Excerpt from the e-book How to Write A Great Query Letter
by Noah Lukeman
HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER: Insider Tips
and Techniques for Success .
To read another free chapter, visit
It seems important to me that beginning writers ponder thisthat since 1964, I have never had a book, story, or poem rejected that was not later published. If you know what you are doing, eventually you will run into an editor who knows what he/she is doing. It may take years, but never give up.
"The best secret I can teach
you about writing a great query
letter is that less is more."
The best secret I can teach you about writing a great query letter is that less is more. Writers feel the need to cram their letters with information, to widen the margins, lengthen the page, even take several pages. They go on about their plot, their biography, they become personal, start up a one way conversation. It is a huge mistake. Years ago Mark Twain said, I dont have time to write you a short letter, so Im writing you a long one instead. How true this is. Anyone can write an effective long letter. Few people can write a short one.
Nothing in a query letter should be wasted. As with a resume, every word choice must be deliberate. Im always impressed when I receive a query which takes up only half a page or less (which is rare). I understand how hard it is for a writer to achieve this, to fight back the urge to tell more, to condense all he has to say to a mere few sentences. More often than not, Ill be intrigued. If he can exhibit this kind of discipline in a query letter, it bodes well for what he can to do in the actual book.
But most query letters dont do this. Most query letters tend to sprawl (which is ironic, since they are limited to such finite space). The first thing you must do is reign in your query. Under no circumstance should a query letter exceed one page. Ever. If so, it is a clear red flag, a sign of an amateur. It is just a convention, but it happens to be a good onenot just because it is convenient for the agent, but because it is a fine test of a writers skill. Good writing is entirely about economy; good writers dont use three words when they can use one. Word economy not only indicates that words arent wasted, but perhaps more importantly indicates that all word choice is deliberate. When deliberate, word choice is usually more thought out. When such effort of thought is put into each individual word, an equal amount of effort will often be applied to the whole. Plot choices will be more thought out; character choices will be, as will choices of setting, direction, pacing, progression, journey and all the other elements that go into a great book. Nothing will be haphazard. Their might be spontaneity, but their wont be chaos. This is an important distinction.
litmus test for a writer
is the query letter."
The word-economy litmus test for a writer is the query letter. Can he say what he needs to in merely one page? Can he condense a 300 page story to three lines? Can he do all of this and still convey his plot, his background, why his story is unique and worthy? To do so, he will have to make some amazing word choices, exhibit amazing economy. If he is an inherently economical writer, he will know how to do this. If not, it will show. It is not easy. We in the publishing industry know this.
Yet this is your job. Ive received many queries that went on for two or even three pages, and often the writer claimed he had so much to say that he simply needed more room. But this is no excuse. If a writer cant achieve what he needs to in one page, his writing is simply not where it needs to be. It is nearly certain that his manuscript, too, will be longer than it needs to be, less reigned in. Writing is about discipline, and the first place to exhibit it is in the query letter.
Part of the reason why writers allow their query letters to sprawl is because they dont realize that a query letter must have structure. Without structure, there is license to have an infinite number of paragraphs, on any number of topics; there can be no plan on how to begin, how to progress, and how to end. Without an overall game plan, anything can happen, and if you leave that window open, anything will happen. Like an architect, you need a blueprint, exact specifications on how youll proceed. And the best way to do this is to follow what I call the Three Paragraph Rule.
If you look at most query letters, the first thing youll notice is a haphazard number of paragraphs. It is quite common to see a plot described over the course of two or even three paragraphs, to see biographies stretching over multiple paragraphs, to have filler in between which is neither pitch nor explanation. Successful query letters should consist of three paragraphs. No more, no less. This principle alone will save you. It will prevent you from adding that fourth paragraph, from adding filler or random sentences. It will give you a structure, game plan and direction.
Of course it is still possible to ruin the content within these paragraphs, to go on too long within this structure. Indeed, each paragraph is an art form in and of itselfit must be, if it is to convey what it needs to in such a finite amount of space. Lets start by looking at the first paragraph.
"The first paragraph
of one sentence."
The First Paragraph
The first paragraph should consist of one sentence. This is your chance (perhaps your only chance) to grab the agent, since many agents will be immediately biasedfor good or for badwithin a sentence or two. Contrary to popular belief, this doesnt mean throwing out a hokey line, or a hard sell, or a gimmicky sentence, like Dont throw out this letter! It means truly hooking the agent, making him want to pay attention. And the way to do this is to immediately demonstrate that youre not contacting him haphazardly.
