Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net
Holly Lisle's Vision

The Quest for the 
Quintessential Query Letter

By Vicki M. Taylor

2001, Vicki M. Taylor 

The Query Letter -- the elusive quarry.  We know near perfect ones exist.  Editors expound on those that come across their desk.  Writers rave about their flawless recipe of words that caught an editor’s interest. 

Everywhere you go in the writing world, someone offers you tips or advice to create a query letter.  Ever since I realized I could sell my writing, I’ve been on a quest, searching for the perfect formula to create the quintessential query letter.

What I’ve discovered is that if you go to any resource website or read any writing resource book, you’re guaranteed to find at least one article, probably more, about query letters.  It’s overwhelming to say the least.

Did you ever wonder why there are so many articles?  Because there isn’t just one perfect format.  Nope.  You can stop searching for the magic formula. It doesn’t exist.

However, even though I’ve discovered that there is no ONE perfect query letter, there are specific qualities of the query letter that can come close to perfection.  We all know that for as many editors there are in the publishing world, you’ll find that many types of query letter.  Each one was created to catch an editor’s eye.  What did it?

What I’ve found in common in every article written about query letters is the basic structure.  It doesn’t matter whether you are pitching an idea for an article, short story, novel, or non-fiction book, the structure of the query letter is still the same.

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll break down the query letter into its essential parts.  Some of them may look as if they are over-simplified and obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often they are forgotten in the rush and excitement of production.

Overall Look

Start with a professional look to your letter.  Use stationery imprinted with your name and address.  Now, this doesn’t mean spending a load of money for printed stationery.  Just make sure your letterhead format is professional.

Make use of your word processing software to give your letter a little touch of class.  You’d be amazed at what a header and footer line can do.

IMPORTANT: Study the publisher’s guidelines.  Follow them to the letter.  No exceptions!  Don’t waste the editor’s time if your book, article, or short story doesn’t meet the publisher’s needs.

TIP: Use the publisher’s guidelines to adjust any nuances in your query letter.  Don’t get stuck in a generic format that can’t be adjusted for each editor.  They can pick out a standard format at twenty paces.  Make that editor feel as if you’re writing this letter just for them. 

Address and Salutations

Always address your letter to a real person rather than a generic department title.  Reading “Dear Acquisitions Editor” is akin to reading “Dear Occupant.”  Don’t do it.  Use the correct address and don’t forget suite numbers.

TIP: Make sure you have the correct spelling and gender titles.

What’s the best source for getting the correct name and spelling?  The publishing company or magazine you want to send your query letter to.  Call and ask the person who answers the phone.  It’s that simple.  Use the Writer’s Market to get addresses and telephone numbers.  Look in the magazine for the credits section.  You’ll find names and numbers there.

IMPORTANT: Now is not the time to be shy.

Don’t make the mistake of addressing your letter to an editor who no longer works at the company or use the wrong title.  No one likes to be addressed as a Mister if she is a Miss or vice versa.

First Paragraph

Make sure you know where your book, article, or short story fits in the publishing world.  This means you must know the tone, length, story line, and market.  If you are expecting the editor to figure this information out for you, don’t hold your breath.  That’s your job.

Your first paragraph should describe your book, article, or short story, the tone, word length, and where it fits in the market.  Make sure you use a title when describing your work, even if it isn’t the exact title you want.  Preface the title with the word “working.”

TIP: If someone has referred you to the publisher, don’t forget to mention that important fact in your opening sentence.  If you met the editor at a conference and he/she asked you to submit, mention that also.

Second Paragraph

Use the second paragraph of your query letter to hook the editor.  This is where you tell the editor about your book, article, or short story.

Be sensitive to the editor’s needs and time.  Now is not the time to spend pages explaining your idea in excruciating detail.  Be succinct and brief.

IMPORTANT: Practice putting the basic premise of your book, article, or story into twenty-five words or less.

If you can’t explain the gist of your book, article, or short story in twenty-five words or less, you may not have a good grasp of what you want to write about.  If you can’t explain it, how can you expect an editor to understand it?

Third Paragraph

The third paragraph should describe you, your writing experience, and any publishing history.

TIP: Don’t forget to mention any relevant information such as memberships, career, or other expertise you have to help you write your article, book, or short story.

Final Paragraph and Signature

Always end your letter by asking the editor if you can send him your entire article or manuscript, or outline in the case of a non-fiction book.

Don’t forget to thank the editor for taking the time to read your query and let the editor know that you look forward to hearing from her at her earliest convenience. 

SASE

Don’t ever, ever forget to include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE).  Use a postage stamp rather than a metered stamp.  The editor many not get to your query for up to a month or more.  The metered stamp may have expired by then.

IMPORTANT: Make it easy and convenient for the editor to respond to you!

Clips

Some editors ask to see “proof” of previous publishing experience.  Others don’t.  Read the guidelines carefully so that you know if you should include them or not.

TIP: Make sure they are clean copies (either a tear sheet from the magazine or printed from the internet).  Don’t ever include them in the body of your query letter.

Secret Ingredient

So, what makes the query letter perfect to an editor?  You.  Only you can add that one special ingredient that will make or break your query letter.  Your unique voice.  That’s what the editors are looking for.

Of course, good grammar and spelling help too!  But, most of all, you must leap from the page or screen and grab the editor’s attention.  It’s your first chance to make the editor notice you.  You know the old saying, “First impressions count.”  Make this one count the most!  Don’t blow it.

IMPORTANT: However, don’t get so caught up in the structure that your personal writing voice doesn’t shine through your query letter.  Be unique.

Be yourself and let your writing speak to the editor.  That’s what counts.