As a Senior Agent at the Nancy Yost Literary Agency, I’ve read and reviewed thousands of queries. Yes, thousands, and possibly tens of thousands! Since my query inbox first opened, I’ve had the opportunity read some amazing queries, and some that could have benefitted from the following these tips on polishing and personalizing your query.
1. Send individualized queries
It will take more time, but this is an important relationship. You are hopefully going to be partnered with an agent for years, so just like with any other long term relationship you want to build strong foundations. This means at the very least addressing the agent by their name with the correct spelling and with the correct title if you choose to [address them by their] surname.
Additionally, if you happen to typo, that’s okay, it happens! Feel free to follow up with a quick correction after you hit send. Or if you’re querying via a portal, you should have the ability to withdraw your submission and then re-submit with the corrected form of address.
I promise you it will be worth it.
2. Read lots of query letters
To the Google!! Authors writing in all kinds of genres have shared their query letters, and agents have also shared sample query letters. Find them. Read them. The more you read the more you’ll be able to sort out what format would work best for your book and your genre.
Also note that while their are similarities between fiction and nonfiction queries, they are different.
3. Query letters are like the writer’s version of the middle school five-paragraph essay Here’s a quick cheat sheet of what each of those five paragraphs can contain. Remember, you can shorten as you see fit and [be sure] to personalize it.
Introductory Paragraph: This should introduce yourself and your work. Be sure to include genre and word count.
Three Body Paragraphs: You don’t have to have three, but I find it’s a solid set of paragraphs for you to talk about your book. Try to hone this “about section” think of it as similar to the text you can find on the back of a book’s cover or on the flap of a dust jacket.
Conclusion Paragraph: This closing paragraph is where you can share a bit about yourself. Think of it as your bio. Feel free to include any accolades for your writing that you might have, any professional writing organizations, or fun facts. Also include how you can be contacted if you haven’t included that info in a signature block, or some submission form.
4. Less is more
I know it may be tempting to share as much as possible about your work, but I always say that if an author could share everything they wanted in a pitch about their book then why would they then write an 80,000 word novel? So, know that we want to get to your book and your pages. Don’t keep us hostage in your query letter! Instead, use your query letter as a springboard for us to dive into your book and/or submission materials. Your pitch should pique interest and lead the reader (agent or editor) to you pages! Ultimately your book, your work, your story is what’s most important.
5. Have a friend, family member, or colleague read your query
Be open to editorial feedback. It is helpful to have someone familiar with the querying process to proofread your query letter. But, no matter what, another set of eyes will help catch the small things like the typos that our brains like to gloss over. And then, thoughtfully consider their feedback. Ultimately, you have to make the final decision on what you are going to send out, but most of the people you ask for help aren’t making suggestions just for the sake of it. Really consider their edits, and be sure to appreciate and value the time they’ve taken out of their day to spend on reviewing your query letter.
6. Ask a critique partner to help you draft a query letter
Oftentimes it’s difficult for an author to synthesize their work into a one-page pitch. If you have a trusted critique partner, they can sometimes help draft a few paragraphs to get you started. Of course, you might then owe them chocolate or whatever delicious treat they might desire. But this is an option I’ve had several of my authors mention they used when querying me! Seeing how others frame your work after reading and working on it with you might be helpful. You should never pressure or guilt critique partners or beta readers into helping you draft your query. Ask. And if they decline, that’s okay!
There are also freelance editors out in the world that might also offer these services, and you can totally pursue those options as well. But when money is involved and exchanging hands that’s a personal choice. And always make sure you vet any freelancers you might choose to work with. Do your research, folks!
7. Make sure that when you’re submitting to an agent that they do indeed work with the type of projects that you’re sending
While an agent might seem really cool in interviews or on social media, you’ll be wasting their time and your time by querying them with a project that they do not work on. Save yourself!
Sarah E. Younger, Senior Agent, at the Nancy Yost Literary Agency began her career in publishing at Press53 in Winston Salem, N.C. after receiving her undergraduate degree from UNC-Chapel Hill. She later attended the University of Denver’s graduate publishing program where upon completion she moved to New York City. Sarah joined the Nancy Yost Literary Agency in the fall of 2011 and has since cultivated a diverse and talented list of authors including a variety of commercial fiction and select non-fiction titles. She is specifically interested in representing all varieties of romance, women’s fiction including chicklit and romantic comedies, adult science fiction and fantasy, and very select non-fiction. You can find her on her personal Twitter @seyitsme. Learn more about the Nancy Yost Literary Agency including how to query Sarah by visiting the NYLA website.