Query, Query, Query

July 18, 2010 at 5:31 am (Thoughts on Writing) (, , , , , , , , , )


I’m going to admit right up front that I am terrible at writing query letters.

A query letter is kind of like writing a cover letter of a resume when applying for a job and I was never any good at that either. For one fairly important reason. I can’t talk myself (or my work) up.

Even when I say something nice about myself or my work I have this niggling need to qualify it or use low modality to devalue the statement. This makes it really hard to write a half decent letter at the best of times. Add in a dab of anxiety about the possible outcome and a smattering of anticipation and what you have is a perfect recipe for word muck and nothing good is ever going to come out of that.

I know I am not alone in the being bad at writing query letter’s department. I’m quite certain there are a lot of people also blundering around in here with me. So how do you write a better query letter? Clearly I haven’t figured out how to write a brilliant letter yet but I’m going to share some advice with you and it is the advice you will find nearly everywhere online if you look for ways to improve your query letter.

1.  Read the guidelines every time you submit. Don’t read the guidelines for one agent/publisher and assume the guidelines will be the same on the next one.

2.  Even if like me you can’t write a brilliant query letter, you can at least check the basic spelling and grammar of the letter.

3.  Visit lots of author blogs. Lots of authors out there have written their list of tricks and guides for writing queries and a lot of that information is really helpful as to what to include and what to leave out.

4.  Be professional. As I said at the beginning, writing a query letter is kind of like writing a cover letter for a job and you always need to put your best foot forward. Set the letter out properly and be relatively formal and professional.

5.  When in doubt, ask or search. Don’t guess. If you don’t know what they actually want in your query letter, read the submission guidelines again, the frequently asked questions and anything else that may tell you what you are and are not to include.

The reason I’m remembering how bad I am at writing query letters is that I’ve finally decided to try to get a manuscript I shelved last year published. I’ve been dusting it off and cleaning up the rough edges but it was more or less ‘complete’ when I shelved it and decided to focus on other things. A friend of mine recently asked what was happening with it and was shocked when I told her I’d put it aside and that was enough to make me want to revisit the project. So here I am, writing another query letter and hoping I don’t stuff it up too badly.

Best of luck to everyone out there writing query letters.

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8 Comments

  1. Mason Canyon said,

    I’m one who doesn’t like to talk about myself either. One thing did come to mind as I read your post. First write the query letter as if you were writing it for a friend. Use a different name and write it like you were trying to help someone else out. Once it’s written then just go back and change it here and there to be yourself instead of the friend. Don’t know if that’ll help or not but at least it’s a different way to look at it. Good luck.

    Just a note so you know, you are always welcome to guest blog at Thoughts in Progress anytime you’d like.

    Mason
    Thoughts in Progress

  2. Madison Woods said,

    I don’t like to talk myself up either. The post of mine that led me here to you is my attempt at learning to do that, though.

    My approach to query letters, when I begin that process, will be to talk more about the book (hopefully in a compelling way) and less about myself. There’s not a lot about *me* that might interest the agent or editor, but I want them to covet my story 🙂

  3. AlexJ said,

    Cassandra, you need to write one and then have a couple author friends help punch it up.
    And I have a difficult time bragging on myself as well.

  4. Stephen Tremp said,

    Bst wishes for your success. I paid my editor to clean mine up. Difference was like night and day. Iys muy importante to get that second set of professional eyes to critique and clean up that query letter.

    Stephen Tremp

  5. Marlene said,

    I think the important thing is to talk about the book. That’s hard enough to do, since you have to distill it down to one or two paragraphs. Unless the guidelines specifically ask for an author bio, I usually don’t say anything about me. I don’t have any publishing credits yet, so I figure blank is better. I get plenty of requests for partials or fulls, so it doesn’t seem to hurt.

    If they do want author info, I just give them the basics – where I live, what I do besides write, and I list which writing organizations I belong to. I always include my blog and website addresses, too.

    • Cassandra Jade said,

      The focus does have to be the book but so many want that author bio information and it always comes off (for me) as trivial and pointless.

  6. Alex Willging said,

    I think part of my problems with query letters was figuring out my opening. I read this article about a year ago which recommended starting out without the traditional format and just going straight into the plot, i.e., “You may think losing your job is the end of the world, but as Jonah McMullen discovers…” I’ve no doubt that it was meant for the potential author’s work to stand out in a sea of queries, but looking back, I’m wondering if it’s a bit too strong.

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