When your manuscript is complete, and your book proposal is at least in your first draft stage, you are ready to seek representation with query letters to agents. It’s a strange fact that, although many writers may be masterful in their prose, when writing a query letter, they face the blank page with trepidation. After all, it’s one thing to devise interesting characters and make them move through the world you’ve created, and to surrender to your own creative process, but it’s altogether different trying to speak of yourself and your work with clarity, brevity and in such a compelling manner that an agent immediately picks up their phone to call you. Yet this is exactly what you must do if you want to stand out from the slush pile. Your query letter is your first point of contact and should reflect your uniqueness and your craft, as well as respect for the reader’s time.

My background as a writer includes over a decade of working as a copywriter in ad agencies. The training a writer gets in this sort of milieu is to convey ideas quickly – and in a memorable way. The same approach is effective for writing query letters. Below are a few tips to help you craft the most effective queries:

  1. Start Out with a BangThis is where you grab your reader by the shirt – and don’t let go. What is the most compelling, quirky or inspirational aspect of your story? Define that idea into a sentence or two and open your query with it. Agents have to wade through hundreds of queries a week; you have only a few seconds to make them read all the way through. Don’t waste that. In addition, defining your story in such a clear, concise way will serve you down the road when you pitch your story to anyone who might be of help to your writing career. This could include filmmakers, who are used to such pitches, and refer to these as “log lines.”
  2. Why You?Let the reader know why you are the person to tell your story. We all find inspiration and are motivated by events in our lives. Use this to give the reader a sense of your unique insights or qualifications.
  3. Other Book ProjectsLike all of us, agents are limited in the time and energy they can devote to their clients. They must choose them carefully. For this reason, they are more inclined to work with writers who have several books in them. Mention yours here. They may not be drawn to your current project, but if you’ve crafted your letter well and they are still reading, here is your chance to pitch any other project you have completed or are working on. This serves the dual purpose of showing them your ongoing devotion to your craft, as well as pitching alternative projects. Remember: only a line or two.
  4. Why this Agent or Agency?Show the reader you’ve done your research. Mention any authors you share in common, especially if you have any personal connection. Mention books they’ve published recently (that have done well), that you can cite as reasons for wanting this particular agent.
  5. Writing Awards or RecognitionsEnd with these, as though they are an afterthought. Humility goes a long way.
  6. Ask Them to Contact YouIn advertising this is called a “call to action” – and yields a significantly higher response than ads run without it. You’ve gotten this far, so don’t be shy. Thank them for their time, and tell them you would be thrilled to talk to them further – and to call anytime.

Once you’ve completed this, edit your query for brevity. It’s critical that your query delivers the necessary information quickly and in an engaging manner, so don’t run on too long with any of your points.

Taking the time to compose solid, professional queries is well worth the effort, and doesn’t take nearly as long as it took you to complete your manuscript. Put your best verse forward, let your personality shine through and you’ll be rewarded with enthusiastic responses. Of course, there are myriad reasons why you might receive some standard “thanks but no thanks” responses, and this does not necessarily reflect on your work or your query. But if you compose your query letters in the manner described above, your chances of finding the right agent will be greatly enhanced.

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