How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman

How to Write a Great Query: Insider Secrets for Success

May 1, 2019
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An excerpt from chapters 1,2 and 3, How to Write a Great Query Letter: Insider Tips and Secrets for Success, posted with the author’s permission.  See restrictions on use at the end of this piece. Obtain a full copy of the book at Amazon

by
Noah Lukeman
Top New York literary agent

Introduction

“It is more difficult to get a qualified literary agent than it is to get a publishing contract.”

–John Boswell

Most writers put a tremendous amount of effort into their content, spending months or years with their manuscripts, agonizing over word choice, scene order, character development. Yet when it comes time to write a query letter, they will often write something off the top of their head, sometimes with a mere hour’s effort, and let this suffice to represent their work. They rush through the letter process so that the agent can get to the book itself, which they feel will explain everything. They feel that if an agent just sees the writing, nothing else will matter, and that a poor query letter will even be forgiven.

This is faulty thinking. For agents, the query letter is all. If it’s not exceptional, agents will not even request to see the writing, and writers will never even get a chance to showcase their talent. For most writers, the query letter—which they rushed through—becomes the only piece of writing they will ever be judged by, and unfortunately, the only chance they ever had.

Many writers feel upset that their work is evaluated and judged by a one-page letter—much less a letter that doesn’t even include a sample of the writing. This is understandable. But this is also the nature of the industry, and something we all have to deal with. It is not unlike an actor’s being judged by a mere headshot. It won’t change. The solution isn’t to rail against the industry, but rather to become expert at writing the query—indeed, to make the query an art form in and of itself.

While it may seem as if a query letter is a shallow way to judge an author, I can tell you from an agent’s perspective that it is a very effective tool. For the professional eye, a query letter is much more than just a letter:  it shows the agent whether you are able to exhibit word economy, whether you have a grasp on the nature of your own work, and whether you have a realistic grasp on your own background and credentials. If you’re writing non-fiction, it also demonstrates whether you have a grasp on your market, your competition. A query letter can also serve to warn an agent, to act as a red flag, if for example you are too aggressive, or pitch too many projects at once. The way it physically looks speaks volumes, as does whether you’ve sent it to the right person in the right way. A layman looks at a query and sees a one-page letter. An agent looks at it and scans it for 100 different criteria. If you know what to look for, this mere page can tell you more about the writer and his work than you can possibly imagine. I will share these secrets with you here, and teach you the perspective and criteria of a publishing professional.

It is not the writer’s fault that he does not naturally know how to craft a great query letter. Writing is an artistic endeavor, while a query letter is a marketing endeavor. Artistic and marketing sensibilities rarely co-exist. Many great artists have trouble crafting a good query, while many great marketers can’t deliver on their art form. It is the fortunate writer who is born with the talent for both—but for those who are not, marketing is a learned skill. It takes time, patience and humility. I’ve encountered many writers who frown on the art of marketing, who consider themselves too much of an artist to deign to write a logline or synopsis.

But a good writer should be humble, and willing to learn from any form of writing. If you are willing to listen, there is much that the query letter can teach you about the craft of writing:  the art of crafting a query letter makes a writer re-evaluate his own work and might even lead to his revising it. In this way we come to see that writing a great query letter is in fact more than a mere marketing exercise:  it is a medium through which to re-evaluate and perhaps even alter your work. At the very least, it will offer you insights into your work which you may not have had previously.

The query letter is indeed an art form. Books have been devoted to it, and if you go out and read 10 different books on how to write a query, you might walk away with 10 different approaches, even conflicting advice. None of this makes the query letter easier to grasp; it is by no means a science, and you will never find a consensus on how to craft one. Most writers never had a class in writing a query letter, were never given an expert’s perspective, so they are left to their own devices, and must struggle to become a marketer. Authors are not to blame for being ignorant of how to craft a query letter—but they are to blame if they don’t take seriously the need to rectify this ignorance, and devote time to learning the query’s special art form.

The more practical, hands-on experience someone has with queries, the more you might trust his judgment—particularly if this person is an active publishing professional who evaluates query letters for a living. As a literary agent for the last 13 years, I have received thousands of queries a year—every year. That doesn’t make me the final authority on query letters—but it does mean I’ve had extensive experience, and can offer you a big-picture perspective.

