by Alana Saltz
As a writer, professional freelance editor, and former intern for one of the top literary agencies in New York City, I’ve seen my fair share of query letters. A number of minor issues tend to pop up fairly consistently, but the biggest and most common mistake that I’ve seen writers make is sending out a query letter that’s way too long.
Before I delve into this issue, I’d like to define what a query letter is and what exactly it should accomplish. A query is a snapshot of your project that should entice an agent into reading your manuscript. It’s also an opportunity to show the agent who you are and assure him or her that you’ll be professional and pleasant to work with.
That’s it. That’s all a query really needs to do. Yet I’ve seen so many writers include every detail of their plots, craft a meandering and overly comprehensive bio, and generally say way too much about themselves and their projects.
A fiction query should be between 250-300 words. You can usually get away with stretching this to 350 for nonfiction or memoir so you have room to include some information about market and audience.
Yet I continually see queries spanning anywhere from 400-600 words. When a query is this long, most agents won’t read past your first few paragraphs, or they’ll simply skip your letter altogether. To agents, a long query appears amateurish and doesn’t reflect the kind of professional and developed writing skills they’re looking for in a client. Even if your project is compelling, having a long query can really hurt your chances of an agent moving onto your pages. They go through hundreds, if not thousands, of queries every week. They simply don’t have time to read a long letter.
Here’s what your query should include: A sentence for your introduction, a paragraph or two with a tight and engaging synopsis of your plot, a line of personalization explaining why you’re querying this particular agent, and a few sentences for your bio with only the most pertinent and impressive information. If possible, it’s also good to include some comparative titles and address who you think your book will appeal to.
Is it easy to accomplish all of this in such a short space? Absolutely not. Writing a query letter is a craft and a process. It can take hours, if not days, to compose a great query letter, and it shouldn’t be done without outside feedback.
If you spend enough time drilling down to the heart of your story and what makes you unique as a writer, it is possible to distill your project into a coherent and compact letter that an agent will enjoy reading. If you achieve this delicate balance of elements and wow agents with your precision, there’s a good chance that they’ll move on to your pages and eagerly request your manuscript.
Need help crafting your perfect, engaging, and concise query letter? Check out my upcoming Query 101: How to Land an Agent crash course starting on February 6th. I’ll cover everything you need to know about writing a killer query and provide a comprehensive and detailed critique of your letter.
Alana has an MFA in Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and works as a freelance editor, helping writers all over the world hone their manuscripts and queries. In 2015, she spent six months as an intern at Folio Literary Management, one of the top agencies in New York City. Their clients include bestselling authors like Eowyn Ivey, Garth Stein, Jenny Han, and Misty Copeland. In addition to being an editor, Alana is also an accomplished essayist with work in the LA Times, The Huffington Post, The Daily Dot, andHelloGiggles. Visit alanasaltz.com to learn more about her writing and editing services.