Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Tips for Crafting a Catchy Query Letter

Myra Johnson
A few weeks ago I came across a newspaper article about how to create an attention-getting profile for online dating services. I was not reading it for myself, I promise! But it occurred to me that crafting an effective query letter isn’t a whole lot different. Just like your online dating profile is the “doorway” by which a prospective date starts getting acquainted with you, your query letter to an agent or editor serves the same purpose. You want to present yourself in the best possible light in hopes of the best possible outcome.

So, borrowing from a few of the points made in the article, here are some things to keep in mind as you put together a query letter that will invite your dream editor or agent to (in dating terms) explore how a relationship between the two of you might develop.

  1. Be compelling. You’d make your dating profile as intriguing as possible, wouldn’t you? So open your query with a hook that sets the tone and grabs the publishing pro’s interest in the project—and in you. It might be a one- or two-sentence blurb about your book, or you could craft your opening as a provocative story question.

  2. Be confident. Not falsely overconfident, but in a professional manner that reflects your qualifications and passion for this project. You might mention your inspiration for the story or anything from your personal experience that makes you the right person to write it.

  3. Be true to yourself. If you pretend to be something you’re not in a dating profile, you can bet the truth will come out the first time you meet each other in person! So in your query, just be honest about your background and qualifications; don’t claim bragging rights you haven’t earned. It’s okay if you haven’t yet garnered previous writing credits, contest wins, etc. Every writer has to start somewhere. See #2 above and focus on what’s relevant to this particular story.

  4. Avoid too many “I” statements. We’ve all had encounters with people who couldn’t stop talking about themselves, and it can be a real dating turn-off. Likewise, too many “I” statements in a query can come across as egotistical or self-absorbed. Count how many of your sentences begin with the word “I” and see if any of them can be reworded.

  5. Use proper spelling and grammar. Consider this your “dress-up and makeover” for that personal photo you’d post on a dating site. Since writers are supposed to be wordsmiths, “glam up” your query by checking for typos, faulty grammar, or spelling mistakes. Such errors might be all it takes for an editor or agent to reply with a quick NO. And don’t rely exclusively on your word processor’s spelling and grammar checker. If you don’t trust your own skills, consider having a trusted colleague proofread your query before you send it out.

  6. Don’t make demands. In certain respects, there has been movement in the industry toward the more realistic view that a writer’s time is as valuable as an editor’s or agent’s, so (except in specifically identified situations) simultaneous submissions are almost expected these days. However, be realistic about the agent’s or editor’s response time. Don’t put a hard deadline on an answer to your query unless and until you have received clear interest from a competing house or agency. And then—as always—be courteous and respectful in asking for a decision.

  7. End with a polite request for action. For example, “If my Old West romantic suspense about alien vampires sounds like a story that would appeal to you, please let me know if I may submit the manuscript for your consideration.”
With a dating profile you can’t control what others are seeking in a relationship. In the same way, you have no control over what the editor or agent is looking for. You only have control over how you present yourself and your book proposal.

What other tips would you offer for crafting a compelling query? Share in the comments! One lucky visitor to today’s blog will win a $10 Amazon gift card!

Other great Seekerville blogs on query letters:




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Though Myra Johnson’s roots go deep into Texas soil, she now enjoys living amidst the scenic beauty of the Carolinas, but she does miss real Texas beef barbecue! Empty-nesters, Myra and her husband share their home with two pampered rescue dogs. Myra's awards include the 2005 RWA Golden Heart and two ACFW Carol Award finals. When the Clouds Roll By, book 1 of the historical romance series “Till We Meet Again” (Abingdon Press), won the historical fiction category of the 2014 Christian Retailer’s Best Award. Book 2, Whisper Goodbye, and book 3, Every Tear a Memory, both received 4½-star reviews from Romantic Times. Her latest release is the novella Settled Hearts, included in Barbour’s Oregon Trail Romance Collection. Follow Myra on Twitter at @MyraJohnson and @TheGrammarQueen, and on her Facebook author page.

90 comments:

Keli Gwyn said...

Great post, Myra, with lots of helpful tips.

Back in the days when I first started querying, I read somewhere that a brief paragraph listing any publishing credits or experience could be helpful, such as magazine articles or a degree in English. What are your thoughts on that? Has that recommendation changed?

