Be a working freelance writer for a decade, and you end up writing a lot of query letters. Do a lot of anything, and you get pretty good at doing them.
I’ve also had a lot of people ask me how to write one. I’ve put the info in one of my books, done entire classes on the topic, and sent countless friends and acquaintances an email detailing my Best Ever Query Letter.
This query letter isn’t perfect, but it’s worked for me over the years. My lovely and talented literary agent wife has fine-tuned it based on her experience and that of her colleagues. My buddy David Paul Williams, another pro writer expert in querying, put it in his book as an example of how to do it right.
So here, for chrishannukwanzalsticeyule for you all, is the concept and template for a pretty darn good query letter.
Three Paragraphs, Plus One
The first thing to remember about query letters is editors, agents, and publishers are really, really, really tired of reading query letters. Anything long or hard to read will be greeted with deep suspicion, or deleted without any meaningful attention.
Make it short. Make it tight. Three paragraphs, plus one.
The second thing to remember about query letters is nobody cares about your book or article. Nobody. Not me. Not your friends. Not your mom. A few people care about you, but that’s not the same thing. You know who else doesn’t care about your book? Everyone you query.
So we lead with talking about something they do care about: themselves. Details on that in a minute.
Our three paragraphs are:
- You people are awesome
- I have this awesome idea
- I am also awesome.
Got that? Good.
Paragraph One: You People are Awesome
Remember how I said the person reading your query doesn’t care about your book, article, story, whatever? It’s a sad truth of the industry. They might even be mildly hostile toward your work on account of being so sick of reading queries.
That’s why we open with a paragraph describing why the publication or agency you’re querying is simply awesome. Talk about things they’ve published that you read and loved (especially if they dovetail with your project). Talk about what’s happened in the news, or something recent they’ve done. Make a personal connection if you have things in common with the person who’ll be reading the email.
I’ve been reading DRAFT magazine since I first saw it at a brew supply shop in 2011. I especially love your how-to articles, but my favorite was your coverage of the beer culture at Astoria’s Fisher Poet’s Gathering in your February 2016 issue.
The Leonidas Agency represents several of my favorite authors, including Dave Robicheaux, Matthew Scudder, and Andrew Wiggin. As all three have inspired and influenced my own work, I would be honored for you to consider my humble efforts for representation.
Note that these paragraphs are each two sentences long. Two. You might be able to get away with three, or four if you write short sentences. This paragraph has two purposes.
- Get the reader’s attention by talking about them, which is something they care about more than they care about you.
- Demonstrate that you’ve had the courtesy to research them, instead of just spamming your query out to everybody with an email address.
That second point is super important. You’re asking for free labor (in the form of reading your query) and potentially buying your work. Never do that in any industry without first learning a bit about who you’re asking the favor of.
Once you’ve written it, reread for every word that doesn’t serve both of those purposes. Delete them where you find them.
Paragraph Two: I Have This Awesome Idea
Now that you’ve finished the foreplay, it’s time to get on to the action. In this (super-brief) paragraph, you tell them about the work you want to see published.
This is not where you give a long synopsis or loving treatment of your manuscript. Give just enough information to inspire curiosity and enable an informed decision. If they want to know more, they will ask.
I already have a press pass for the Central Valley Brew Festival next month. I would love to cover the event for DRAFT magazine, specifically interviewing brewmasters about the challenges, tools, and tricks for handling/brewing/serving beer in an outdoor venue.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a 70,000-word, comedic adult adventure novel starring Max Farkas and Luis Grant. The two ne’er-do-wells are called in by a cop who used to harass them, to help solve the murder of a prostitute all three cared about. This explosive mixture of humor and violence has been described as Tarantino directs The Hangover.
See how both give enough information for the reader to make a decision, but don’t waste their time? That’s what you’re aiming for in the second paragraph. Cut everything extraneous ruthlessly.
Sometimes for article queries, I’ll include a bullet-point list of the structure I imagine I will use. This breaks up the email and pulls the eyes to the most important part. It’s fine if you do that, but only if you’re doing it for clarity and convenience. Not as a sneaky way of making the paragraph longer.
