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How to Write a Query Letter

Query letters are the first point of contact a writer makes with a potential literary agent. They act as a tool of introduction as well as persuasion in order to get an agent to represent a writer and sell their work to publishers. Every agent might have different requests for what they want from writers, so be sure to check the agent’s websites before querying them individually. Different genres have different requirements, and we will do our best to point out where these might be different. Don’t be afraid to do extra research to see what people recommend for exactly the type of project you are working on. Did we forget a step or is something out of date? Email us and let us know!

The Basics

The query letter is your cover letter. It introduces you & your work and primes them for what they’ll read in the sample. It consists of your story’s hook, your bio, nuts & bolts (word count, genre, age category), and thanking them for their time.

I always used “Hello, [First Name]” because the old “Mr./Mrs. [Last Name]” doesn’t respect the spectrum of gender identity, and I’m not writing my beloved from the front lines of 1816’s battle of Who Shot John, so “Dear” feels antiquated and weirdly intimate for an aspiring business relationship.

What is a Hook?

One way to think of the hook is to think of what would be written on the jacket of your book when it sits in the bookstore. What gets someone walking through the hundreds of books to stop and pick this particular one.

Things The Hook Is:

  • Brief – Think 1-2 very short paragraphs highlighting the key elements of your story. Who is/are your character(s)? What do they want? How do they get it? What is at stake? What’s in the way?
  • Interesting – Your goal is to entice the agent to read not just the sample pages, but to be willing to invest even more time in finishing the story you’ve decided to tell.
  • Professional – This is a business communique. Mentions of how attractive you find the agent, of how garbage you find the rest of the industry in which you are trying to work, your plans to be the savior of the genre… leave all that in the group chat.

Things The Hook Is Not:

  • Written from the POV of your characters – This is not a clever or interesting or unique approach. This is corny and shows a lack of awareness of industry norms. Be clever and unique and interesting in your story.
  • A page long – Did we mention it’s supposed to be brief? The entirety of the query letter should not be longer than a single page using a minimum 11pt font.
  • A century of world-building context for the events taking place in your manuscript.
  • The tale of how and why you came to write the book – save that for your call with the agent when you get there.

Nuts & Bolts

In a paragraph separate from your hook, you’ll get into market jargon.

Intended Market: Adult, Young Adult, or Middle-Grade audience?

Genre: Sci-fi? Memoir? Thriller? Romance?

Comp Titles: These are books that are similar to your book; mostly in terms of the intended audience. Think “for fans of…” If you have comp titles, this is where they would go, but they are by no means a mandatory element of your query letter.

Word Count: Be aware of your age group/genre’s standards in terms of word count. 40,000 words is a novella, not a novel. You’re not going to sell a 100,000 word book intended for the middle grade market. And 100,000 words is stretching the upper limit of a YA fantasy. I know you’ve held books with the approximate weight and dimensions of a cinderblock, but don’t try and pitch 300,000 words of anything as a debut. A too-high word count signals that the manuscript has not been sufficiently edited or doesn’t exist in a format they will be able to sell (i.e. it’s actually two books and you don’t understand enough about story structure). These concerns can also be about cost: longer books cost more to print, so the story had better be worth it.

Word Count Norms

Generally, novels are somewhere between 50,000 and 110,000 words, but most people recommend more in the 70,000-90,000 range. Nonfiction tends to be in a similar range. The exception for adult books comes in genre stories, like sci fi, fantasy, and historical stories where the writer needs more time for worldbuilding, 80,000-120,000 words, although there are many agents who do not want anything over 100,000 because books of this length are extremely hard to sell. Books for younger readers tend to be shorter with young adult books averaging closer to 40,000-80,000 and middle grade even shorter at 20,000-50,000 words. Picture books, obviously, are much shorter and rarely hit over 600 words.

Querying a series: You’re only pitching one book at a time, so the manuscript you’re shopping should be able to stand on its own with self-contained character and narrative arcs. Think the original Star Wars movie vs the later ones. This is the paragraph where you’d mention “series intent” or “series potential,” though. You’d go over the specifics of how manageable this is with the agent should they request a call once they’ve read the manuscript.


But you just want to see the response to your concept? That’s what beta readers are for. But you’re missing this really cool Twitter pitch event? There will be another one. The first step to querying is actually finishing your story.

The Bio

Your bio should also be its own paragraph, and include information like any previous publishing credits, relevant degrees (is your main character an architect? Here’s where you plug your architecture degree), awards, certifications, or other information about you that is relevant to your writing.

Coming Out

There is also the question of self-identifying in your query, and it’s a personal decision you’ll have to make on your own. Coming out is not a requirement for being a writer. HOWEVER, if your book deals heavily with LGBTQ themes, it is something you may get pressured or forced into, especially in our current landscape. If this is not something you are comfortable with, perhaps telling a different story might be the way to go.

Similarly, if you share an experience such as a trauma, mental illness, disability with your characters, it may help to state as much to whatever degree you are comfortable, as an indication that you are your frame of reference for these accurate representations.

The Synopsis

Sometimes, an agent will request a synopsis along with the other submission materials. This is a separate document from the query letter and sample pages (unless agent guidelines specify otherwise). A synopsis is a distillation of the story, usually into 1-2 pages. Honestly, it’s probably harder than the query letter. In a synopsis, you cover all the major events of the story, including plot twists and ending spoilers, and the ways your characters are changed by those events. A synopsis allows the agent to gauge how well the story works in terms of plot and narrative structure before committing to reading 100,000 words of it.

Sample Pages

Visiting the agent’s website will tell you what they expect in terms of page/word count and formatting. This is typically anywhere from the first 5 pages to the first three chapters, to the first 100 pages. Even if they request the first 100 pages, you have roughly the first 10 or so to grab their attention. The work you submit should not be your first draft. It should be polished, edited, coherent, and formatted to the agent’s requested specifications.

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