On Writing: An Irresistible Query Letter

Every year at tax time, we face an uncomfortable question. No, not, “If I’m a presenter, are nose-hair trimmers a legitimate business expense?” I’m talking about, “When can I write off everything I’ve spent learning to be a writer?”

And the answer, of course, is: “When your writing turns from a hobby into a business.” (Answer not certified by CPA.)

In the interests of helping you get there sooner, this blog is devoted to your handiest sales tool: the query letter. 

Writing an irresistible query takes art and craft and forethought. You’ve heard the expression, Brevity is the soul of wit. It’s also the length of time an editor has before their weekend spent reading four complete manuscripts takes over and they start to yawn uncontrollably.

How brief?

Author Bruce Hale says, “The ideal query letter should be like a Scotsman’s kilt: Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep things interesting.”

Most publishers’ submission guidelines say, “No longer than a page.”

Remember, editors WANT to read a fresh query. It’s their job to find and acquire new books. It’s your job to convince them that yours is THE book. Your query letter represents you in this task.

What makes a query irresistible? Professionalism, a good tease, and most of all, pitching the right story to the right person.

With that in mind, here are five query letter tips:

1. Address the editor personally. Letters sent to “Dear Editor” go nowhere but the recycling bin.

And do make sure that their house actually publishes the kind of book you’ve written.

2. Make your opening a grabber. Raise the editor’s curiosity. Hook them as a reader, or appeal to their self-interest.

Fiction example: “When 17-year-old Emma Carter comes across a girl in an old photo whose face is identical to her own, the image haunts her…and she knows she has to find the stranger who has her face.” (YA proposal that resulted in sale of Cheryl Zach’s SHADOW SELF)

Nonfiction example: “For over twenty years, THE SIMPSONS has remained one of TV’s top-rated shows among young viewers, yet nobody has published a biography of its creator, Matt Groening. This offers your company an excellent opportunity.” (Bruce Hale’s proposal for a middle-grade biography)

3. Put yourself in the editor’s shoes.

Give them what they’re asking for, based on your research online, in Publishers Weekly, or from other sources. Are they looking for a mystery? Show them why yours is the one they need.

Give them a taste of your story – just enough to pique their interest. And let them know how your story fits into the marketplace, without telling them you’re the next Harry Potter.

4. Keep your bio brief. Editors are most impressed by book credits. If you don’t have any, mention articles, screenplays, or relevant experience – anything but writing for your high school newspaper.

5. Ask for the sale at the end.

Close with something like, “I look forward to hearing from you,” or “May I send you the complete manuscript?”

And if you query by snail mail, always, always, always enclose a SASE–self-addressed, stamped envelope.

Happy querying. And here’s hoping next tax season finds you deducting the writers conference and the laptop – legitimately. Sorry, but I can’t help you with the nose-hair trimmers.

Bruce’s many enlightening tips and other info can be found on his website: www.brucehalewritingtips.com. He has written and illustrated 30 books for kids, and is a widely experienced writing workshop leader and teacher.