How to Stop Worrying About the Query Letter

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I’ve watched peers worry over query letters for so long that the fact I have yet to send any to agents or editors for a completed manuscript feels strange. Perhaps I’m lucky. I have written query letters for the fun of it and to query editors about the marketability of incomplete manuscripts. (Turns out my suspicions that I love writing hard sells were correct.) On the sidelines, the steps are less intimidating.

From my observations, these are what I see as the steps toward an effective letter for a (YA to adult) novel manuscript. The most valuable part of this post is what I understand the best: where writers can go online for good advice writing the letter.

Step 1.  Prepare the manuscript.

This is easily the longest step in the process, taking anytime from a few months to a few decades to complete.

Step 2.  Study up on the expectations of what a query letter should look like.

Knowing what to expect takes away much of the fear from any new experience. Here’s a shortlist of trustworthy sources.

A good start is Nathan Bransford’s friendly “How to Write a Query Letter” or Jane Friedman’s “Complete Guide to Query Letters”.

Writer Beware provides a suggested template explained by each of the four paragraphs that make it a query instead of a generic letter.

Step 3.  Write the letter.

Use your hard-earned skills, writer!

The Reedsy Blog breaks the writing process down to seven steps.

Check what you have against Agent Query’s do and don’t list. You can also find agents at this site.

See 23 examples of letters that worked, linked from GalleyCat (2013).

Note: Forms of Address

Unlike many features of the publishing process, the query letter has not significantly in the past ten years. The biggest change might be the form of address in all professional letters. In general, it’s not a good idea to guess that “Mr.” with all names that look masculine to you and “Ms.” goes with all the feminine names. Certainly avoid “Sir” or “Madam” as a default. “Mx.” is rising in popularity, but so is using full names without a title. Follow one of the oldest pieces of advice: Know you who’re addressing. Research the agent or editor before sending your query.

Note: Conflicting Advice and Other Ambiguity

You won’t get every part exactly correct for every agent or editor. That’s not possible. Think about the decisions you’ve already made. Writing a novel is a series of decisions about characterization, settings, themes, and plot. You’ve already worked through that. So keep moving forward. Remember that nothing is perfect all the time.

Step 4.  Collect feedback.

This part should feel familiar. You’d collected feedback for your manuscript, didn’t you?

Now it’s time to ask your most trusted manuscript readers to read your letter. This can be easy if you modify your usual questions. “Do you recognize the novel in your description? Is the letter easy to read?”

One place to go for free professional feedback is Query Shark. Even if your query isn’t chosen by Jane Reid for critique, comparing past critiques to what you wrote is a good practice while waiting.

Step 5.  Polish the letter.

Make sure to check for editing errors, either with precise people or your favorite editing software.

Steps 6.  Send off the letter!

After you know you’ve written an enticing letter, send it away from you to where it belongs. Anxiety might kick in, so…

Step 7.  Distract yourself with new writing.

Stay busy enough, and you can get a break from worrying about querying.


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