How To Write A Query Letter That Gets Requests

How To Write A Query Letter That Gets Requests

When it comes to querying agents and editors, there’s only one thing that matters more than your actual manuscript: your query letter. 

But because most agents and editors want queries that are short and to the point (and ideally, less than a page long), they can be exceptionally difficult to craft.

In this post, I’m going to teach you how to write a query that works. You’ll learn the key ingredients to include (and which ones to leave out), some things to look out for once you’re finished writing your query letter, and so much more. 

My goal is to help you put your best foot forward when it comes time to query so that you can get more responses from agents and editors alike. So, let’s dive right in!


What Is A Query Letter?

A query letter is a one-page document (about 300-500 words) that writers send to literary agents or editors as a way to introduce themselves and their work.

Ideally, because of this query letter, agents or editors will fall in love with their work and ask to read their entire manuscript—and possibly even offer that writer representation on their route to publishing.

Agents receive hundreds of query letters per month, and they’re looking for a query (and a story) that stands out. This is why it’s so important to write the best query letter possible.

Now, before we dig into how to write a query letter, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about how to know when you’re ready to query. 

And the answer is pretty simple…

Before you start querying, you need to have a finished and polished manuscript. 

There are a few exceptions to this, but in general, you want to be completely done. This does NOT mean you have to go through the entire editing process—usually, a developmental edit (and some revisions) is just fine.

That being said, you can start writing your query letter whenever you want. 

In fact, I recommend working on your query letter as soon as you feel good about the overall shape of your story. Why? 

Well, just like your story goes through rounds of revision, so too will your query letter. The sooner you start crafting your query letter, the more time you’ll have to work on it (and perfect it, too).

How to Write a Query Letter That Gets Requests

When crafting your query letter, it helps to think of it in terms of three key sections:

  • Section #1 includes your key book info (title, genre, word count, comps) 
  • Section #2 includes a narrative description of your book (short synopsis) 
  • Section #3 includes your author bio (and any other relevant info)

Eventually, you’ll also need information about the agents you’re querying—including their submission guidelines, which are REALLY important—but for now, we’ll focus on creating these three sections first.

Section #1: Your Key Book Info

In the opening paragraph of your query, you’ll want to include all the key information or meta data for your book, but in a personal and conversational way. Here are the ingredients (in no particular order) that you’ll need to compose this paragraph:

  • The name of the agent you’re querying
  • A specific reason why you’re querying them
  • 2-3 comp titles (published in the last 5 years)
  • The genre and category your book fits into
  • Your story’s working title and word count (rounded to an even number)
  • A compelling logline: "When [conflict] happens to [character], they must [overcome conflict] to [complete their stake or quest]."

Now, one really important thing to pay attention to when constructing this section is the personalization factor—aka what sets you and your book apart from the large majority of writers who don’t do their homework when querying.

When researching which agents to query (or when sending out your query letters), make sure you have a specific reason for choosing each agent you query. 

This is important because it shows agents and editors that you’ve done your homework and that you’re not just blasting out query letters, hoping something will come from it.

Here are some frameworks you can use to personalize your queries:

  • "You've mentioned on Instagram/your blog an interest in XYZ so YOUR BOOK TITLE HERE might be of special interest to you." 
  • "I am seeking representation for my novel, BOOK TITLE HERE, a work of XYZ complete at TBD-words. For readers of XYZ and CLIENT BOOK TITLE HERE." 
  • "I noticed on Manuscript Wishlist you are looking for XYZ and XYZ so I'm submitting BOOK TITLE HERE." 

Now, a quick note on genre and comp titles…

Your genre and comp titles (or comparative titles) help put your book into context for agents. This information tells them that you understand where your book fits in the current market, which is really important!

If you think your story doesn’t have comp titles, or that it doesn’t fit in the genres or categories already established in the traditional publishing world, that’s a big problem. 

And in almost every case, sending out queries without clear comps or without genre information will result in an immediate rejection for your book.

So, yes, this opening paragraph is a big deal, but don’t let that intimidate you. Start by gathering all the information you need and then get it down on the page. You can massage this section for as long as it takes until you’re ready to query.

Section #2: Your Book Description

The next section of your query letter is where you’ll include a 2-3 paragraph narrative description of your story that should read like back cover copy—not a full play-by-play synopsis. This should answer questions like:

  • Who is your story about? What makes them unique?
  • What is your protagonist trying to get, achieve, or overcome?
  • Who or what is standing in the way of them achieving their goal?
  • What's at risk if they don't achieve their goals? What's at stake?
  • Where does your story take place?