Shellie Uchtman said...

Thanks for sharing this information, it is very helpful.

Mary Preston said...

I'm not a writer, but I think you would need to be very clear in all aspects.

An interesting post thank you.

Rhonda Starnes said...

Thanks for a post full of great tips, Myra.

I sent query letters to three agents a couple of weeks ago. It was my first time every querying an agent, but I must have done something right since I've heard back from two of them who are interested in reading more of my manuscript. Now, if they just like the manuscript...

Jeanne T said...

Wow, Rhonda! What a great first step for you! Congratulations!

Jackie said...

Thanks for the helpful ideas, Myra!

Mary Hicks said...

Thank you for the pointers, Myra.:-)
I appreciate the things you said, they just make good sense. And if I ever need a dating service . . . :-)

I love your book covers. They all look rich and polished.

Connie Queen said...

I'm not sending out querying letters right now--too busy contesting--but all of these great.

I've never been on a dating site, but I know several people who have. A few have even gotten married. Scary and exciting at the same time...

Myra Johnson said...

Good morning, Seekerville!

KELI, our first commenter of the day! According to my computer clock thingy, you arrived at 2:38 a.m. Um, I was fast asleep at that time. :)

As far as I know, it's still a good idea to include a paragraph briefly mentioning previous writing credits, along with anything else that would demonstrate your qualifications, either as a writer or specific knowledge or experience related to the topic you're proposing.

Myra Johnson said...

SHELLIE and MARY PRESTON, glad you could stop by! Hope you found the suggestions helpful.

Myra Johnson said...

RHONDA, you're off to a great start--congratulations on the requests! Your next step, obviously, is to send that manuscript. If for some reason you need more time to get it submission-ready, be sure you immediately let the agents know that you'll get it to them as soon as possible. If you can give them a target date, so much the better. Good luck!

Myra Johnson said...

JEANNE and JACKIE, good to see you here today

Um, MARY HICKS, use the dating service tips at your own risk! And thanks for the compliments about my book covers! I've really been fortunate in that area!

Myra Johnson said...

CONNIE, I think I'd be scared to death to try a dating service! Although . . . I have a niece and two nephews who met their spouses online and all are happily married. I guess with the right precautions it can work!

However, don't get me started on The Bachelor!!!!!

Jackie Smith said...

I am not a writer, but do appreciate all you writers do...to give us great books to read!!!
Please count me in for the A card!!!

Connie Queen said...

Myra, if I wasn't married, and if I tried a dating service, I'm afraid I would be apologizing for all my shortcomings before we ever met. (As if anyone would want to meet me after my brilliant introduction.) I tell myself I'd rather them be pleasantly surprised than get their hopes up and be disappointed.

I try not to do that in a query letter but I still have the tendency to apologize too much. I even have a book in the works w/this type of heroine, but alas, she is transformed by the end of the story.

Marianne Barkman said...

I'm not a writer, so won't try sending query letters out. I'd like to encourage you to, though, as that means I'll get to read your novels! Yay!

Missy Tippens said...

Rhonda, yay!! I'm glad you got the requests!

Missy Tippens said...

Myra, I think you touched on most everything. What a great parallel to dating services! :) I love it!

I think the hardest part was coming up with something to write about myself before I finaled in any contests. But I'm sure an editor/agent wouldn't write something off for that if the pitch leaves them wanting to read more.

kaybee said...

Nice one Myra. This has been an area of struggle for me in the past.
Kathy B.

kaybee said...

I agree with Keli. How much of your work should you mention? How much does it matter? I have 35 years' experience in NON fiction writing, but I'm not sure it matters here except for the fact that I can make a deadline. (Boy can I make a deadline...) My experience is that it matters because it shows I'm serious about some kind of writing, but it doesn't turn the tide if the fiction piece isn't what they want or, perish the thought, isn't that good.
KB

Missy Tippens said...

Connie, that would be fun to use in a heroine. Just be sure to act confident in your queries! :) :) (See my use of the word "act"?? That's what I had to do, too!) :)

Missy Tippens said...

KB, I think it's good to mention any writing credits, even non-fiction! That shows you're a professional.

kaybee said...

