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Query letters

I have been struggling with a query letter for some time. The whole process has been fraught with difficulties. One problem has been how to make sense of the feedback. The guidance that I have seen has often been rather contradictory. For example there seems to no agreed upon upper word limit. People say keep it to one page, but most agents ask for the query in the body of an email, so one page is meaningless. People say three hundred words, but one page is, or can be up to five hundred. People say agents ask that it be in the body of an email, because they don’t want risk dodgy attachments, yet those very same agents ask for other docs, chapters, synopses, etc, to be attached. Some put the comparisons at the top, some say it should be at the bottom. Some say mention it, if it is a debut, some say leave that out. Some say, never put in a rhetorical question, but I have read several, so called, successful letters that contain rhetorical question. Some say you must have a tag line, some say not. 


Breath, I tell myself… 


Every time I believe I have it crafted, (in the region of twenty times now) I offer it up for feedback and the whole thing starts again.

I start to ask myself, how in the world can I make effective use of the feedback and arrive at a place where I am confident that my letter is as good as it can be. How do I know if the people offering the feedback, genuinely know what they are talking about. There are some forums (one mainly) where the feedback appears to be considered an opportunity for members to amuse themselves by being as ‘snarky’ (their word, not mine) as they can. Any response other than a text version of doffing ones cap is greeted with derision and dismissal. There have of course been many positives exceptions, I have revived some excellent and valuable advice. My query is now close to ‘as good as it can be’. I had considered offering it up on here. But to be frank, I fear doing so. If anyone has any advice on how I cover these last few steps to get this letter across the line, I would love to hear from you. 

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Replies (16)
    • Hi Daggilarr

      I'm just writing my latest query too. It seems like a minefield. I have learned something though, through writing my query for my previous novel, which I didn't end up going forward with. You are probably fine if you get all the basics and the whole thing comes across well (the order is often a matter of preference, so it doesn't matter too much as long as it works, an agent won't turn you down for that -- although it seems sensible to me, after an introductory paragraph possibly with a strap-line, to get straight to your story before the agent losses interest). I've found that many people, including experts, have differing opinions on what is a good query and it made me realise that there may be no one truly right way, but get your plot across with no waffle and that helps. 

      Concerning feedback, it can be so useful, but where it comes in really handy is when you get a lot of (respectful) comments, then identify the points that a number of people are raising and you probably have something to work on, otherwise how are you to know if the advice is opinion or personal preference? 

      I've found The Shit No One Tells You About Writing podcast really helpful as every week the presenter and two agents examine three query letters (and some opening pages) and talk about what works and what doesn't. After listening to all the back issues, I'd soon listened to probably fifty query letters and comments. 

      From that podcast the opinion seems to be that queries should be 300 to 500 words long -- but as long as it takes to transfer your novel into a query concisely. Also, if you have a great strap-line, it's worth using it, as agents will use this with publishers and throughout the whole process. However, some books just don't transfer well to a strap-line (perhaps some literary books) so then it might not be such a good idea, although it's still necessary to nail your story in a couple of paragraphs.

      Good luck!


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      • Thanks for this. I will definitely check out that podcast. 

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        • You may have done this already but it seems that every agent has a submissions section where they tell you what they want. They do vary, some want an elevator pitch, others don't. I even saw a couple (Indies) where they said just attach the story, nothing else. 

          I think it is so individual that as long as you don't do anything massively against their requirements it entirely comes down to personal preference.

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          • I think I'm right in saying that if you're a JW member you can have your sub materials critiqued for free and the team obviously know what they're taking about!

            I've been told by a couple of agents at 121s my letter is pretty good and that's a standard format - personally addressing the agent, title;  genre, word count, comp titles in the opening para; then a short blurb with setting, intro to main characters, set up, inciting incident, goals, stakes etc, though not the ending. Third para a short writers bio with relevant experience, why you're sending to them (maybe their MSWL perfectly fits your book or they love books you do etc) then sign off.

            Keep it concise, coherent, professional without being too stuffy and no typos! As Georgina says, look at the agency's specific requirements. 

