Writing Your Query: part two

After following the steps in my last post, you should now have a polished manuscript ready to go, and an idea about the agent you would like to read (and hopefully represent) your work.

I should clarify here that I’m going to use the word ‘query’ for the rest of the article to keep things simple. In my experience, there are slight differences between a query and a submission. I’ve found that submissions come because the author has already met or had contact with the agent, and has less need to establish themselves, whereas a query involves finding out whether or not the agent is willing to read your work. A submission is usually more detailed, and a query should be kept quite brief. The information below is relevant for both and you can just tweak your letter accordingly.

  1. Correctly addressing your email. Now this seems very basic, but it is one of my biggest grievances. Please address your query directly to the agent. No ‘to whom it may concern’ or ‘dear agent’. Use their name! If you are submitting to an agency with more than one agent and you have their general enquiries email, address it to the agency (i.e. Dear Littleton Literary Agency). Generic greetings make me think you have just mass emailed your query out to a slew of agents, which is really another issue in itself (please do not do a bulk send out! One query at a time)
  2. Your query should address three key points. Who you are. What you’ve written. Why you want the agent to read it (note, it does not have to be in that exact order). Anything else in a query is non-essential and I can assure you that agents like things to be prompt and to the point. They read hundreds of queries per day and definitely do not appreciate having to sift through a lengthy letter containing your personal history just to find out what genre story you have written.
  3. Who you are. This does not have to be super detailed, but it is handy to know where you’re from, if you have had any other work published, what kind of qualifications you have (if applicable i.e. you’re a part-time chef and mother who has written a cookbook for kids) and if the work has been workshopped or assessed. Most agents will also want to know if your manuscript has been sent to any other agents or publishers. If so, be honest because these things get around. We do not need to know how long you spent writing it and that it’s your lifelong dream (we will safely assume that this is a given from anyone who writes a query).
  4. What have you written. Tell us about your story – how long is it? What genre? Is it a stand-alone book or part of an imagined series? Are there any books on the market that are similar to it/would it appeal to a similar established audience? What makes it stand apart? Give a brief synopsis (in your query it should only be a couple of sentences, in a submission it should be no more than a paragraph). Have this as polished as possible!
  5. Why you want this agent to read it. As I mentioned in the last article, this shows that you have done your research and have some understanding of the industry. You don’t have to suck up – again, keep it professional. Something along the lines of ‘I know you represent (author), whose work I really enjoy and feel that my story is suited to a similar audience of (type of people). You also seem to (take on new authors/enjoy and understand the complexities of sci-fi/like stories written in second person – you get the idea) and I feel my story would appeal to you’.
  6. Attachments. I’ll get into the technical requirements in the next paragraph, but in my experience you don’t need to attach your manuscript or include an excerpt in your first query. If the agent is interested, they will ask for a sample. Unless their query policy says otherwise – go with those directions first. If the agent has already agreed to read your work or is taking submissions, just attach the first three chapters in a Word doc (unless their policy states otherwise – again, read that first!). Don’t just copy and paste the work into the body of your email.

Quick Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Do be professional. Treat it like you’re writing a cover letter for a job. Be polite and respectful.
  2. Do be confident, not cocky (if your email is titled ‘Summer 2010’s next bestseller!!! I probably won’t actually want to read your query as you sound arrogant and not someone I want to work with).
  3. Don’t suggest meeting for a coffee. If an agent is really interested in you and your work, they will do this.
  4. Don’t ask for the details of other agents. I get a lot of initial queries which conclude with ‘If you don’t like this, can you please tell me which other agents might?’ I know it’s well-intentioned (usually), but it’s a bit annoying. If your query/submission is rejected and the feedback is fairly positive, I think it’s then all right to politely ask for guidance but I’ll cover that in my next article.

Getting Technical

Here’s how to avoid some technical mishaps in your query. It can be quite frustrating for us when we are unable to open an attachment, or an email is unreadable. If you can take measures to prevent this, that would be awesome.

  1. Format any attachments correctly. If you’re going with Word, make sure you save it as a .doc file. If you use Windows Vista or 7, Word will default save as .docx which when opened by someone using an older version of Windows results in gibberish. Quite annoying, especially if your synopsis is awesome and I’m keen to see if your writing is as impressive as your letter! I would say that most agents will have Word and would specify the format of attachments if otherwise.
  2. Make sure your email format is readable. Turn off any fancy fonts or bright coloured text. Keep it simple. If you have copy and pasted the bulk of your email from a Word doc, make sure it still looks okay on the screen and adjust if necessary.
  3. Spell-check your email! Again, it sounds silly, but poor spelling and obvious grammatical errors don’t make the best first impression.
  4. I’d recommend first sending your email and your attachment to yourself (and even another user) to make sure it looks nice on screen. It may seem a bit pedantic, but you want to make a good first impression and give an agent every reason to want to read your work.

Nathan Bransford, a San Francisco based agent with Curtis Brown, offers excellent query advice on his website and here. Agent Query also has some great tips.

-Steph of My Girl Friday currently works as an assistant to a Melbourne literary agent

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One response to “Writing Your Query: part two”

  1. Melanie says :

    Thanks for this Steph! It makes me wish my manuscript was finished. But I will definitely be coming back to this post when I finish.

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