I can relate to the part about not nagging and not being arrogant. Take a walk, buy a punching bag, knead bread when you're tempted to call and cuss out an editor (or worse, an editorial assistant who never asked for any of this). Trust me, you are better in the long run.
KB again

Myra Johnson said...

JACKIE S, we love our readers!!! Thanks for being a loyal Seekervillager!

kaybee said...

Places to go, other people to annoy, will check in later.
Kathy B.

Myra Johnson said...

CONNIE, I sometimes think over-apologizing is a fairly common female issue. In fact, I remember seeing a report about that on a news program once. Women tend to say "I'm sorry" a lot more than men, and often for no good reason other than an attempt to be polite and give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Interesting, huh?

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks, MARIANNE! We appreciate every bit of encouragement you send our way!

Myra Johnson said...

You're right, MISSY. If we don't have the previous writing credits and awards to "brag" about, it won't matter to the agent or editor nearly as much as long as we send our very best work in the proposal and manuscript.

Myra Johnson said...

KATHY B, you are absolutely right. Those nonfiction credits show that you know how to write, revise, and meet deadlines. That goes a long way with any editor or agent.

You probably don't need to list your entire writing résumé, but maybe mention a few of the most recognizable publications you've written for, something like, "My articles have been published in XX number of magazines, including AA, BB, and CC."

Janet Ferguson said...

Thanks for this, Myra. I always need help with queries and the synopsis! Planning to send a few out this summer.

Myra Johnson said...

Great, JANET! Glad you found a few helpful tips here, and best of luck with your queries!

Jeanne T said...

Great suggestions, Myra! I especially appreciated the idea to add an action point at the end. I hadn't thought about that before. :)

Thanks for sharing your wisdom!

Keli Gwyn said...

Myra, since I live in California and am a night owl, I get the Seekerbville new blog post notification email around 11 p.m. I left my comment thirty-eight minutes later and was excited to see it was the first. I, too, was sound asleep at 2:38 a.m.

Sorry I didn't put the coffee on. Since I never developed a taste for it, I don't think to offer it. I do, however, have an impressive selection of fruity herbal teas, so feel free to have a cup.

Connie Queen said...



Myra, Dr. Phil discussed one time talked about "wall-hugging". You know the kid that walks down the hall and moves out of everyone's way, hugs the wall, and says "I'm sorry." It makes other kids hateful as they yell, "Move!"

I see this in adults too. When I used to shop in Walmart and meet someone in the aisle, I'd say I was sorry and move out of the way. Then I started noticing how people would glare at me like I was annoying. I quit be so apologetic and they became nicer. "Excuse me," is better than I'm sorry. Or better yet, glare, and they apology to you. LOL. I only did that a couple of times but it works.

Yes, "I'm sorry," is me trying to be polite.


Disclaimer, if someone passes me and says they're sorry, I always smile and say something nice.

Sandy Smith said...

Very interesting comparison to online dating, Myra. I'm glad I never had to do that. I don't think I could have written a profile to interest anybody! I actually met my husband at a church singles group that I started with the intention of finding a husband. I think that is the concept of the Bachelor/Bachelorette shows. (No, I don't actually watch those either.) Anyway it worked for me.

As for query letters, I have only written them for articles. Coming up with the catchy opening seems to be the hard part for me.

I have heard that when people who are pitching new TV shows, they have to show what makes their show different from every other show out there with the same premise. I would say it would be the same for query letters.

Please enter me for the Amazon card!

Myra Johnson said...

You're welcome, JEANNE!

KELI, no worries about the coffee. I'm a tea lover, myself, so thanks for the offer! ;)

Myra Johnson said...

Good for you, CONNIE! I'm about 50/50 between apologizing for being the annoyance and glaring at people who annoy me. But being nice is almost always a MUCH better choice!

Debby Giusti said...

Great tips, Myra. Those query letters are so important. First impressions, right?

May I mention the SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope)? Yes, lots of editors and agents request electronic submissions, but for those still working with snail mail, sending the SASE is always a good choice and proper submission etiquette!

Myra Johnson said...

SANDY, that's a good point. An effective query, whether for an article or a novel, should try to show how your idea offers something different than what's already out there on the subject. In a full book proposal that's what the market analysis section will do in greater depth.

