The article How to Write a Query Letter: 3 Paragraphs That Hook a Literary Agent appeared first on The Write Practice.
If you’re interested in getting your book traditionally published, it’s crucial that you sign with a literary agent who loves your story and has a vision for your career. To do this means you need to write the single most important page you’ll ever write outside of your book: a query letter.
No pressure, right?
If the thought of writing a query letter freaks you out or confuses you, hit the pause button and breathe for a second. You are not alone.
Here’s the good news: there is a method that will help you get an agent to say, “Sounds great! Send me more.”
It’s called the three-paragraph method.
And it will teach you exactly what literary agents want to see in their query letter inbox.
What My Editorial Internship Taught Me About Query Letters
When I studied film and television in college, I learned how to develop and present an elevator pitch. After graduation, I become more involved in publishing and eventually attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2015, where I pitched my story in a special pitch slam.
This experience was intimidating—and fantastic. I had presented elevator pitches as an undergrad to my film professors, but I had never pitched my story idea live to a literary agent in under a minute.
Flash forward a few years later to when I worked as an Editorial Internship. To this day, I consider this one of the most valuable experiences in my writing and editing career.
I had a lot of roles as an editorial intern, including some hands-on experience in reviewing query letters. Here, the literary agent I worked directly with educated me on what made a query letter stand out, and that I’ve used to determine a pitch’s quality ever since: three paragraphs.
The truth is, tons of writers still struggle to write that one-page email that is clean, concise, and catchy. The kind of query letter that turns rejections into requests.
As an editorial intern, I was lucky enough to learn from the best about what makes a great query letter—one that identifies if a story matches a specific agent’s taste, and suggests if the writer querying the agent (1)is professional and has done their research, and (2) is a strong writer with a voice and style that attracts the agent.
If you want to sign with a literary agent, you need to first understand how to pitch your book and yourself well.
This post will coach you on exactly that.
What is a Query Letter and Why Do You Need One?
What the heck is a query letter?
A query letter is first and foremost a one-page letter that acts as a sales pitch. Although once mailed through the post, they’re now normally emailed to a specific literary agent, with the intent of enticing that agent into asking to read more of your manuscript.
You don’t have to have a finished manuscript to write a query letter, but you absolutely should have a finished manuscript before you query a literary agent, unless you’re a nonfiction writer and pitching a book proposal for a nonfiction book.
We could talk about word count, but I’ve often found that If you give a writer a word count for a query letter, they focus on the little details instead of the more important ones.
I’ve always been an advocate for quality over quantity, and while I have read my fair share of longer query letters that literary agents still considered, short ones pitched well stand out.
What does short mean?
A single-spaced page, in standard Times New Roman, 12 point font, is about 500 words. I’d encourage writers to stick to this length when writing their query letters.
Going over this probably suggests that you’re trying to hard to tell your story. You shouldn’t have to try hard to pitch the big hooks. The main character, stakes, and unique plot should be able to stand on their own.
Do I really need a query letter?
Yes. Roger that.
If you want to publish with traditional publishing, you need a query letter. It’s as simple as that.
Although professional editors in publishing houses are considered gatekeepers to a contract, literary agents are the threshold guardians who will represent and defend you and your story when pitching to the big pub houses.
And a query letter is the first step in getting a literary agent.
Agents receive a lot of query letters a year. Seriously, it’s a bucket load. Because of this writers might think that literary agents don’t take query letters seriously.
They might also take it personally if they don’t get a response from a literary agent months after querying them.
Look, all rejection stinks. Nobody likes that feeling. But this is part of the traditional publishing business, and I think understanding why agents don’t have time to answer every query makes the process more manageable.
Here are some statistics that Carly Watters, VPS and Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary Agency, shared on her Instagram account about how likely she is to offer representation (in a year, with 2,000 letters sent each month and about 300 addressed specifically to her):
- 3% to read partials
- 1% to read fulls
- less than .01% offered representation (signing about 3-5 clients a year)
It’s not a shock that this isn’t a lot.
Still, not querying a literary agent gives you a zero percent chance to signing with one, especially since it is highly unlikely that a publisher will offer to publish a story that you have self-published or is already published. With the exception of Andy Weir’s The Martian.
That’s why writing a knockout query letter is crucial to getting traditionally published. Why this one page letter radiates importance. And why mastering the three-paragraph method will not only make you more confident at pitching and selling your story, but also set you up for a better chance to at least get a request for a partial or full manuscript.
This method, along with attention to submission guidelines, will likely tip your letter into the top ninety-seven percent of all stories queried to literary agents on a yearly basis.
Isn’t that crazy? Ninety-seven percent!
Why not try to learn it?
Quick Note: Self-publishing does not require a query letter but learning this three-paragraph method can still help self-published writres because the second paragraph teaches a strategy to write your back cover.
Back covers work as a great blurbs for Amazon or another online seller!
When Should You Write a Query Letter?
Are you writing a fiction novel or memoir? If yes, hold off on querying until you’ve completed your absolute best draft. Although it’s possible that you won’t hear from an agent for up to three months after submitting, you could also get a request for a partial that same day. Who knows!
If you do get an early request, you need to have your manuscript ready.
Unlike drafts completed in NaNoWriMo or others pitched at a writing conference, where literary agents want writers to take time to revise them before querying, literary agents will expect a quick turnaround if they request manuscripts from the slush pile.
The only exception to this if if you’re a nonfiction writer and query a book proposal for a nonfiction book. You should, however, have some sample chapters completed, since this is part of what agents want to review in a book proposal.
Some other items you might want prepared before querying (it depends on the submission guidelines for each literary agency) include:
- a one page synopsis (focus on plot!)
- a three page synopsis (still plot!)
- an author website (literary agents will want to see that you have at least the beginnings of an author platform)
Keep in mind, numbers of followers aren’t something that makes or breaks a fiction or memoir writer, but it could be what sells a nonfiction writer.
Regardless, author platforms are important, especially since traditional publishers expect writers to carry much of the book marketing and promotion work.
The earlier you build your writing community and promote your work—and especially have an author website with a running email list—the better.
Should I Personalize My Query Letter?
A million times over, YES.
Do not submit query letter that is not addressed to a specific agent. Literary agents are part of literary agency,