While the numbers against you are staggering, the road is not as bleak as it may seem. If you learn what to do, learn how to avoid the pitfalls that signal an amateur, you can indeed write a great query letter. And with a great query letter, you will be a lot closer than you can imagine to landing an agent, and eventually getting published. While agents tend to be harsh critics and somewhat jaded, they all also secretly hope to discover the next Clancy or Grisham or Faulkner or Hemingway. It’s why they entered the business—the thrill of discovery, or of a financial windfall, or of simply being able to help another human being achieve his dreams. Along the way, agents become besieged with queries and they can become jaded, overwhelmed with work, and read queries with an eye to reject. But no matter how jaded they become, they also, deep down, never let go of the desire to discover the next great author. Some flame exists somewhere inside them waiting to react. It is up to you to spark it.

Great query letters do exist. A great query letter makes an agent sit up and want to read more. It stands out from the fold and shakes an agent from his stupor, regardless of how many queries he’s read that day. It makes him excited, makes him want to reach for the phone and call the author immediately, regardless of what time of night it is. It reminds him why he’s in the business. There have been many times in my career when I’ve sat down late at night, poring through hundreds of queries, exhausted, and not expecting to find anything. Yet there it was. A great query letter. A letter that, despite all odds, filled me with energy late at night, sparked in me a feeling of excitement, that made me want to call the author right then. Sometimes these letters offered no publishing credentials whatsoever, had only the barest idea of a plot, had hardly any evidence of the writing. Yet still they worked. Why? I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and have analyzed the elements that comprise a great query letter. These are the elements I will share with you here.

Chapter 1:

Preparation

Robert Penn Warren’s first three novels were unanimously rejected by publishers.

 A great query letter is useless in the wrong hands. Not only is the literary agency that you choose important, but of equal importance is the particular agent you choose within that agency. “To Whom it May Concern” and “Dear Agent” cannot exist in a good query letter. Queries must be addressed to specific (appropriate) agents at specific (appropriate) agencies. There are thousands of literary agents out there, and targeting the perfect one will mean the difference in your getting published.

 Equally important is your taking the time to research other books similar (or competitive) to yours. If you write non-fiction, it is crucial to know the market and competition; and whether your work is fiction or non-fiction, knowing similar books will help lead you to the appropriate agent, and will be crucial in crafting a truly effective query letter. You will need to know the similar books your potential agents represent and will need to know the books in your genre which were successful, so that you can reference them in your letter.

So before you craft your query letter, first make sure you do the requisite research, so that your query letter will not open with “To Whom It May Concern.”  How to do this research is an art form in and of itself, and is beyond the scope of this book (I cover this topic in depth in my book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent (www.landaliteraryagent.com). For our purposes, I will assume you’ve already done it. If you haven’t done it, do so now.

 I will also assume you are targeting agents, not editors. The principles of a good query letter also work when querying an editor, so it is not a lost effort. But in nearly every case it is much more beneficial to target an agent first. (Again, why that is the case is beyond the scope of this book.) Thus in the following pages, we will assume you are querying agents, and you will find repeated references to the agent.

 Finally, I’d like you to take a step back and ask yourself what the goal is of your query. Many writers hope to, in this one-page letter, convey all the nuances of their plot, their characters, to convey everything about who they are, and to, by its end, have an agent commit to represent them. Herein lies the problem. Most writers expect too much of a query letter, and thus approach it with the wrong mentality. This mentality trickles down to the content, and even the writing style itself.

 The goal of a query letter is, simply, to get an agent to want to read more. That’s all. Realizing this will alone be of tremendous help. It will take the pressure off you to achieve everything, and thus give your letter a more calm, clear and focused tone. It will prevent you from slipping into a desperate style, from using too-strong sales tactics. And since this is a much less ambitious goal—one which even seems achievable—it will give you a boost of confidence. It also gives you a definition of “success,” so you can know if you’ve indeed crafted a “successful” query letter.

