How to Write a Query: The Myth of the Perfect Query Letter

Shannon asked this how to write a query question on my post about the second person and rhetorical questions in queries a few days ago, and I wanted to do a quick post about this myth of the perfect query letter in response:

Do you think that *any* question addressed to the reader of a query letter is irritating? Is it automatically “rhetorical” if you’re not actually there to give the author your feedback? I never thought that it might be a turn-off; I thought it was “marketing”. My goodness, this write a query business is intimidating.

perfect query letter
Think this is the set-up for the perfect query letter? Read on to write a query without losing your mind.

Write a Query Letter Without Stressing Out

I may completely misread her point here, but I do it intentionally, so stick with me. “Marketing” implies gimmicks to me, especially this early in the game. When you’ve got an actual published book out, then you can market your butt off (and should) to try and get people to buy it. At the querying phase, it’s not about selling and hustling at all. This is one myth of the perfect query letter.

Getting an agent means entering into a relationship because two people believe in a project and want to have a long working partnership. The author places a lot of trust in the agent and the agent works hard without any immediate gain. The choice to work together doesn’t originate from any flashy whiz-bang query letter shenanigans. You aren’t trying to trick an agent or use fancy misdirection when you write a query. You don’t try to “market” your way into a long-term romantic relationship, right? It’s the same thing here. The query exchange, to me, should come from a place of authenticity, as stripped free of gimmick as possible. (Make sure you’re prepared to learn all the elements of a query letter.)

Adjusting Your Attitude When You Write a Query

If you’re getting intimidated by writing the perfect query letter, that might be a sign that you’re overthinking it. It’s very simple. Tell me about your idea and make me care. The perfect query letter, to me, is just a way to attract interest in your writing sample, which is the heart of the matter anyway. Once I start reading your manuscript and love it, the query letter is completely forgotten. If you want an easy suggestion for writing an appealing letter, you can read a previous post about the kind of query I like to see here: Writing a simple, compelling query. Or you can swim on over to Janet Reid’s blog, Query Shark.

It might seem hypocritical for me to say: “Don’t worry about the perfect query letter, you’re overthinking it! It’s easy!” while, at the same time, writing so much about queries, but that’s what people ask me about. A query is a writer’s first step into the literary agent search and, understandably, they want to get it right. So, while I have and will continue to dispense a lot of advice about how to write a query, they’re really a much smaller deal — big picture-wise — than the manuscript that follows.

Every one of my manuscript editing services as a book editor comes with query notes. Take the guesswork out of this simple letter, and get feedback on the book itself, and hire me today.

13 Replies to “How to Write a Query: The Myth of the Perfect Query Letter”

  1. Simple is always better–whether you’re decorating a room or writing a first paragraph. There’s true beauty in straightfoward, honest quality. Kudos to you for recognizing that!

  2. I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and quiz you on this, because, I confess, I’m a little *puzzled…I’ve always thought most people are ‘marketing’ themselves to some extent while first trying to catch the eye of a potential date. That’s why we get all dressed up, instead of lounging around in our tattered nightie.

    I’ve also read so much advice on other agent sites about how the query will be used to sell the editor on the story, and for the back cover blurb, that I feel my head spinning. Aren’t we trying, in our query, to hook in the agent as the first in a long line of readers? And how can we do that if not by pulling out a bit of dazzle? At the least, we need to highlight the most intriguing and interesting parts of our books, or why would anyone keep reading? Best foot forward and all that.

    I’m really not trying to be difficult, just trying to understand this new angle on the query process. Of course, I can always write one query for ‘dazzle me’ agents, and another for those of you who are turned of by anything that smacks of a gimmick, but what am I to do for those agents who don’t make their preference clear on a blog?

    *My concern is completely divorced from the fact that the query I’ve submitted to this contest begins with a question…nothing to do with each other!

  3. Suzanne — Thanks for pressing me, honestly, because I know that sometimes what I say might seem incomplete or contradictory. Yes. We do want to impress a potential date or an agent. We certainly don’t want to show up in our nightie or with a query that’s boring or incomplete. But, at this stage in the game, a query is a transmission of information. That’s all. Forget about my pitch to editors — I like to write that. Part of my job is pitching and I love it… why would I let you have all my fun for me? 🙂 Forget your back cover blurb and jacket flap copy — either you or I or the editor or a copywriter at the house will write that when the time comes. You have no book, no flap, no back cover yet. Get through the first door before your mind flits off down the next hallway.

    Yes for highlighting the most intriguing and interesting parts of the book. But that’s not dazzle. That’s transmitting the most important information. The query is just a brief couple of paragraphs that makes us want to read your manuscript, that’s all. And the simple truth of it is, people stress so much about queries and read all the blogs and devise all these strategies to help their query “dazzle” and stand out… without realizing that all the other people who are anxious about queries are reading the same blogs and using the same strategies. So keep it simple. And — for Pete’s sake — don’t try to figure out which agents want “dazzle me” queries and which ones don’t. That is the definition of overthinking it.

    Transmit the important information about your book, simply and succinctly. It’s our job to read your query and figure out whether or not there’s something in your book and your plot that interests us. And we’re going to base our decision on the information you give us about the book — not based on your query — because your book, and not your query, is what we’ll be selling.

    In the old days, people used to try to stand out by sending a query on resume paper or in a really special font or in a different-color envelope or with a fun little mailable gift enclosed. That’s all dazzle. The information printed on that heavy, marbled paper is the essence and that’s all I’m interested in.

  4. Is it strange to think that this is one of the most comforting things I’ve ever read in regards to queries? I always am over-thinking them, second-guessing everything about them. “They’re really a much smaller deal… than the manuscript that follows.” So true.

  5. This is so reassuring to me. The whole business of querying is very frustrating. You send them out. You think about what you wrote. You wish that you wrote something different. You pray that “they” don’t wish that you wrote something different. And then, you wait.

    After reading this, I get the feeling that queries are like people searching for soulmates(agents). There’s one out that for everyone. But you just got to let it happen naturally.

  6. You’ve got a great point there. I’ve spent a lot of time pulling my hair out over getting every little word and period of my query right while missing the whole picture- focusing on showing what the story is about in simple terms. I also assumed that everyone would understand what my story was about without fully explaining everything. But now I feel so much better about my query now that I’m focusing on one train of thought and one character.

  7. Mary, so I guess what my mother always said is true…go ahead and dress up for the date, but remember that it’s what you have inside that counts. Or, in this case, what you’ve got in those sample pages. She’ll be thrilled to know her advice is still current. 😉

    Thanks for the reply. I shall endeavor to breathe deeply and slap my inner dazzler down!

  8. Samantha Stier says:

    This was a great post. I’m always stressing about how much information to put in my queries. Sometimes writing the query is harder than actually writing the book. I definitely over-think my queries and often forget that the whole point of a query letter is to: “Tell me about your idea and make me care.” So true!

  9. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. I’ve been researching the query letter backwards and forwards and have almost spun myself silly. It is nice to see you put it so simply. And true.

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