10 steps to a better query letter


I have spent months editing my manuscript… what now? Now is query time!

For some (most?) of us, the prospect of querying is stressful and nerve-wracking. We have spent months, if not years, pouring our hearts out in a manuscript, and we don’t want all that hard work to go to waste. For those of us crazy enough to pursue traditional publishing, we know the first step is to get an agent. But that’s no small step. The agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing industry, and it’s no small feat to find one.

Even before I finished my first manuscript, I was curious about the querying process. I was a newbie, and I knew virtually nothing. As I researched how to write a good query, I learned a terrifying truth: a great manuscript will never be read if the submission package sucks.

In query-world, there are no do-overs. If you query an agent for manuscript X, and you get a rejection, then that’s that. Not only is your manuscript never going to be read by that agent, but many agencies demand that you only query one agent, and a rejection from one means a rejection from all. That’s scary.

No, scratch that. It’s fucking terrifying!!!

I spent many, many hours learning, writing, revising, rewriting my first manuscript’s query. I started from scratch a few times, I had it my favorite critiqued, I struggled with the whole “hook” situation for more hours than I care to count, and I hope my research can help you on your quest for the ever-elusive perfect query.

And the super-annoying fact is that there is no such thing as a perfect query. Agents have different tastes and preferences, and one will tell you to do one thing another will hate. That’s why the process is so maddening. There is no flawless recipe to appeal to all agents.

All we can hope to do it try. I summed up the best advice I read into 10 steps.

  1. Learn

There is no shortcut for this step. You must put in the time.

           Books: I read the entire chapter on fiction queries in The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters. It shows what to do and what not to do. It has all the basics as well as great examples. https://www.amazon.com/Writers-Digest-Guide-Query-Letters/dp/1582975663

           Blogs: I love Jane Friedman resources on querying. Check out her website. https://janefriedman.com/query-letters/

            Seminars/conferences/presentations: I did 2 Writer’s Digest webinars, and they were eyes openers on how an agent think when he/she opens a query. You can wait for a discount on a set of conferences if it’s too expensive up-front. http://www.writersdigestshop.com/browse-by-product/seminars/live-webinars

  1. Write a first draft and sit on it for a few days
  2. Revise and come up with a few alternates
  3. Send the two you like best to your writer friends/writing group/beta

Brainstorm a few different hooks. Try to let your voice shine through. Tweak it again. Make sure you highlight the best things about your plot and characters. Entice.

  1. Get someone in the business to critique it

Many editors/authors/agents offer query critiques for a price. Personally, I wanted an agent in my genre to look it over, so I signed up for a Writer’s Digest webinar and critique. It took a long time (about 2 months), but I got incredible feedback and a request for more material. That’s a great bonus!

  1. Revise again

You did it! You have a great query in your hands, and you want to use it. But first, make sure your synopsis and your manuscript is ready for scrutiny.

  1. Make sure to follow the agent’s submission guidelines

Stay professional. Agents don’t want to read about how your family and friends loved your story.

  1. Personalize your query for each agent

Write the correct name and add maybe one thing that shows you have done your research without going on for entire paragraphs on how you stalked them on social media.

  1. Don’t query everyone at once

Even if you do everything right, and you got people to critique your work, don’t put all the weight of your dreams on that one query. I’m a firm believer in testing out your query letter with a few agents to test the waters. If you have a well-researched list of agents who are actively looking for your genre (I could do an entire blog post on how to make that list), you might want to try querying to 4-6 agents and see if they ask for more. If you have a genre that sells well (and that a lot of agents are looking for), maybe you could do 10 agents.

  1. Analyze your rejections (because unless you’re a prodigy, you well get rejected, it’s a part of the normal process)

Now, it’s a tricky analysis, especially if the agents ask for the first ten pages and synopsis as well. If they only ask for query, you know the rejections reflect the query only, so it’s easier to judge its efficiency. If not, then you must look at the entire submission package for the weakest link.

I have an excel spreadsheet in which I note the name of the agent, the agency, the date, and what I sent the agent. I mark the rejections in red, the requests for more in green and the unanswered in yellow. That way, I can track the responses I get.

What struggles did you have when you wrote your query, and how did you overcome it?

How do you judge the success of your query letter? I heard in some genre if 10% of the agents request more, it’s a win. I like to aim for 20% since my genre is less attractive right now and not many agents request it. What do you think?


Also, I’m doing a giveaway for The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letter.

Guide to Query Letters giveaway