manuscript while they’re considering it. I don’t recommend granting an exclusive unless it’s for a very short period (maybe 2 weeks).

In non-exclusive situations (which should be most situations): If you have a second request for the manuscript before you hear back from the first agent, then as a courtesy, let the second agent know it’s also under consideration elsewhere (though you needn’t say with whom). If the second agent offers you representation first, go back to the first agent and let her know you’ve been made an offer, and give her a chance to respond.

Additional resources on query letters

Looking for more?

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