If a writer queries via a referral, he will always begin with, I am writing to you because your client, John Smith, recommended that I do so. Thus an agent, whether he likes it or not, must take the first sentence of any given query very seriously, if for no other reason than he risks offending an existing client or editor or other business contact that may have sent him a referral. Thus you have a great opportunity here.
Chances are you wont have a referral, as many writers are not lucky enough to have friends who have great agents and are willing to recommend them. But you can still make up for it. The way to do so is to write something alone the lines of, I am writing to you because you represented TITLE by AUTHOR, and I feel my book is similar. The way to grab the agent is to make it personal, to make it about him instead of about you. Referencing one of his titles will accomplish this.
"More importantly, a
personal reference will signal
to the agent that this is not a random query letter.
More importantly, a personal reference will signal to the agent that this is not a random query letter. It will show that youre approaching him for a specific reason, that youve put a great deal of time and energy into researching the market; it will show that you know who he represents, and the types of books hes sold. It will put a positive association into his mind, as it will make him think of a book he sold which was a success. It will offer a comparison, allowing him to immediately grasp the type of book youre writing and thus to be able to decide if he wants to represent another like it. It will show that you know the market, that you have an objective grasp of what your own book is about and where it fits within that market. It will indicate that youve put care into your writing, since writers who put so much energy into the right approach generally put at least an equal amount of energy into their writing. You will start the agent off on a positive foot, and make him more biased to like the rest of your letter. And since this first paragraph will only be one sentence, it will be amply spaced in every direction, and thus it will be more likely that an agent will actually read and finish it (as opposed to an opening sentence which heralds a 10 sentence paragraph). In this one sentence, this one paragraph, you will have accomplished 10 different objectives.
All of this assumes, of course, that youve already done the weeks or months of requisite research in order to know precisely which agents represent titles appropriately similar to yours. If you bluff, if you dont truly do the research, it will show. Ive received many letters which referenced a book I sold, but when I read the rest of the query, I realized that their book was not at all similar. It was just a gimmick to get me to pay attention. When an agent realizes this, he will just be annoyed. So when referencing a book, make sure it is truly appropriate.
But if youve done the research and query a truly appropriate agent and reference a truly appropriate title, then you are already off to a shining head start. Imagine the advantage you now have over a writer who mails off a letter to a random agent and merely begins it with To Whom it May Concern. Half your battle is already won.
Noah Lukeman is President of Lukeman Literary Management Ltd, which he founded in 1996. His clients include winners of the Pulitzer Prize, American Book Award, Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Award, finalists for the National Book Award finalists, Edgar Award, and Pacific Rim prize, multiple New York Times bestsellers, national journalists, major celebrities, and faculty of universities ranging from Harvard to Stanford. He has worked as a Manager in the New York office of Artists Management Group, Michael Ovitz multi-talent management company, and has worked for another New York literary agency. Prior to becoming an agent he worked on the editorial side of several publishers, including William Morrow, Delphinium Books and Farrar, Straus, Giroux, and as editor of a literary magazine. He was creator of PrePub.com, one of the first publishing rights websites, which eventually became the "Booktracker" division of Inside.com.
Noah Lukeman is author of the bestselling The First Five Pages: A Writers Guide to Staying out of the Rejection Pile (Simon & Schuster, 1999), which was a selection of multiple Writers Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers and is now part of the curriculum in many universities. He is author of the bestselling The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life (St. Martins Press, 2002), a BookSense 76 Selection, a Publishers Weekly Daily pick, a selection of the Writers Digest Book Club, and a selection of many of Writers Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers. He is also author of the forthcoming The Art of Punctuation, to be published by WW Norton in the U.S. and by Oxford University Press in the UK in 2006. He has contributed to Poets & Writers, Writers Digest, The Writer and to the Writers Market, and has been anthologized in The Practical Writer (Viking, 2004).
Noah Lukeman has been a guest speaker on the subjects of writing and publishing at numerous forums, including the Wallace Stegner writing program at Stanford University, the Writers Digest Panel at Book Expo America, and Rikers Island Penitentiary. He earned his B.A. with High Honors in English and Creative Writing from Brandeis University, cum laude.
To contact him, visit www.writeagreatquery.com.
This post was written by Editorial Staff