One of my favorite aspects of being an editor is conducting research and answering the questions new and established writers often have about the stories they’re writing. I’ve always thought I would be rather good as a reference librarian, if only because I so enjoy answering questions. To the point where I annoy the people who get trapped in the same room with me during any episode of Jeopardy!
For the last couple days (more like decades, really, I’ve known this woman since high school), my friend SuEllen (over at Sunshine Graphics on Facebook) has been exploring taking the plunge and publishing her writing. She’s been following my blog and my post yesterday about IngramSpark got her to point-blank and quite articulately ask me about query letters:
I know this is probably a long way off, but what the fuck is a query letter and would I really need one?
I have mad respect for folks who don’t waste time beating around the proverbial bushes.
My response was something along the lines of
A query letter tells a publisher who you are and about the manuscript you’ve sent or want to send. Put it this way, would you shake the hand of a potential employer?
Her response? (And this is just part of the reason why we’ve been friends since high school . . .)
I’m sure you probably want me to say, “Yes.” But all I really want to know is if he washed his hands first.
But her inquiry and curiosity about the idea and overall worth of a query letter got my brain working on building an advice column of sorts that could help any inquiring, newbie writers out there. So, for this first post I’ll define and link to examples of the perfect Query Letter.
According to Wikipedia, a query letter, “is a formal letter sent to magazine editors, literary agents and sometimes publishing houses or companies. Writers write query letters to propose writing ideas.”
Which is just slightly different from what I told SuEllen originally. I was thinking more along the lines of a cover letter, which is something one usually sends along with a writing submission in order to introduce themselves to the managing or department editor of the journal/anthology/magazine of their choice. However, the query letter can take the same format and tone.
Think of it as a professional introduction, an opportunity to stand out from the rest of the people submitting stories or story ideas, and a platform for selling your writing idea–from essay to novel. I told SuEllen that I’ve seen stories get tossed without even being read because of an issue on the cover letter. Be sure to do your research and know who you’re sending the letter and manuscript to. Catch an editor on a bad day, and your story might not get read just for spelling the name wrong or having the wrong name in the greeting. Paying close attention to submission guidelines will prevent errors like that, especially when it comes to whom or which department you’re sending your query letter.
Writer’s Digest is always a solid go-to tool and outlet for any kind of writing advice from craft to business-end guidance. And, they won’t steer you wrong here, either. The following articles come from Brian A. Klems‘ “The Writer’s Dig“:
“How to Write the Perfect Query Letter” breaks down a successful query letter one paragraph at a time with an agent’s response to each, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each–from the greeting to incorporating effective summaries of your work as selling points.
“The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter” for those authors among us who require something closer to a checklist. Klems offers six dos and four don’ts that will give your query letter a leg-up over the competition by being thoughtful and aware of the information you’re sending the agent or editor. He even includes a link to examples of successful query letters.