 Now that you’ve done your research, targeted agents, and defined your goal for “success,” let’s get down to the business of crafting a great query letter.

Chapter 2:

Formatting

“Be persistent. Editors change; editorial tastes change; markets change. Too many beginning writers give up too easily.”

–John Jakes

With a perpetual mound of query letters in front of him, the jaded publishing professional often just wants to get through the pile, and might find himself actively looking for reasons to reject. If so, he will be searching for any red flags that signal an amateur. If certain flags are present, the professional may not even have to read the content of the letter—thus many queries are rejected without even being read. No red flag is as giant as improper formatting.

 Formatting errors can alone get you rejected. They are extremely petty—but also extremely visual. If a letter is filled with bold and underlining, if it is written on pink paper, in a cursive script, in a huge font, this will strike the agent first, before he even reads a word. He will already be biased against you, and his decision will be that much easier.

 Let’s look, one by one, at different formatting issues that can signal an amateur:

The 4 Formatting Red Flags

1. Paper

 We begin with the paper itself. It seems innocent, yet there are many issues an agent might consider when it comes to the paper.

 Color. On the most obvious level, if the paper is an odd color, such as hot pink or lime green, it is a red flag. The paper should be a basic white, or off white.

 Size. If the paper is off-sized, for example legal sized, or A4, or if the query is written on a notepad or a Post-It (yes, I have received a query on a Post-It), then something is awry. The paper size should only be 8½ x 11.

 Texture. If the paper is too thin, such as onion paper, or some other strange texture, it will signal an amateur. (I have received queries on lined notebook paper, torn out of a spiral ringed notebook.)  It is acceptable to send in a query on plain, white copying paper, although it might look cheap. I would advise investing in good quality paper.

 At the risk of stating the obvious, make sure the paper is not stained, torn or in any way defaced, and that it is not double-sided. (I have received letters like this.) I once received a query letter written on a piece of oak tag, about two feet by four feet. I appreciated the fact that I didn’t have to strain my eyes, but otherwise, it didn’t convince me. Large stories don’t need large paper.

Letterhead

 Many writers waste precious space in the body of their query letter with their contact information. They include sentences like, “If you wish to contact me, you can call me at 222-2222, or email me at me@me.com, or write to me at Name, 10 Main Street, Here, NY, 11111.”  Contact information should never be put in the body of a letter. Instead, invest in good, personalized stationery, with your contact information neatly tucked away in the header or footer.

2. Ink

 Believe it or not, something as subtle as ink can signal an amateur.

To begin with, do not use colored ink. I promise you that red or green ink won’t make an agent more inclined to represent you.

If your cartridge is dying, don’t mail off a letter which is half-readable and half fading away. Buy a new cartridge and print it again.

If you use an old, dot-matrix printer which makes the type hard to read, it is a red flag. More often than not, so is a query letter written on a typewriter. There are some old-school writers who prefer to use a typewriter, so there are exceptions, but in most cases it signals something awry.

If your letter is handwritten, it definitely signals something is off. This should go without saying, but you’d be surprised how many handwritten letters I continue to receive. Sometimes they come from children, who at a young age are hoping to break into print, but most often they come from prisoners.

For a period of about two years I received handwritten letters from a writer determined to gain my representation. He sent them about once a month, each from a different country. His book was a travelogue, and I suppose he wanted to prove how well-traveled he was. I thought this was odd—that is, until I started receiving weekly postcards from another man who claimed to be captain of a ship, filled with 100 adoring women, who he claimed were rowing his vessel across the Atlantic. Oddly enough, his postcards never even said what his book was about. Eventually they stopped.

 Getting back to the normal world, I would also advise not using a cheap inkjet printer. Inkjets have evolved phenomenally over the last few years, so new ones (even cheap ones) tend to deliver a quality that can rival a laser printer. But older inkjets tend to offer a quality which looks visibly cheaper than a laser printer. It is acceptable, but at the same time it does not put your best foot forward. I hate advising writers to spend money, but I would advise your investing in either a laser printer or a high quality inkjet. The difference seems subtle, but to the trained eye, it is apparent. A laser printer more likely indicates a professional.