Myra Johnson said...

Oh, yes, DEBBY, including the SASE in a snail-mail submission is absolutely necessary! Wow, it's been so long since I snail-mailed a query that I didn't even think about that point!

Mary Connealy said...

These are really good tips, Myra.

I'm trying to think what my query letters were like.

And then my mind veers violently away!

Mary Connealy said...

When I am in someone's way in a store I always say, 'Excuse me.' and they say some version of, "I'm right in your way." (flip this, someone else says excuse me and I say, 'I'm right in your way.')

And then I say something like, "Don't bother moving for me because I don't know what I'm looking for and I'm bound to end up in your way again as I hunt."

Mary Connealy said...

I say this EVEN IF THEY ARE DAWDLING RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE CEREAL I WANT!

I suppose that's my own version of, 'I'm sorry.' But I tend to get laughs instead of glares with this line.

Myra Johnson said...

I know the feeling, MARY. Sending out queries can be a terrifying leap into the unknown. I used to labor for hours over finding just the right words, and then editing and proofreading ad infinitum.

Then, sure enough, once I'd sent the letter or email, I'd look over my copy again and find A MISTAKE!!!!! A stupid typo I was certain would doom my submission to instant rejection!

Thank goodness editors and agents are human, too. I promise, one teensy typo isn't going to be anyone's ultimate downfall.

Sherida Stewart said...

These are great suggestions, Myra....especially number 7....politely making a request for action. These ideas could apply to other correspondence as well. Thank you!

Janet Dean said...

Myra, love that you took tips for writing a dating service profile as an guide for crafting a query letter that hooks an editor. Fun to see that both want the writer to put her/his best foot forward.

I just read an article about a couple who had lost their spouses and found each other on a dating service website and were living happily ever after. Anyone tried one?

Myra, hope your excellent post helps a Villager write a query letter that brings a sale!

My tip: unless specified not to, send the first chapter or proposal along with the query. Few editors can resist taking a peek at your story.

Janet

Jill Weatherholt said...

Thank you for sharing this valuable information, Myra. This will definitely go into my Seekerville notebook for future reference. :)

Rachael Koppendrayer said...

It sounds like decent advice for personal statements and cover letters too [ugh]. Both my husband and I have a tendency to want to be super honest, which can mean pointing out all the faults along with the good, which is maybe not a brilliant move for promoting oneself (there's a reason I'm not in sales.) Workin' on it.

Barbara Scott said...

Myra, I think it's easier to write an entire novel than it is a query letter or a proposal! Hmm, does that mean I'm long-winded? I need a query letter partner.

Before submitting to any agents, I want to polish the manuscript first. That way, I can send it right away before they forget they even said to send it to them. As an editor, by afternoon I could forget who I'd talked to in the morning. Of course, that may have been caused by a lack of caffeine.

Have I told you lately how proud I am of you? Well, I am. :)

Myra Johnson said...

SHERIDA, that's true. In any type of correspondence, state your case and then politely ask for what you want.

Myra Johnson said...

Good tip, JANET! Just be sure to check guidelines before attaching anything to an email. Some publishers and agencies have strict policies against opening attachments.

On the other hand, a snippet of the opening chapter (definitely keep it short!) might be pasted at the bottom of an e-query.

In fact, I remember seeing something online recently about an editor or agent really unhappy about a writer pasting her ENTIRE manuscript into the body of the email! Can you imagine how looooooong that message was???

Myra Johnson said...

Yay, JILL! Glad you found it helpful!

Um, no, RACHAEL, you do need to exercise a bit of restraint. Play up the positives as much as possible! That's why, if you don't have any writing credits to mention, you stick with the reasons why you are qualified to write this article or story. Ultimately, your writing must stand or fall on its own merit.

Myra Johnson said...

Aw, BARBARA, thank you!!!!

For anyone who didn't know, Barbara Scott was my very first book editor! She bravely took a chance on my novel One Imperfect Christmas, and I learned SO much from her!

Good point about polishing the ms. BEFORE sending out queries. You really do want to be ready for when an agent or editor gives you the go-ahead. How many conference appointment stories have we heard where the writer got a request and then NEVER actually submitted the manuscript!!!

Lyndee H said...

