10 Ways To Improve Your Query Letter
By Penny Freeman
As the editor-in-chief at Xchyler Publishing, a wide range of query letters find their way to my desk. From the meticulous, Type-A query to the “Yo! This is what I got,” I’ve seen it all. Over the past few weeks, I have been handing out so much advice and instructions about query letters, saying “don’t do this, do that,” I decided to save some time and go public.
Apparently, few writers realize the importance of this document. The query letter must convince the editor or agent to risk wasting their time and energy on reading your synopsis, which in turn must convince them to read your partial, which in turn must convince them to request the entire manuscript. A long, complicated chain of interconnected links bars your manuscript’s path from the slush pile to the book shelf. The key, your query letter, opens the lock to begin that journey. With talent, persistence, and attention to detail, you too may ascend to the rarified air of authorship.
Your submission requires curb appeal. A query letter is the doorway into your work. Put out the welcome mat. Paint the porch. Here are ten ways to spritz up the place and make a great first impression.
1. Mean Business. Image is everything. Demonstrate a sound understanding of business correspondence. If you do not know how to format a proper letter, learn. Look professional and educated.
2. “Now, Class...” Follow submission instructions precisely. We all have opinions and preferences. Respect the process, even if you fail to understand it. Thoroughly search the sites of your choice of agent and publisher until you know what they want to see. On the rare occasion no preferences are posted, research writing books, magazines, and websites for instructions on submission technique.
3. Grammar Nazi. Be meticulous about your grammar structure and syntax. Make sure your formatting is uniform and clear. For good or ill, your query letter tells the publisher what to expect within your work.
4. Show some class. Do not use trendy acronyms. Vulgarity and profanity (even in acronyms) is just plain tacky. Very non-professional.
5. Hang loose, dude. Not. Never attempt to be cute or quirky in your letter, even if your project is.
6. No road blocks. Do not make reading or editing your manuscript or submission difficult. Unless specifically asked, do not compress files, block editing, or use a .pdf format. Be sure to submit the software platform specified by the agent or publisher. .doc or .docx files are the most common. When converting files, make sure the formatting translates correctly. (Pay special attention when converting HTML files.)
7. Sell Sell Sell! When explaining your story in your query, write the jacket blurb. Write to the readers of the book. Use the language they would use. Demonstrate to the reader that you not only understand but can communicate with your target audience. Here, feel free to be quirky or cute or funny if that is the voice of the narrative. However, once finished with the blurb, revert to your sharp professional self. You may wish to format this section with a double-indent to make it easily identifiable.
8. Too much information. When adding your credentials, never, ever say what you haven’t done (“although I am as yet unpublished…”). EVER. Do not make excuses for yourself. The acquisition editors will pick out what isn’t listed (no books) easily enough all on their own. Never say, “but I’m taking classes.” Publishers read “not ready for prime time.” If you have no published books to your credit, list any published short stories or vignettes, magazine or newspaper articles, blogs you maintain, blogs where you were a featured writer, competitions you have won or placed, and/or courses you have taken in college or university. If you don’t have a degree, use “emphasis on —” whatever classes you took to improve your writing skill. Include professional associations, such as writers’ guilds.
9. Worldwide What? Agents and editors do not click through URLs in query letters. They barely have enough time to read the submission materials. However, if they want to find you, they will. The point of your query letter is to spark that interest, so put yourself out there. Expose your writing: enter contests, guest blog, publish free e-books, perhaps a compilation of short stories, or poetry is your thing. Let them know you’re out there, but don’t push the URL to annoy them: “I publish a daily blog of book reviews and a writer’s musings, Perpetual Chaos of a Wandering Mind.”
10. Second opinions. Have other writers you trust read your query letter before you submit your materials, just as you had beta readers give their opinions with the manuscript. Be careful of yes-men. Don’t ask your momma and your great-aunt Tess to tell you what they think. They’ve been telling you you’re wonderful since the day you were born, even when your violin playing woke the dead. Don’t ask your jealous cousin, Butch, either. You want honest, constructive input.
By following this few tricks (primarily what not to do), you will improve your chances of your manuscript making it out of the slush pile for further consideration. This is not the time to try and raise notice by being “different.” Eliminate the red warning flags which signal rejection and allow your actual work to speak for itself.
Read more about writing and publishing tips, visit Penny’s personal blog, Perpetual Chaos of a Wandering Mind. Xchyler Publishing currently accepts submissions, with a focus on fantasy, paranormal and steam punk. However, they consider other genres, such as mystery and science fiction, to name a few. Visit our Submissions page for more information.