How to Write a Query Letter – A Basic Breakdown

Whether you’re drafting your first ever query letter or have written a whole bunch of them, the truth remains the same: query letters can be tough. Each manuscript is different. Heck, each query letter is a little different! Even when you’re querying the same manuscript to multiple people you still need to take the time to change your greeting and personalization for each submission. We get a lot of questions via our various Sub It Club outlets about query letter writing. Many people just want to know where to start. It’s time for a query letter breakdown!

A query letter should contain three important parts: the hook, the book, and the cook. Maybe you’ve heard that one before. I don’t know where it originated but it’s a catchy way to remember the main things you need to cover in your query. Here’s the breakdown:

Opening: Dear (Agent or Editor Name):

1st Paragraph: The Hook Pitch your story in one to five sharp sentences. Show the reader what makes your book unique. Make them want to read more! Think character and conflict. (Check out agent John M. Cusick’s post, A Pretty Much Foolproof, Never-Fail, Silver Bullet Query Opening, for a superbly helpful formula.)

2nd Paragraph: The Book Give your TITLE, genre, and word count. You can add in a bit more information about your manuscript in this paragraph too, but keep it tight. Remember, you want to lead the person reading your query to want to get to your manuscript and read it. You do not want to spend so much time telling them about your story that they might decide they’ve heard enough. There’s a fine line!

3rd Paragraph: The Cook – Here’s where you get to give a little bit of information about yourself in a bio paragraph. Keep it writing relevant. Publications can go here, of course. If you belong to a writing organization, that can go in your bio. For ideas on possibilities for your bio paragraph, along with some thoughts on what you should not put into it, see Submissions 101 – Query Letter Bio.

4th Paragraph: Sign off – This last paragraph can be a good place to mention your comparable books or why you have chosen to query the person receiving the letter. Be sure to tell them what you are sending so they are clear. (For example: You will find the first five pages pasted below. If it is a query letter only with no pages simply ask if they would be interested in reading the manuscript with an offer to send it at their request.)

Closing: Sincerely, or whatever business-like end to your letter that you prefer.

Viola! That is a very basic query letter format. There are certainly variations on the ways you can order the information. If you have a really good reason for submitting to someone such as a conference opportunity, a request, or a reason they may connect with your story, it might be good to put that in the first paragraph. Some people like to start with their TITLE and book information. Is that showing your manuscript’s uniqueness? That’s for you to decide. The more queries you write the more you’ll see that the shifting of information happens as you work to find the best way to showcase your manuscript to the specific person you are querying.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Be sure that your pitch does not make promises that your manuscript doesn’t deliver.
  • A query letter is a sales letter but don’t be over-the-top salesy. Show the reader what you’ve got and let them decide on its merits.
  • Keep your query letter to under one page. Shorter is preferred. Think about keeping your query letter email short enough so the reader won’t have to scroll, not including pasted pages, of course.
  • Proofread your query. Reading it aloud can really help you catch confusing wording, typos, etc.
  • Don’t sweat it. Writing your query letter may take longer than you think it should and that’s okay. Query letters can be tough but that’s how writing can be. You’ve got this, and Sub It Club is here to help. Members of our private Sub It Club Submission Support Group are welcome to post their queries in the group for feedback anytime. It’s also a pretty good place for commiseration!

Feeling like you want to read more about queries? You can find more breakdowns in our Submissions 101 series of posts. If you want to see some successful query letters, take a look at our Query Letters that Worked.

Here’s a little tune incase you need some query letter writing music:

About Heather Ayris Burnell

Full time mom. Part time librarian. Author of BEDTIME MONSTER. Creator of Sub It Club. Curator of the Monster Lists of Picture Book Agents & Publishers. Always fooling around on Twitter @heatherayris. KICK! JUMP! CHOP! coming fall 2017 from Sterling Publishing.
This entry was posted in Query Letters, Submissions 101 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to How to Write a Query Letter – A Basic Breakdown

  1. Pingback: Another piece of advice | L is for Literary

  2. Juliana Lee says:

    Well, if you’re going to add Tom Petty you must know what you’re talking about! Good luck to us all!

  3. Great advice, Heather! This is pretty much the format I used. Often I would add a sentence or two before the hook as well stating why I queried that agent or publisher specifically. I know people debate whether that’s necessary…

  4. Excellent post…and you had me at Tom Petty! 😉

  5. Very helpful. Thank you so much, Heather.

  6. Iris says:

    Thank you, Heather.
    Your posts are always so helpful!

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