Hi Myra! So many good suggestions and a fun way to parallel it with a dating site!

When submitting magazine queries, I'd target one publication and brainstorm ten story ideas so I could follow a rejection with a thank you note and another query. Several editors finally assigned me a story because they knew I really wanted the work, my name was familiar and they felt as though they knew me.

Although it's not practical to have ten books already written, the query tool can be a hook for the future, even if the first query is rejected. Thank you notes follow close behind, jmho.

DebH said...

I have to say, I've never tried a query letter. I also don't have a large body of work looking for a place to call home. This is a good post for me though - all good points for when I do write that query letter.
As for the apology stuff... my supervisor thinks I over apologize. He usually says, "I suppose the sinking of the Titanic was your fault too." when I apologize for something.

I tend to under-promise, over deliver with my work. I'm a terrible promoter of myself, which my supervisor is trying to cure. It's nice to have un-biased people who are willing to be a champion for you when your confidence isn't there.

Now to just accumulate written work for the editors to beg to see...

DebH said...

p.s.
btw, Myra, I LOVE your covers.

oh, and I'd like my name in the draw for a card.

thanks again for the post.

Myra Johnson said...

Thanks, LYNDEE--always a great idea to have some backup ideas ready and waiting. And thank-you notes, even after a rejection, are always a welcome professional courtesy. As you said, it's all about getting your name out there often enough that editors realize you're a serious writer.

Myra Johnson said...

DEB H, it sounds like you have a good mentor looking out for you at work! And, in my opinion, it's always better to under-promise and over-deliver. I feel that way about deadlines. I set a date I feel comfortable with that will give me some wiggle room in case of unexpected delays, and then I try my best to turn my work in several days or weeks ahead of schedule.

Oh, and about the Titanic . . . if you were around back then, you certainly carry your age well! ;-D

Becky Dempsey said...

I don't have any tips since I haven't written a query yet, but I'll be reading any tips that others post so I'll know how to do it!

I'd love to be in the drawing for the gift card.

Myra Johnson said...

Hi, BECKY! When you get ready to write your first query, you know where to come to find some pointers!

Janet Dean said...

Myra, I'd forgotten queries are handled by email these days. Snail mail queries used to make adding the proposal far easier.

Janet

Myra Johnson said...

I know, JANET. Isn't it crazy to think how far we've come since the days of addressing big envelopes and calculating postage and remembering to include the SASE?

Actually, it's hard to remember back when I used to type my short stories and magazine articles on my IBM Selectric with carbon paper!

Janet Dean said...

Wow, Myra! Carbon paper really takes me back! Remember white out?

I didn't write novels until I got a word processor and could at least move paragraphs.

Janet

Rhonda Starnes said...

Thanks Jeanne and Missy.

Myra, I sent the requested material to each agent within twenty-four hours of receiving the request. :)

Unknown said...

Ooh, querying, I'm gonna have to start doing that... thanks for the tips! It makes it seem a little less intimidating. :) Almost fun, even.

If I've written fanfic for twenty years and gotten lots of fandom-voted awards, should I mention it? I'm guessing not, but I did learn a *lot* in that context, and it's experience in writing, anyway.

Please enter me in the drawing :)

Pam Jernigan

Myra Johnson said...

JANET, I'm also very glad I didn't start writing books until the computer age! I would never have survived the rewriting!

Myra Johnson said...

YAY RHONDA! That's the way to do it!

Unknown said...

I think I've probably written on typewriters - well, I used to hand-write first, and then type it up. These days it's so much easier!

PJ

Myra Johnson said...

PAM, querying can be intimidating, but it helps to remember that editors and agents are human beings just like us.

Hmm, not sure how to include the fanfic awards, but if they relate at all to the type of book you're proposing, then go for it!

Cara Lynn James said...

Thanks, Myra! Great tips. These query letters aren't always easy to write.

Kelly Blackwell @ Heres My Take On It said...

Myra, thank you for this wonderful post! This is something to save! I am so grateful for this wonderful community, you have each blessed me with your knowledgeable posts.

Dana R. Lynn said...

Yay Rhonda!!

Myra, thank you for the great post.

