Ready to Pitch? Your Free Query Letter Checklist
You’ve heard this from us before, and here it is again: submitting your writing for publication is like applying for a new job, and we don’t just mean you have to “put your best foot forward.”
We mean it literally: journals, literary agents, and publishers all want to know your w̶o̶r̶k̶ writing history, in particular the most pertinent and noteworthy parts. They also want to feel as though they are the only people you want to w̶o̶r̶k̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ publish with, even if they’re your twentieth choice.
In other words, your query letter is very similar to a cover letter, in which you must ingratiate yourself to the reader, specify why you want to work with them and no one else (regardless of how many queries you’ve sent out), and cherry pick the experience, accolades, or details of your writing that will most speak to them. All this and you must fit it into 300 words tops.
It might not sound like fun, but we love this part! And we’re here to help you succeed .
Target your audience. Do not send copies of your query letter to anyone you come across. As with any successful pairing, your future agent, publisher, or next magazine feature will be one you share similar interests, inquiries, and/or genres with. What have they published/what kind of writers have they worked with in the past? Use this information to gauge whether you will be a good match.
Do your research. When you’ve shortlisted five recipients likely to be interested, it’s time to deepen your research. If it’s a journal or contest, order a copy or read some of the winning stories on their website. Is your work up to their standards? If you’re researching literary agents, what is their name? What genres of books do they love to work with, and what are their special, personal interests? If it’s a publisher, do they accept queries directly from authors not represented by an agent? What, exactly, are their submission guidelines?
Be realistic. If you are a first-time author who has never so much as published a short story or poem before, do not start your search for a publisher with Random House, Harper Collins, or any of the other big-name houses—unless you have a significant public following (let’s say 100,000 followers). If these are what you aspire to, start submitting small works for publication to reputable journals and magazines a.s.a.p.; seek an agent; or publish your first book with a smaller press and build your audience and desirability from there.
Address your reader by name. No “To whom it may concern” here, please! Your research should supply you with the full name of the agent, acquisitions editor, or managing editor you are writing to. Use it!
Hook your reader. Whomever you’re addressing needs to want to read your letter in full. Everything depends on the hook—whether they are pulled in by interest or think “Who cares,” and move on. It takes only a few seconds. If you have a personal connection to the agent or a friend or colleague in common, make it known. Otherwise, start with the moment everything changes for your protagonist, e.g.:
o Life is solitary for Harry until an owl brings an invitation that changes everything. In a moment he finds that the world beyond his aunt and uncle’s cul-de-sac involves rather more magic than he could have hoped possible. Though it takes a hairy giant named Hagrid to help him escape from his life as the orphan kept under the stairs, he soon finds a family of sorts has been waiting for him at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Relate your work to their personal interests. If your agent of choice loves gothic novels and the Deep South and you’ve written a gothic novel set in the Deep South, you’re damn right you’re gonna state that right away! If it’s easy to embed within the hook, place it there. If it’s a finer point then mention it immediately after, e.g.:
o I was excited to learn about your passion for strong feminist characters, both historical and fictional, since my novel is an exploration of a deep and ever-more-complicated female friendship between two girls growing up entrenched in the patriarchal social fabric of post-war Naples.
State your title. Establish the title early on so that it will remain in the reader’s mind throughout.
Establish the main plot. What is the protagonist’s goal? What obstacles are in the way of his or her goals? What will happen if she doesn’t accomplish them? Establish the conflict and high stakes in this mini-synopsis.
Your bio. What notable thing have you accomplished as a writer/ an author? If the answer is truly “nothing,” don’t fret. There are many ways you can be qualified to write your book. What life experiences have informed your writing? How are you intimate with your subject/setting/protagonist? For instance, if you are writing a murder mystery set in a rehab facility in Jamaica, you will want to mention if you spent six months in a similar facility, or are an addictions therapist, or perhaps grew up in Jamaica—or indeed the fact that it is a fictionalized version of true events. The bio should be one to two sentences tops, so keep it to the entirely pertinent or leave it out entirely. If you do have a following—1,000 subscribers to a relevant mailing list, 20,000 followers to your bookstagram or Twitter account, a writing conference circuit you regularly speak at, and so on—mention it! You have a readymade readership they will want to know about!
Close with impact. Establish that you know your book’s genre by naming it confidently. Reiterate your book’s proposed title. State its word count.
Be gracious. Thank your recipient for taking the time to read your letter.
Be professional. Use a professional sentiment and your full name.
Other Golden Rules
Stick to 250-300 words.
Format properly—that means letter format or email format, depending on the specific requirements of the recipient. See letter format example on next page.
Follow all submission guidelines to the letter. If you don’t, it won’t get read.
Include your contact information.
Send to the appropriate (email) address—do not contact someone privately like a scary stalker.
Don’t waste words—every one counts and you’re a wordsmith, so show them how it’s done.
PROOFREAD YOUR WORK!! Even better, have a professional proof it.
Good luck and happy pitching!
Writing about writing.