            TBH, though, I think you're over worrying. You need your blurb to be hooky enough to make them want to read more, the letter polished off course, but really it's the pages they're interested in. Make those the best they can be - that's your priority.

            And steer clear of that awful sounding site! Sounds dreadful.

            Good luck with it


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            • I can't help thinking that, if agents keep receiving cover letters in a standard type of format, theyre going to be blase and it could actually work against the writer.  Perhaps a bit of quirkiness, without being too whacky, would help to arouse interest, 

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              • As Lynn said, JW members can have their query letter assessed for free (I have had this done twice now) but I think it's a max of two a year (please correct if this is not true...).

                Some great advice from Emily and co too. Also you can find many event videos full of agents or published authors with advice. Good luck Daggilarr 

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                • Hi there honestly you wont find horrible comments here people are very supportive. I did what I could for you over the last few days but there are experts here much better than I. I suggest you publish the original query you sent me here for guidance then see what you think of the replies.  Then you can decide what is best for you. 

                  Good luck 

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                  • Hi Caron. Indeed you did, and your guidance has been among the most helpful I have ever received. I joined this forum on your advice. I look forward to not only getting support, but providing it as well. 

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                  • In case anyone is still looking at this thread. I have learned a lot. I am still working on a query, albeit, I currently have one that I am happy with. I know for sure that some will say it is wrong, some will say it is right. There is no such thing as the perfect letter. I think I was hoping to get to a version that would get universal praise, that until this ‘holy grail‘ version had been achieved, I could not move forward.

                    In fact there are no rules. If you get a bit of feedback examine it, if it makes sense modify accordingly, if not, then ignore it. One thing I feared was the idea of ‘scrap and redo’, it felt huge. Actually there is no such thing. There is only ‘try a new way‘. I ended up with a synthesis of one of my first attempts and parts of the later ones.

                    Is it perfect? Absolutely not. Will it get torn to shreds on the forums? Probably.  Will it get me an agent? That remains to be seen. 

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                    • I'd be surprised if you got harsh feedback here, people are generally very respectful.

                      At the end of the day I think there is no 'perfect'. There will always be preferences and a huge dose of subjectivity so just go for what feels good to you. I sense there's a difference between US and UK agents too, but I think overall if you give off friendly vibes (after all they're also considering if they want to work with YOU), have most if not all of the ingredients recommended in the most cases and the query flows well (regardless of the order of things), then it'll go down just fine. You just need to get them to move on to your sample pages, which are the most important bit and which really DO need a lot of your focus.

                      Good luck!

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                      • When I say torn to shreds, I did not mean to infer that the feedback on this forum was disrespectful, on the contrary, it has been most helpful. I have had stuff torn to shreds both respectfully and disrespectfully on a variety of forums. I know that for many the query letter is a difficult process, so I am sharing my experience in the hopes that it may help. 

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                      • Whether you like the feedback received or not I think one should remember that someone has read and thought about about your work.and taken the time to feedback. I am always grateful for that. 

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                        • I did not say I did not like the feedback. Of course I am grateful for the time and consideration anyone puts in when they offer it. 

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                        • The only thing I'll add is to look very carefully at what the agent/publisher wants.

                          They all have their foibles and little rules that you have to follow or they might not even open your email. Query letters have mostly become query emails now, and what you need as Lyn said above, is something that catches their attention - it's hard to remember, but agents are swamped with stuff - if they are getting forty email submissions a day they are going to open the one that 1. follows their rules and 2. stands out.

                          The elevator pitch is usually the thing that'll make them open your email or read your email further - if the pitch is wrong it doesn't really matter how good your query letter is as they won't read it. So, I'd say get your query letter into decent shape, then work on the elevator pitch as it's that that'll make them open your email.

                          Feedback is great, but remember it's only an opinion and it is what you think that matters most. it's your book.

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                          • Hopefully this is what I have done. 

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                          • If any of the commentator on here want to see what I have come with. It is posted in the Agents & Publishers forum

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