Ideally, you want to balance plot and character here. Agents should have an idea of why readers will care about the main character, but also what the main conflict is that’s getting in their way (aka what keeps readers turning the page).

You don't need to give the ending of your story away, but make sure you give agents and editors enough context—and don't be vague! 

Keep this section tight and to the point, and focus on your main character’s story vs. side characters or subplots.

If you’re writing a story with multiple point of view characters, you can use this same structure—BUT the conflict should include both storylines in some capacity. 

In other words, you do want to include both storylines in the summary, but keep it short! Don’t write 2-3x more for this section just because you have more than one point of view character.

Focus on what brings the characters and their individual storylines together, not what sets them apart, and this should help you keep it nice and tight.

When in doubt, look at the back cover copy of books in your genre that have multiple point of view characters to see how other authors have handled it.

Section #3: Your Author Bio

In the final section of your query letter, you’ll want to include your author bio. Your author bio could include things like:

  • Where you live
  • Your Profession 
  • Organizations you belong to
  • Awards you’ve won
  • Publishing credentials
  • Special research relating to your book
  • Links to your website or social media

If you DON'T have any of the above (publishing credentials, awards, etc.), that is VERY NORMAL—and it’s not something you should let stress you out.

It's 100% fine to write "This is my debut novel” and leave it at that!

The key is to choose details that are meaningful (and perhaps charming!) that will help you make a connection to the agent or editor you’re querying. Don’t put random details in your author bio just to fill up space or because you feel like you have to.

Some things you do NOT want to include in your query letter are: your many years of effort and dedication, how you started writing, images or attachments (unless asked for), how much friends and family love your book, how many times you’ve been rejected, editors you’ve worked with or editing you’ve paid for, or any quotes of praise.

Why? The simple answer: these things don’t matter to the agents you’re querying and they won’t help your story get noticed. 

You want your story to be the focus of the query letter, so again: keep it simple.

Now that we’ve talked through the three key sections to include in your query letter, let’s discuss how to close your query letter—because this is really important, too!

How To Close Your Query Letter

Above all else, keep it simple and be professional. 

You can literally write something like, “Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to hearing from you,” and leave it at that.

Include your name, email address ,and maybe a phone number (if you want).

If you have a series of books in mind, you can mention that here—something like: “This is the first in a planned series,” but you don’t have to.

You also don’t have to state that you are simultaneously querying other agents unless their submission guidelines request that you do.

Want to see examples of successful queries? Check out Query Shark or Query Tracker to see examples of query letters that work.

What To Do If Your Query Is Too Long

Now, let’s say you’ve written up a query letter and you notice it’s a little long (say longer than 300-500 words)—or maybe it’s just not quite working. Here are some questions to help you troubleshoot (and improve) your query letter:

  1. Do you feel like you’re over-explaining yourself to get the point across?
  2. Are you doing more convincing (the agent) rather than pitching (your story)?
  3. Are you talking about the story, rather than telling it in narrative summary? 
  4. Have you mentioned more than three characters by name?
  5. Do you get into minor plot points (or subplots) that don’t affect the choices the protagonist makes? If so, do you really need to mention them? 

Usually, at least one of these questions will help you pinpoint which areas of your query can be improved. Most of the query letters I review need editing in that second section that describes the book like back cover copy, so when in doubt, look there. Maybe get a second or third set of eyes on it because this will help you see things more objectively.

What Happens After You Send Your Query Letter?

Once you send out your queries, be prepared to wait. 

In many cases, agents will list their expected response time in their submission guidelines, so make sure you look at those closely. After the stated response time has passed, it’s perfectly fine to follow up with an agent using the same method as the original query (usually email). 

If no expected response time is given, wait about one month to follow up—and then if you still don’t hear back, assume it’s a rejection and move on.

Final Thoughts

So, there you have it! You now know how to write an effective query letter—and how to avoid some of the most common query letter mistakes writers make.

After composing the first draft, be sure to re-read and edit your query letter so that it’s as polished as possible. You can even consider having a trusted beta reader or a professional book coach or editor review your query letter to ensure you are putting your best foot forward. 

But if you include all the elements listed above, and focus on making those three key sections shine, your query letter should be a cut above the rest. Happy querying!

Savannah is a developmental editor and book coach who helps fiction authors write, edit, and publish stories that work. She also hosts the top-rated Fiction Writing Made Easy podcast full of actionable advice that you can put into practice right away. Click here to learn more →