ABC’s of Writing (for Beginners): Q is for Query

Posted by on Oct 2, 2014 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

profile pic Aug 2014The word “query” is defined as a question or request. This seems to me a most fitting way to think about the query letter, where you’re asking “Do you want to read/represent/publish my work?” The query letter is many things. It’s an introduction to your manuscript, and also to you as an author. It’s also a sales pitch. And, more than any of that, I’ve found in writing and revising my own query letters, that it’s an opportunity to make an impression, use our gifts as writers to craft something that speaks to who we are and what it is we do in our own writing.

The query letter is, or can be, wholly stylistically yours to make what you will of it, to send out into the literary world and say “This is me. Take me as I am.” Maybe I’m being a little dramatic, a little sentimental. After all, it’s a one page letter (no more!), and it’s meant to be professional. But as I was sending out query letters to agents for my first manuscript and the rejections started rolling in, I started feeling like what I was really asking was “Do you want me?” And, if that’s the frame of mind the query process was going to put me in—that I was pitching my very self with every email—I wanted my letter to be an accurate representation of what “me” really looked like.

It’s important to note that before you even get to the query letter itself there are a couple of things to think about. First, is the piece you’re querying ready to go? You need to feel absolutely confident that what you’re getting ready to pitch is in the best possible shape it can be before you pitch it. More than that, if someone wants to see it, be ready to send it ASAP. I can’t stress how important this is. Second, have a game plan of you might want to query. You’ll want to address your query letter to specific agents or editors—never the generic “To Whom It May Concern.” Also, it’s important to mention in your query letter why you chose to approach a particular agent or editor with your piece. In other words, do your research and query the people who might be the best fit for you. Then, you can tell them why you think so.

Now how to write a query letter. That’s the tall order. And, I truly don’t believe there is any one correct answer. If you type “how to write a query letter” into your internet search engine of choice, you will return page upon page of examples. You can read examples of other authors’ successful queries and articles about what agents say really attract them. And, I would encourage you to do that because knowledge is power and it is important to know what people have done and what agents and editors are looking for. It will also give you a springboard for crafting a letter that works for you, something you can feel confident achieves what a query letter is supposed to do, but also really speaks to your own style and utilizes a tone appropriate that is appropriate for the kind of writing you’re doing.

Perhaps even more importantly, pay close attention to those things you shouldn’t do in query letters. When many agents and editors only want a query letter—and nothing else—a lot is riding on this initial introduction to who you are and what you do. And, they get a lot of query letters. Hundreds a day sometimes. So, don’t waste their time with superfluous information. They probably don’t care about that writing award you won in high school. Also, make sure you proofread the hell out that letter. Maybe this should be a no-brainer, but trust me, it needs to be said. Read it a billion times and then let someone else read it too. And, watch out for clichés of any kind. It’s easy to get caught up in the sales-pitchiness of the query letter, but if you ask them questions like “Are you ready to have your mind blown?” or “Have you ever wondered what would happen if X, Y, or Z?”, the answer is probably going to be no.

In all honesty, your goal should be to get whoever is reading your query letter excited about the project you’re pitching and about you, the author. It’s an opportunity to hook them in and leave them interested enough that they have to get their hands on some of those pages.

Don’t get caught up on what goes where. I’ve seen people put their author bio first. I put mine at the end—that worked for me. Those nuts and bolts elements are for you to decide on. That’s what multiple drafts are for. Don’t be afraid to spend some time with your query letter before you send it out. Write it, revise it, sit on it, come back to it, and revise it again. It’s that important. In the end, your query letter is all about you and your manuscript. The key is to find a way to answer your own question, to tell whoever is reading “This is why you want me.”

Stephanie Harper received her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Fairfield University with an emphasis in fiction. Her work can be found in The Montreal Review, Poetry Quarterly, Midwest Literary Magazine, Haiku Journal, Spry “Briefs”, and Now What? The Creative Writer’s Guide to Success After the MFA. She serves as Fiction Co-Editor for Mason’s Road Literary Journal and is currently an editorial reader for Spry Literary Journal. She lives in Denver, CO.   ABC’s of Writing 

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