How to Write a Literary Agent Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to approach a literary agent query letter, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

literary agent query letter
Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Beginning

Want to know how to write a literary agent query letter? It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the literary agent query letter and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat (read more about the elements of a query letter). The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book.  They’re also the key in terms of how to write a query letter that’ll grab an agent’s attention. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story! (For more on this topic, check out my post on writing fiction that makes readers care.)

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Write a Query Letter: The Closing

Then, you’ll finish your literary agent query letter with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter format that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only answer to questions about how to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

27 Replies to “How to Write a Literary Agent Query Letter”

  1. Great post. I’ll keep this in mind. Thanks for the simple format too!

  2. Besides taking someone by the hand and writing the letter for him, this entry is the next best thing. One of the most important parts (as stated above) is to let the editor know why you chose to query him/her over, say, other colleagues in the office.

  3. Fantastic that you inverted the reasoning and provided the most useful advice so far on writing query letters. Thank you!

  4. Barb Raven says:

    Thanks for the info. You have done a great job of explaining the process of writing a query letter.

  5. Good stuff. Thanks for putting this together. I do have a question or two (knowing that this is an old post 🙂 sorry)

    What about jumping straight into the query synopsis after the “Dear (Agent)” salutation, and sticking the “I am seeking representation for X” at the end?

    Also, I’ve been adding a sentence that goes something like this: “(Book title) will appeal to fans of (author) and (author)” — is this a pro or con?

  6. Kristen — No worries that it’s an old post, I’ll respond in the next few weeks so that everyone can get some clarification on these questions.

  7. Thanks for this post – I found your list of WHO/WHAT/WHEN/WHERE questions really informative – useful for focusing the query on the key story elements.

    I’ve got the same question as Kirsten on the reference sentence – “(Book title) is a mashup of (title) and (title) with a great new twist” or some such.

    I’ve read having those reference titles is very useful when it comes to selling the MS, and I can really see how it would capture the imagination, if done carefully. On the other hand I’ve heard some people say that it’s presumptuous and/or not necessary.

    I’d love your thoughts on the subject.

  8. I’m sure I’ve read it before, but you said it in a way that makes perfect and genuine sense. Make ’em care. Got it. Thanks.

  9. Thank You! This is the first time I’ve seen a query broken down to its basic elements. You know, instead of just saying “Don’t call it a fiction novel” or “Don’t mention you think your novel would make a great film.” While the dont’s are helpful, the do’s are far more important, IMO.


  10. C.T. Richmond says:

    Such an insightful post! I’ve been tearing my hair out for weeks, trying to get my query just right. Maybe I just need to keep it simple, eh? Thanks for all of your advice!

  11. This has been the most helpful tool I’ve come across for writing a query. Thank you.

  12. Cassandra says:

    Wow, this information is so very helpful to me. Thanks so much!

  13. I think it’s important to hear this advice from an agent, someone who actually deals with query letter! -j.p.

  14. Love the list of questions, very helpful and something I obviously didn’t have in mind during my first query letter.
    I’ve done a little post on my blog covering the last five queries I did for a project and it’s still not there, breaking it down with these questions stuck to the screen next to me will be very helpful for the one millionth draft!

  15. I’m still trying to clarify my story arc, so your 6 Ws can help me with that. Even trying to write a query letter to myself for a WIP would be a good exercise.

  16. I like the valuable info you provide in your articles. I’ll bookmark your weblog and test once more right here frequently. I’m relatively sure I’ll be informed many new stuff proper right here! Good luck for the next!

  17. Hi Mary,
    So six years later…
    Editors/agents want a great hook. But these days, does it help at all to include links to a Pinterest page with images/facts/videos about the time period for an historical novel? What about websites that could provide promotional venues related to the theme of your novel (i.e. A Mighty Girl or Amelia Bloomer project)?
    Can you sense I’m desperate? 😉

  18. More super helpful advice! Thank you! “Make me care”, what a great goal in our query writing and in our story writing too!

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