Thursday, March 20, 2014

Crafting a Better Query Letter

Query letters seem so simple to craft.  A few lines about your book, a blurb about yourself and you should be good to go, right?

Wrong!  Query letters are devilishly tricky to put together.  They need to contain all sorts of information, but you can't be too wordy, not can you leave anything out.   It all needs to fit into one page of type, and preferably four short paragraphs.

Don't take the newbie or lazy writer's approach and just whip out a generic query letter and think that's going to make the cut.

Personal Experience
I sent in a query letter to be critiqued by Emma Walton Hamilton through Julie Hedlund's 12x12 Picture Book Group.  I wrote it, went back later and edited it, and sent it off.  I wasn't actually smug about how wonderful it was, but I really did think I had nailed it.

When the critique came back, I was dumbfounded to discover how utterly sub-par my query letter was.  It wasn't horrible, but it sure wasn't anything to be proud of.

Must Have Info
First, I forgot to state the word count and targeted audience age range.  Yes, whoever's reading your query really needs to know those tidbits of information to help them analyze your work.

Why This Agent/Editor?
Secondly, my reason for choosing that particular agent wasn't terribly compelling.  It was pretty obvious I simply picked them out of a list.  Try to come up with some level of connection with the agent or editor.  

  • Did you meet them at a conference?  
  • Does your work fit nicely into the type of books they represent?  
  • Did you get a referral from someone else?

Finally, I added an unnecessary paragraph about non-fiction picture books, despite the fact my book is fiction.  It made perfect sense when I wrote the letter, but after hearing the critique, I realized how that paragraph was completely out of place.   If you can, have someone read over your query letter to point out these types of inconsistencies.

Review Some Samples
Reading examples of query letters can be very instructive. Kidlit411 is a great website with boatloads of helpful information, some of which pertains to query letters.  Additionally, SCBWI  (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) members can gain valuable help with their query letters in the member forums.

Spend some decent time crafting your query letter.  You've already poured your soul into your manuscript.  Don't sell it short by writing a less than stellar query.  You're a writer after all.  With a little practice, you'll find a good formula that works for your and showcases your awesome book, which is what you're after in the first place.


  1. Leslie,
    How cool that you received a critique of your query. And fortunate for us that you've shared the feedback. My query letters have suffered from these same misunderstood extras.
    Some times I start d r a f t i n g a query early on.
    To be many times revised, yes.
    But it can help me remember that I have this big writing task unfinished, after the manuscript is revised umpteen times.
    I'm so glad you posted this.

  2. Leslie, How brave of you to share your own personal lessons learned. I have written only one quesry letter, but I have done several pitches. We learn as we go & we grow.

  3. Thanks you, Leslie. Great tips!

  4. Great information, Leslie! Very true! I've also had a critique from Emma.

  5. I can relate to the woes of writing query letters. Thanks for the tips.