Paragraph Three: I Am Also Awesome
The purpose of this third paragraph is to convince your target that you are highly qualified to execute the idea you sold them in paragraph two. In the best possible situation, you will set yourself up as uniquely qualified.
Using no more than four sentences, describe your experience with the topic and your writing credentials. Be quick and snappy. Do not list your whole CV: just the highlights will do fine. Use numbers if you have them.
As a local beer writer, I have personal contacts and friendships with many of the brewers in attendance. You can find my beer work in The Portland Growler, Northwest Travel, and online at cheapflights.com. I have over 3,000 journalistic credits to my name on other topics as well, including a feature article in Conde Nast Traveller.
Other Max and Luie adventures have sold over 5,000 copies in novella form, and have a mailing list of 12,000 subscribers. I’ve been traditionally published with Not a Pipe in the YA genre, and have five self-published books on Amazon bestseller lists. I also do freelance journalism and ghostwriting to help support my fiction habit.
One error I see a lot here is authors waffling about how awesome they are. I get it. You don’t want to come off as cocky, and you don’t want to stretch the truth. Those are good impulses, but ignore them here. If your publication history includes one chapbook and your blog, it’s cool to say “I have professional print credit plus multiple online gigs to my name.”
Don’t lie. Never lie. But give enough information to inspire interest without volunteering things that mitigate your awesomeness.
The Plus One Paragraph: Goin’ Fishing
This paragraph has made me more than $10,000 over the course of my career. It’s not frequently recommended, which helps your query stand out. It works like this.
After the letter. After your closing. Add a PS that lists briefly something else you might want to work on with the reader.
PS: If that specific idea doesn’t fit DRAFT’s needs for covering the Festival, I’d be happy to chat with you about what might fit. DRAFT obviously needs to at least give the gig a nod, and I’ll be on site.
PS: If you find you like my voice, but WTF isn’t a perfect fit, I’m putting the finishing touches on a romantic comedy set on a cruise ship during a diamond heist. Please don’t hesitate to ping me if that sounds like it’s more your speed.
You will naturally also include an opening, a contact line, and a polite closing. That puts everything together with an appropriate bow.
- For the opening get the name right. Don’t cheat and just use a generic opening, either. This goes to what I said earlier about having the courtesy to do a little research.
- The contact line is one sentence after the third paragraph that says “if you want more, contact me thusly.”
- Don’t overthink the closing. Say thank you. Hit Enter twice. Write your name.
Okay. Ready to see all of that in action?
Putting it All Together
Here’s one final example for you, with all the pieces and parts in a row. Check it for the things I said earlier, and if you want use it later as a template for your own query letters.
Dear John Q. Agent,
Running With the Devil inspired me so much when it came out five years ago that I took up ultramarathoning. I rapidly became addicted. As you represent John Daniels, I wanted to query you first about my own memoir on the topic.
The 7 Up Challenge is a 75,000 word memoir of my experiences training for and participating in the highest-altitude ultramarathons on each continent in the world. It’s part sports story, part travel memoir, and part fitness guide, all wrapped in the humor and strangeness of the international adventure sport community. Advance readers have described it as a cross between Into Thin Air and The Oatmeal’s series on distance running.
Since you work with John, you probably already know several ultramarathoners, but it’s possible I’m the only one you’ve met who wrote scripts for National Geographic Television. My experience as a documentary writer makes me one of the best possible people to tackle this project, and my contacts in entertainment will help us promote the work once you find its perfect publishing home.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me to move forward, or if you have any questions. Use the email address here, or call me at 503-334-9058.
PS: If you like the idea of working together, but 7-Up isn’t quite your pint of beer, I have a collection of travel dining essays on my to-do list. It collates blog posts I’ve made while travelling to run, some of which have gathered 10,000 unique total hits.
And There You Have It
Put your information in that format and send it out. I can’t guarantee instant (or any) success. My rate on those is about 5%. But I can guarantee it will get your query more attention and better returns than many other formats out there.
Most importantly, having a template fights one cause of procrastination. You don’t have an excuse for not submitting your manuscript any longer.
You’re welcome. Now, get to work.