A query letter is, first and foremost, a business document. The publishing world is a business. Stay with me.
Way too many web sites I’ve researched advise this type of opening line (and I’m trying not to gag here):
Joe Smith never realised what hit him when he sent out his query and the entire editorial department went on stress leave. But that didn’t stop Joe from hammering out yet one more enthusiastic effort after another. Joe Smith was, after all, an “auteur” of the highest calibre who just knew he was born to be –
Stop, stop, stop. Please stop. No more.
Another is the “when” format: When Joe Smith received yet another rejection, nobody was more suprised than him…
Maybe the people offering this advice are publishing a very specific type of book, and these openers reflect that exact style. After all, these lines are meant to shine a light on the writer’s prowess, so if that’s pretty mediocre then this all makes sense.
The writer is a professional publication-seeker, someone offering a skill set to a professional organization. The query letter, like the cover letter that goes with a resume, exemplifies and summarizes the quality of the writer or job seeker. It’s – for want of a better way to put it – judgement at a glance. Harsh judgement. Brutal, instant judgement.
Think about it this way: your query letter must precisely mirror your writing in voice, style, energy, power, and originality. It has to be the literary dirty bomb that hints at the larger arsenal that’s really going to blow them away in the manuscript. So why do writers get it so wrong? Everything from pleas to be published so kids don’t starve to arrogant tirades to disinterested dreck.
It’s a business. Marketing, selling, products, ideas, innovation, professional players. That’s what business is all about. What are you selling and why should anyone care?
There are enough agents and publishers out there providing a point-by-point framework on what to include in a query that there’s no need to reiterate it here. Instead, here are some hints on how to professionalize a cover letter:
1. Design a professional letterhead template or download one from Microsoft Office that can help brand you. It should reflect who you are as an individual and a writer. If you’re a classic, a minimalist, funky – make sure the format says something about you. It must be professional and uncluttered. It will help you stand out from the 99% crowd that does nothing more than slap a left-justified return address and a text block onto the page, or cheap clipart. Once you decide on your template, stick with it. Use it for all communications. You are creating brand recognition, and you are the brand. This holds true even if you’re submitting electronically as an attachment. Using a professional letterhead says you care, and that your writing matters because you take it seriously as a career. The idea is to catch an editor’s eye every step of the way. He or she opens the letter, sees something dignified and well designed, then thinks, “Oh, here’s something unusual”. The likelihood of someone reading an eye-catching letter over one that looks just like – or worse than – everyone else’s is much better. The only thing that will stop an editor in his or her tracks is a stinky query letter, in which case a great opportunity has been ruined. Will it get you published? No. It’s sole function is differentiation.
2. Think about including a professional (looking) photo – not as an 8×10 glossy but no bigger than wallet sized and digitally formatted right into the letter template. It could be in an upper or lower corner, in the masthead, or in the margin. This not only helps with brand identity (you) but tells the reader something about your professionalism. If your first instinct is to cut and paste that picture of yourself at that wedding dancing drunk on a table with a beer hanging off something, or the one your mom took with you and Gammy before she died, then you might not understand what professional looks like. Research author photos or forget it. You don’t have to pay for it; just be creative, make sure it’s not pixellated, maybe get a friend to help.
3. Use quality paper stock. Quality, not weird. It should be thicker than printer paper, like vellum or linen. White or off-white is best, no flecks or dappling. Colours and patterns make text too hard to read, even if the fluffy kitty just screams “you”.
TELL & SELL
1. Most poker players have a “tell”, little non-verbal indicators that give away a good or bad hand. The writer’s tells also reveal a bad hand:
- Unprofessional query and sample pages
- Sending an unsolicited m/s
- Sending a query or m/s to the wrong publishing target (horror fiction to a poetry publisher/agent, or literary fiction to a commercial specialist)
- No understanding of genre, style, or form
- Hand-written cover letter
- Type-written submission
- Odd fonts
- It’s all about you and what you want
- Unaware of competitors or how to successfully position in marketplace
- Poor writing quality
- Messy printouts and overly thin or heavy paper stock
- “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam”
- No interest, background, participation, or experience in a professionalized writing life
Or a good hand, which is pretty much the opposite of the bad hand.
2. In business there’s an old acronym that covers everything in the buyer/seller relationship. WIIFM. What’s In It For Me. It’s what the customer, the client, the buyer will always be wondering about any product or service. As a writer you need to think about your focus audience at all times. Your reader needs to know what’s in it for them. When you’re selling your ideas, manuscript, and yourself it’s crucial to put yourself in the editor/publisher’s shoes in order to understand what the query is really all about. In business the successful seller knows he or she is fulfilling a client’s needs, not his or her own. So when you’re staring at that blank letter template ask yourself what’s in it for them (the editor/publisher/agent AND end reader). Don’t even put one word down on paper until you’ve answered this question. If you can’t, you’re in trouble.
3. Figure out your strengths and what your emphasis will be. Don’t mention or hint at your deficits. Start the letter with your strongest feature, end it with your most tantalizing. By doing so you’re tapping into the psychological primacy and recency tendencies of memory. Start with a bang, leave them wanting more. This is the other “tell” – the way you tell your target about your product or service. Just as your story has structure and an arc, so must your letter. You’d never start a novel with a dud of a first line, so why would you start a letter that way? Then build up the tension and interest to a climax, finishing with a brief denouement. The worst scenario is a writer with no credentials, (publication, pertinent experience, awards, contests, degrees), who has made no specific efforts to professionalize craft (recognizable mentors, education, reputable workshops). This type of writer will have to do a harder sell on originality and style through the originality and style of the letter itself. From the first word on, for everyone seeking publication, the query has to be magic.
4. If you can’t write an enticing jacket blurb that would go on the back of a book, then writing a sensational query will be out of your reach. Create a document for no other purpose than to summarize the story in the most exciting way possible. Treat it like you would any writing project. Work at it every day until it’s pitch perfect, then adapt it to your query letter. Better be able to articulate that story concisely and with interest.
5. Have someone with a good editor’s eye read the letter over for these specific issues:
- Spelling & grammar errors
- An “I/me” orientation
- Emotional overspray – anxiety, desperation, fear, arrogance
- Redundant/irrelevant points
The following site has some very good examples of query letters, including commentary from the agent. Not all are great but they display originality, they reflect each writer’s style and personality, and the agent responses are worth reading.
Take care about how you write your query. Take the time to do it right. Or hire someone to make sure it’s right. Be a professional. Remember: it only takes a few seconds for someone to make their minds up about you, and for writers that’s the query letter. The competition is tough enough in a career choice whose odds for success are already pretty close to zero.