“The Definitive Guide to Writing the Perfect Query Letter,” by Elizabeth Barton

Aug 4th, 2021 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

If you have aspirations of publishing a novel, you might think that once you’ve finished writing the manuscript, you’ve conquered the hardest part. Although this is a great accomplishment and an important step, it’s a relative piece of cake compared with what lies ahead. To realize your goals, you’ll probably need to secure representation by a literary agent, and for that, you’ll need a query letter. You may have heard that the agent query letter is the most important letter you will ever write, and likely rewrite upwards of 17,500 times. If you peruse enough advice about query letter writing, you might be led to believe that the query is more important than the novel itself and perhaps start to wonder why you bothered to write a novel at all. But well, you did, so you should craft the best possible query letter to give your novel its greatest chance.

There’s no shortage of advice on writing a query letter that will capture an agent’s attention and hold onto it like it’s the last available package of toilet paper in March of 2020. I know this because I’ve read pretty much all of it. Plus, I’ve combed through hundreds of successful query letters and drafted countless versions of my own. And since I’ve done this, you don’t have to. I’ve distilled my massive collection of knowledge down to this handy guide. Let’s dive in!

The Opener

Begin with a simple salutation: Dear XXXX, for example. But include the agent’s name in place of the XXXX. Never use a generic salutation like Dear Agent or even Dear Exalted Literary Gatekeeper. The agent is taking time from their busy schedule to read your letter, so the least you can do is address them by name.

There are two main schools of thought as to what should directly follow the salutation.

(1) The Hook

This is the all-important sentence that will grab the agent’s attention and make them start panting in anticipation. Opinions vary as to what should go into a hook. Many describe a hook as a one-sentence summary of the most unique and interesting elements of the novel. Others say that any number of things can comprise a great hook: compelling information about you or your book, particulars on the book’s target market, a relevant quote or statistic, or even a string of seemingly random words, provided they are expressed with gusto (SHOEBOX ARMADILLO CHEESE PANTS!)—anything goes as long as it’s attention-grabbing. If your query letter doesn’t begin with a fantastic hook, you put the agent at risk of dropping dead from boredom induced by your dreadful, tedious nonhooky text—and who would want to represent someone who did that to them? So, obviously, the hook must always follow the salutation, unless of course you belong to the other school of thought.

(2) The Setup Sentence

For every literary professional who insists the hook must come first, there’s another who is just as adamant that query letters must open with a simple statement of the letter’s purpose (i.e., that you’re seeking representation for your novel), then provide the title, genre, and word count. Without this setup, the agent might become confused, unsure why you’re teasing them with (albeit fascinating) nuggets of a story about Emile, a flying badger with the power of telekinesis. Who would want to represent someone who disorients them by wantonly lobbing plot points without a bit of setup first? The nerve!

Unfortunately, you might not know which school of thought your prospective agent subscribes to. Thus, you must simultaneously take both approaches. For this, I suggest a Choose Your Own Adventure structure.

Sidebar: Does anyone like rhetorical questions?

Absolutely not—rhetorical questions will brand you as an unsavvy neophyte. Agents are dead tired of this tactic—except those who say it’s fine if it’s done well (whatever that means).


Agents receive gajillions of query letters each nanosecond. To make yours stand out amid the slush, you should personalize it toward your prospective agent. Ideally, you’ll have had some personal exchange you can mention, but if not, don’t panic—you can still personalize your letter if you do some research. The agent’s profile on their agency’s website is likely to be chock-full of information about their education, storied career, hobbies, condiment preferences, blood type, and sports team allegiances. Oddly enough, the profile may offer little hint as to the types of manuscripts they are seeking, but there are plenty of other sources you can tap for that: QueryTracker, Manuscript Wish List, and Publisher’s Marketplace, to name a few. Follow the agent on Twitter and/or Instagram. Stalk them (from a distance). Go through their trash. Channel all the informational tidbits you gather toward personalizing your query letter because doing so is vital—except of course when it isn’t. Many agents say that, although a previous personal connection is worth mentioning, beyond that, personalization isn’t likely to make or break your query. Some agents even note that going to extreme lengths to personalize a query can sound contrived. So, don’t try too hard to personalize. Except do—because it’s vital!

The Summary

Your query letter should include a summary of your novel, providing a sense of the story and overall themes without describing every plot point, spoilers and all. Most guidelines suggest this should be limited to a few sentences, definitely no more than one paragraph. Yet, in my review of successful query letters, I’ve found many with plot summaries that spanned three or more paragraphs. So…go figure. Keep it as brief as you can, I guess.

The Bio

There are several important do’s and don’ts when it comes to bios.

  • DO mention past publication credits if you have them. These tell the agent that someone found your work worthy of publishing, which will give you a leg up…maybe. Has your work appeared in publications everyone in the solar system has heard of? If so, great! If not, it’s either still great because every bit helps, or it’s not worth mentioning because no one except maybe your mom cares about the story you had published in obscurity. Many literary agents are open to working with new authors, so you shouldn’t worry if you haven’t published anything yet…probably. It depends. Have you been trying to get published for decades to no avail? That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, just that your writing hasn’t found the right home yet—unless of course you are a bad writer. On the other hand, maybe this novel is your first attempt at getting published. That’s no problem whatsoever, but it does signal to agents that you have no idea what you’re doing and aren’t especially dedicated to your craft.
  • DO mention interesting details about yourself if they are relevant to your novel, unless they’re weird and off-putting (the exception here being if you know, through your stalking and trash research that the agent is into things most people find weird and off-putting). Do you have experiences and/or hobbies that provided special inspiration or insight for your book? Mention those in your bio. But be careful not to mention too much. As I noted earlier, agents read megabazillions of query letters. So, if yours is a single character longer than necessary, it’s liable to make the agent’s eyes bleed. Then the agent will do everything in their power to ensure you never succeed in your literary endeavors.

Comp Titles

Numerous guidelines advise mentioning a few recent books that are comparable to your novel (aka, comp titles). A lack of comp titles suggests that there is no market for your book and your quest for publication is hopeless. However, many guidelines suggest that comp titles aren’t critical and should be mentioned only if they have been published within the past five years, have sold well, and are very closely aligned with your own in terms of tone and structure, in which case they render your book superfluous. So, to recap: Mention of comparable books is necessary but unimportant. Comp titles indicate that there’s an existing market for your book while simultaneously demonstrating that your book is redundant and therefore unmarketable.

The Closing

Most commonly, a synopsis and the first 10 to 20 pages of the manuscript should be included with your query letter, but each agent/agency has specific submission guidelines, so it’s important to check these and follow them precisely. Wrap up your letter by stating that you have included whatever is indicated in the guidelines. Many sources suggest mentioning that you would be happy to send the full manuscript on request. Others advise against this approach since (*eye roll*) duh. Either way, close by thanking the agent and signing off.

And that’s it! Simple, right? Not at all convoluted and rife with conflicting advice! Now, go forth and query!
Elizabeth Barton has been making stuff up for most of her life. Her first short story, The Worm Who Got Lost, although highly acclaimed by her mother and first-grade teacher, has, alas, been lost to time. Undaunted, she has persevered, making contributions to Skirt!, Gemini Magazine, and Prime Number Magazine, among other journals and anthologies. She lives in Chicago and loves cats, ice cream, Halloween, and Hungarian aggressive piglet jokes.

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