I read the comments quickly, so I might have missed this tip. Its not exactly about the query letter, but the attitude about which rejections and even non-responses are received. (And thanks to Connie Queen, I will say excuse me and not sorry if I am repeating someone, wink), but I don't like it when I see people bad-mouthing agents and editors on social media. These individuals have chosen a profession to help writers achieve their dreams, and from what I can tell, they are under enormous pressures. As Christians, we should be kind and patient.

Plus, the practical little angel on shoulder always reminds me that they use social media as well!

Tanya Agler said...

Myra, Thank you for the post about queries.

Other things for query writers to think about doing: check the agent or editor's website, don't send out the same basic query letter to everyone you find through writing websites. Some agents are very specific in their query requests: some want one page only, some want a specific format with specific information.

Always double check spelling of agent's name along with agent's gender. I attended an RWA workshop led by a female agent with a name that sounds masculine. She says she automatically disregards the one addressed to Mr. (Agent's Last Name).

Thanks, Myra.

Heidi Robbins said...

Excellent advice! I especially appreciate the last item, request for action. Interesting how it can parallel writing a dating profile ;)

Tina Radcliffe said...

I'm sooooo late. Any food left? Crumbs????

Tina Radcliffe said...

Rhonda Starns got a new picture. So cute!!

Tina Radcliffe said...

I hope all you Genesis semi finalists and other contest finalist are using this great info and sending out query letters while you are hot, hot, hot!!

Tina Radcliffe said...

Julie Lessman holds the record for the most query letters submitted to agents. Ask her how many.

Myra Johnson said...

Catching up after watching the DVR of Once Upon a Time with the granddaughter. CARA & KELLY, great to see you both! Glad you made it by.

DANA, absolutely right! There's no room in this business for rudeness or lack of consideration. And the publishing industry has a long memory, as we have said here before.

Myra Johnson said...

Excellent reminders, TANYA! Know what each editor or agent is looking for and how they want to receive it. And please, please spell their names correctly!!!

Myra Johnson said...

HEIDI, glad you appreciated the comparison to dating profiles. Fun, huh?

TINA, maybe you can scrape some crumbs from the brownies I put out. Sorry, I didn't leave much. Was sharing with the granddaughters visiting today.

Yes, be sure to ask JULIE about all her queries!

Wilani Wahl said...

Thanks for the post. It will be very helpful.

The Artist Librarian said...

I've never crafted a query letter, but it sort of sounds like scholarship applications in the fact that you're "selling/promoting yourself/your story." I'm sure I'm not alone --it can be hard for people with modest personalities to brag on themselves but you do need to promote yourself (but not egotistically as you mentioned). =)

Julie Lessman said...

MYRA!!! Once again I'm a day late and a dollar short, my friend, so forgive the late appearance.

Talk about "catchy"!! This is a very clever how-to on queries that is dead-on (both for online dating and queries).

To me, queries are one of the most daunting things about trying to get published because you have to hook that editor in one page, which is not easy to do. But this blog sure goes a long way in getting aspiring writers there, that's for darn sure. so GREAT JOB!

Hugs,
Julie

Sally Shupe said...

Love this post on query letters! Thanks for sharing your tips and advice. I enjoyed reading the comments and seeing others' suggestions as well. Thanks for the great advice!

Myra Johnson said...

You're welcome, WILANI!

Exactly right, ARTIST LIBRARIAN--self-promotion without sounding boastful is never easy, and even more of a challenge when we feel uncomfortable pointing out our own talents and skills.

Myra Johnson said...

JULIE, I agree--crafting a query letter can be a daunting task. Even when we've studied the markets and learned all we can about what a particular agent or editor is looking for, you just can't predict how any given idea is going to hit them on any given day. All we can do is give it our very best and cover every query and submission with prayer.

Myra Johnson said...

SALLY, that's the great thing about Seekerville! We all pitch in with our ideas and personal experience. Glad you found some helpful tips in this post!

Deanna Stevens said...

Avoid too many “I” statements... "I" like that!! I can see the problem in that.. I thank you for the post, as I see it often in those around me. I'd like to be put into the drawings please..
I hope I can put your avoid statement to good use.. LOL I am a reader but I can totally get this statement~

Myra Johnson said...

DEANNA, you totally get it, girl! LOL! Thanks for stopping by!