Skip to content

The Writing Life: The Nuts & Bolts of Query Letters

2013 April 16


The Writing Life
Dawn FrederickThe Nuts & Bolts of Writing a Strong Query Letter

by Dawn Frederick


Several years ago, I was able to participate on a special panel at the DFW Writers’ Conference. This panel was appropriately named THE GONG SHOW.

The Set Up: Writers anonymously submit their query letters to the Gong Show (in advance)
The Execution: A special speaker reads each query letter aloud to a panel consisting of agents and editors.
The Timing: Once any of the panelists knew the letter wasn’t working, s/he would hit a gong. After 3 people hit the gong, the speaker stopped reading the letter aloud.

After each reading, the people who struck the gong explained their reasoning behind their “no” decisions. Those who didn’t explained why they continued to listen.

The overall experience was amazing. While the crowd found our actions (and reactions) entertaining, the goal was also to help writers understand the bigger picture; specifically the elements required in query letters so that they win the attention of an agent or editor.

Over the years there are several things that stand out with strong query letters for me. Any query with these characteristics will have a better chance gaining the attention of an agent/editor. Especially if the writer puts the same effort into the query as put into the book its referring to.

1.) A Good Hook – One would be surprised at the frequency of similar stories and themes, as well as writers inadvertently proposing a book that has already been written. The only way to ensure a query letter will move far is to present a new, fresh idea. Do we need another Eat Pray Love? Does the world need another vampire novel with guy named Edward? How many more books are going to attempt to imitate Harry Potter? Instead: Think big, know your competition, and write a book that represents YOU vs. writing to trends. Ensure those first few sentences of the query letter reflect the new idea. Additionally be able to share the category that best suits the book.

2.) Adjectives, Too Many is a Bad Thing – One of the biggest turnoffs is a writer attempting to use every adjective imaginable to describe a book. Lots of fancy words, saturating the letter to the point that the recipient has no idea what the book is about. The only impression being that the author is wordy and unable to summarize the book succinctly.

My reminder – KEEP IT SIMPLE. Can you summarize your book in 3-4 sentences without being overly dependent on unnecessary adjectives?

3.) Who are you? – There are two things that commonly happen with query letters. #1, the author forgets to include vital information about his/her writing experiences. #2, the author includes unnecessary information about his/her personal life.

Would you tell a total stranger your hopes, dreams, and life challenges within the first 15 seconds of meeting that person? Apparently many authors feel a need to do this during the query process. I’ve learned the names of children and pets, previous and current illnesses, favorite foods, favorite hobbies, and fears in life – none of these things pertaining to the book ideas within the queries.

It’s preferred that one lists writing credits. Also mention any literary and writing organizations participated in. Share why you are the person to write the book being proposed. That’s the personal information we’re looking for.

4.) Why is the agent/editor a good match for the book? – The biggest mistake any writer can make is ignoring submission guidelines. When writing query letters, personalize each query. Share why you chose that particular agent or editor. Confirm via the agent/editor’s listing that your book falls within his/her categories.

Ex: Someone who knew I was active in roller derby queried me with an idea that he knew I would like. He researched my categories, knew I was part of the roller derby scene, and shared some of the same friends in our sport. His letter stated as much, and it won me over immediately. That book, NO MERCY is one my favorite books on roller derby ever published, and it’s not just because he’s my author. It’s simply a gorgeous book.)

In short, the formula for any query letter should be as follows:
WHAT is your book about (1 paragraph)
HOW does it stand out in the current market? How commercial is the idea? (1 paragraph)
WHO are you? (1 paragraph)
WHY is the agent/editor/publisher a good fit for your book?  (1 paragraph)
And last but not least, offer to share the appropriate materials (manuscsript, book proposal, etc.)

Here’s my personal mantra for query letters:  keep it simple, direct, and engaging. What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked? Tomorrow I’ll be discussing the common errors in query letters.


Editor’s Note: If you like what Dawn has to say, tell her yourself TONIGHT at the MN Publishing Tweet Up at Wilde Roast Cafe in Minneapolis from 5:30 – 7:30 pm! See you there?


Dawn Frederick is the owner and literary agent of Red Sofa Literary, based in the Twin Cities. Previously an agent with Sebastian Literary Agency, Dawn brings a broad knowledge of the book business to the table, with multiple years of experience as a bookseller in the independent, chain, and specialty stores. Red Sofa Literary was listed as one the 101 Best Websites for Writers in 2012 and 2013. Additionally, Dawn is also a co-founder of the MN Publishing Tweet Up, a networking group composed of writers and publishers, now completing its second year of bringing publishers and writers together over happy hours and at special bookstore events.