3. Fonts

 Fonts can also signal an amateur. Your font should be a standard, simple font, such as Times or Garamond. Some writers use a strange or quirky font, presumably to stand out. This only stigmatizes you. Some fonts, like courier (example), simply look cheap, while others, like calligraphy (example), resemble a wedding invitation. Either way, don’t switch fonts mid-letter, for example, to quote your own writing, or for emphasis. Choose one font and stick to it.

An odd-sized font also signals something awry. Your font should be standard 12-point. If too large, it will look childish; if too small, it will make it harder for the agent to read. Agents read for a living, and the last thing you want to do is make your letter harder on the eyes. They will put off reading it. Since the 12-point font size can differ for each computer, if you’re unsure of the standard size, always err on the side of making your font too large.

Writers tend to be anxious to get their point across in a query, and might try to emphasize text by any means possible. I often receive letters overflowing with bold, underlined and italicized writing. It can be spotted instantly, before an agent even reads a word. It gives off an air of desperation, of a cheap sales letter. If you must emphasize text, do it sparingly, and only use italics. Never use bold or underlining, as this signals an amateur.

4. Spacing

 The professional query letter is pleasing on the eye. With a cursory glance one can spot ample margins in every direction, properly indented paragraphs, and proper spacing in general. Subconsciously, this makes a difference. If something is off, it can signal an amateur.

Your margins should be at least one inch in every direction. I’ve received numerous letters with tiny margins, allowing the text to stretch all the way across the page in an effort to get more material in. This only makes it harder for the agent to read.

 Justified margins are harder on the agent’s eye, and are not standard.

 All paragraphs should be indented.

 The letter, in general, should be single-spaced, with no line breaks between paragraphs. I’ve seen letters double or even triple-spaced, with additional line spaces between the paragraphs. This is substandard, and will signal an amateur.

Why CAPS Matter

While we are taught book titles should be italicized, there is a convention in the publishing industry that book titles are set in ALL CAPS. This alone can signal a pro. Someone who really knows the industry will put his book title in ALL CAPS. The titles of other books, though, while they can go either way, are usually put in italics, as are the titles of literary magazines and other publications.

 

Chapter 3:

The 3 Paragraph Rule

“After sixteen rejections, Irving Stone’s Lust for Life was finally accepted and published in 1934. It has now sold about twenty five million copies.”

–Andre Bernard, Bill Henderson, Rotten Rejections

 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. Mark Twain said, “I don’t have time to write you a short letter, so I’m writing you a long one instead.”  How true this is. Anyone can write an effective long letter. Few people can write an effective short one.

Nothing in a query letter should be wasted. As with a resume, every word choice must be deliberate. I’m 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, I’ll 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 don’t do this. So the first thing you must do is rein 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 one—not just because it is convenient for the agent, but because it is a fine test of a writer’s skill. Good writing is entirely about economy; good writers don’t use three words when they can use one. Word economy not only indicates that words aren’t wasted, but more importantly that all word choice is deliberate. When deliberate, word choice is 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.

 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, convey 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. I’ve received many queries that went on for two or even three pages, the writer claiming he had so much to say that he needed more room. But this is a poor excuse. If a writer can’t achieve what he needs to in one page, his writing ability is simply not developed enough. It is nearly certain that his manuscript, too, will be longer than it needs to be. Writing is about discipline, and the first place to exhibit this is in the query letter.

 Part of the reason why writers allow their query letters to sprawl is because they don’t 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; without structure, there is 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 you’ll 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 you’ll 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 itself—it must be if it is to convey what it needs to in such a finite amount of space. So let’s look at each on its own terms and examine its unique demands.

Obtain the full Kindle version of the book at Amazon.

Noah Lukeman, New York literary agent

About the author

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, 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 also worked in the New York office of a multi-talent management company, where he represented many New York Times Bestsellers, and, prior to founding his agency, he also worked for another New York literary agency. Prior to becoming an agent he worked in the editorial departments 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. As a literary agent, he has been written up in media ranging from The New York Times to Variety (Page 1). Read more about Noah Lukeman at www.noahlukeman.com

Copyright © 2013 by Noah Lukeman

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