If you’re a freelance writer, you want to see your work published. Whether it’s for fame or money, the publication process isn’t as simple as finishing a work and hoping that someone will read it. Instead, it requires that writers have a familiarity with a few essential things, the most notable of which is how to write a query letter.
Simply put, in order to connect professionally with literary agents, magazine editors, and publishers, you’ll need to know how to write a query letter.
What is a Query Letter?
A query letter is a formal pitch that writers use to pitch ideas to literary professionals. Typically, it is a one-page email or letter to garner interest in your work that you’d want them to publish. For magazine editors, query letters are used to pitch articles. For agents and publishers, they’re used for potential book ideas and finished manuscripts.
Think of your query letter as a job application for freelance writers. Query letters serve as an introduction to you and work. If your idea is interesting and would make money for the recipient, they may ask to see completed examples of your work, a book proposal, or to start a working relationship. If your idea isn’t a good fit for their publication or interests, you may be rejected.
Why are Query Letters Important?
Because of how busy the publishing industry is, query letters save both the industry professionals and writers valuable time. It’s a popular misconception that nonfiction writers have to complete their manuscripts before sending query letters. While a completed manuscript/work may be accepted, it more often than not leads to rejection and wasted time. For fiction writers—especially ones with no prior publishing experience—a completed, ready-to-send manuscript is mandatory to be considered for publication, but shouldn’t be included with a query letter. Works-in-progress are typically rejected.
Essentially, a query gives writers an okay to finish an idea, send a completed manuscript, or make alterations to satisfy the recipient’s suggestions. Jumping the gun may have you filtered out by spam filters or sticklers that sense your ignorance of their rules will not be a good financial bet.
The Purpose of Query Letters
There’s no getting around it—a query letter is a sales pitch. To increase your chances of getting published, a compelling, error-free query letter helps you stand out from the competition. Your job ultimately is to convince an editor or an agent that your idea deserves to be read. While your manuscript or idea may be a stroke of genius, it ultimately comes down to the query letter to sell it.
Before Sending a Query Letter
Before composing your query letter, you’ll have to do some research. The first step is to find the right person to send a query letter to. While you should submit multiple queries to increase your odds of being accepted, it helps to find the right person. Nonfiction editors don’t usually deal with fictional work (and vice versa). Find out the editor or agent’s specialty beforehand, using online resources or social media (like LinkedIn) to narrow the field. It helps to ask fellow writers—they can introduce you, which makes it easier to pitch them your work than being a total stranger.
Second, not all professionals have an open submission policy for query letters. Unless you have built a rapport or professional connections from your network, submitting a query letter may be a waste of time.
How to Write a Query Letter
Formatting a query letter is very important when it comes to impressing agents and editors. Think about it: if your query has errors and is difficult to read, how will the final product look? It should not look like you do not know how to write a query letter, nor should it be an eccentric attempt to garner attention—save that for your manuscript.
The generic format of a query letter is simple. However, before composing your query letter, adhere to the submission guidelines of an agency or publication, typically listed on their website or in Writer’s Digest. Some guidelines are purposely obtuse to screen out amateurs, while others don’t provide specific guidelines besides contact information.
The structure of a query letter is comprised of five parts structure. Typically, each part should comprise a paragraph, though certain parts may be combined for shorter works:
How to Write a Query Letter
The first part of your query letter is the address. Be sure to avoid non-specific address like “Dear Mr./Mrs.” Instead, specifically address the editor by name. If you have met the person you are sending the query letter to, be sure to name when and where you met them along with a memorable bit of conversation/information that led you to query them. If you’ve never met this person, be sure to provide some information that show that you are familiar with their work/publication.
2. Story Idea:
The second part of your query is the story idea. For nonfiction writers, include a proposed title of the work and what category the piece best fits (i.e. first-person narrative, biography). Fiction writers should state which genre is the best fit and proposed title. Afterwards, provide a one-sentence synopsis of the story and a proposed word count.
3. The Hook:
While the other elements are important, the hook is your chance to sell your writing and should comprise the bulk of your query letter.
Nonfiction writers should focus on their unique point of view for the subject matter and why it is compelling to a reader. Avoid redundant topics and offer fresh perspectives that would appeal to the intended audience or established readership. If the subject matter has some suspense or mystery, include this as well (ex. “…and with the rise in organ donation during the holiday season, will Marie struggle to hold on until another dies?”).
Fiction writers are required to boil their story down to a synopsis, focusing on the protagonist(s), the conflicts they encounter, and the setting (when and where). While you can reveal key moments of plot development (ex. “everything shifted when Kim picked up an attractive hitchhiker.”), avoid disclosing the ending.
Finally, the goal of both nonfiction and fiction writers is to mention why the story or idea that you intend to write is unique and deserves to be published.
Once your story is stated, your biography and qualifications further sell your work. If you have relevant experience, an academic background, or fame, emphasize these details in this part of the query letter. This is especially true for nonfiction writers who’ve conducted prior research related to their proposed work.
If you have a substantial social media following, including the number of followers and monthly traffic to your website(s). Additionally, it helps to emphasize how many works you’ve previously published with the number of units sold, as new authors are more risky than ones who’ve had other publishers take a chance on their work.
The fifth and final part of a query letter is the closing. Be sure to thank the editor/agent for taking the time to read your query and include an offer to send additional manuscripts/excerpts “upon request.” For mailed queries, sign your query and include the relevant contact information at the bottom. For email, having a professional contact information and relevant links at the bottom achieves the same purpose.
Additionally, there are some general guidelines on how to write a query letter:
Make your tone professional and business-like. After establishing a relationship with the editor or agent, you can be more casual and friendly, but first-impressions do count.
A query letter should not exceed one page. Make each sentence count and avoid repetitions.
Though the practice is being phased out by email, if you submit a query by mail, include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) unless otherwise indicated. The purpose is to make sure an agent or editor can reach you if your work is accepted or rejected.
For mail queries, avoid handwritten documents. Instead, use a 12pt Times New Roman font in black ink on white paper, with your name, contact information, and date clearly displayed.
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That about wraps up the basics on how to write a query letter. Ultimately, your query letter should show the recipient that you’ve done your research, followed a familiar format, and persuaded them that you and your work are worthy of being published. Happy querying!