A QUERY LETTER is written to an editor or agent to describe a piece of writing to ask if they’d like to see it. It is sent in lieu of an unsolicited (unasked for) manuscript. (A COVER letter is a letter sent to ACCOMPANY a manuscript.)
Before you write a query letter, check to see if the agent/editor offers guidelines to writers – make sure you are targeting the right market for your writing. (Many publishers now have guidelines on the Internet.)Also check your Writer’s Marketplace guide.
New York agent Don Maass, in his interview with Writing For Success, offered these guidelines on writing a query letter:
“Make sure your query letter is brief and businesslike. I really recommend the four-paragraph query letter as follows:
Say something like: ‘I’m looking for a literary agent for my mystery series.’ What more do you need to say than that? The agent thinks: Okay, so what is this series?
The second paragraph is a description of the property that you’re offering. All I really care about is the story. Does the story have an interesting commercial premise? If you don’t have the knack of coming up with a neat hook or a pithy, strong pitch then all you have to do is tell me the beginning of your story. What is the problem that he/she faces? If you can give me those three things, and give them to me in an interesting way, I promise you I will want to know what happens next.
The job of the query letter is not to sell me on representation. The only thing the query letter has to do is convince me to read the manuscript. Sometimes we ask for a couple of chapters and a synopsis, but even if we ask for those, the query letter has done its job. All that I need is to be hooked – and the beginning of any good story will hook any reader.
Now that I’m interested in the story, who is the author? Who wrote it? A little bit about the author is helpful – not too much. How does your experience relate to the story?
The closing: Say something like this: “I look forward to hearing from you. I’m prepared to send you the first three chapters and an outline or an entire manuscript; please let me know what you would like to see.”
Keep it short, simple, sweet, businesslike. When you’re reading 250 letters a week, and trying to do it in an hour or two – trust me: brevity counts.
Make sure you include a stamped, self-addressed envelope for the editor’s or agent’s reply. If an editor responds with a ‘yes, we’d like to see your work’ then your writing has been SOLICITED, or asked for. Send it promptly, and in your cover letter mention that the piece is being sent at their request.