Query Letters 101: How to Write a Query Letter and Get Published

Many writers want to know how to get published, and it’s usually as simple as writing a query letter. In this post, I intend to cover query letters, including what is a query letter (and why do they matter), how to write a query letter, how great queries help writers get published, and a query letter sample.

What is a query letter anyway?

The complicated answer: A query letter is a communication (usually via standard mail or e-mail) that pitches a short-form (magazine article, short story, poem, etc.) or long-form (novel, nonfiction book, poetry collection, screenplay, etc.) manuscript to an editor, agent, or other publishing decision maker.

The simple answer: A query letter is a tool writers use to get published.

How to write a query letter

These are the main components of an effective query letter:

  • The hook. While the entire query letter is important, the opening hook is your best chance to succeed (or fail) with an editor or agent. The best hooks will get an entire book pegged in one sentence.
  • The pitch. The hook communicates the book (or book idea) in one sentence; the pitch provides supporting evidence in 2-3 paragraphs. For a novel, the pitch will fill out the main story a little more (think of the descriptions on DVD or book covers). For a nonfiction book, the pitch will likely cover content, evidence of need, and unique selling point.
  • The bio. This is the brief paragraph in which you describe your writing credits and writer platform. Keep the focus on anything that is directly related to your project and don’t stretch the truth. If you have nothing amazing to say, make this a one-sentence paragraph.

Basic query letters are easy to write. Queries should include your contact information, have one-inch margins and 12 point font (if sent by standard mail), and be no more than one page (yes, that includes the white space for an opening and closing).

One key thing to remember with query letters: You don’t have to explain everything, just the most important parts. And you want to do so in a way that encourages agents and editors to request more material (either sample chapters, book proposal, or full manuscript).

Where to send a query letter

If you write short stories, poems, or nonfiction articles, send your query letter to a magazine or web editor. With more publications moving to digital, some editors will have opportunities for a combination of print, online, app (for tablets and/or smart phones), etc.

If you write book-length manuscripts, send your query letter to either a book publisher or literary agent. For poets, book publishers are the only option–and then, only after building up a substantial publishing track record in print and online publications.

Need to find contact information for literary agents, book publishers, and magazines? The best source of this information to help writers get published and get paid for their writing is WritersMarket.com, which lists contact information and submission guidelines for thousands of magazines, book publishers, and literary agents.

Note on completed manuscripts: Editors and agents do not expect nonfiction writers to have a completed manuscript (unless otherwise noted). On the other hand, you better have a complete, revised, and polished manuscript if you deal in fiction and poetry.

How great queries help writers to get published

In many cases, a great query letter alone will not secure publication for a book writer–and it will only work so many times for a short-form writer–if there’s nothing to back up the query. For instance, fiction writers still need to write amazing stories; nonfiction writers need to prove they can research their writing, check sources, hit deadlines, and meet word counts.

So how do great queries help writers get published? By getting a writer’s foot in the door. A query letter is that first impression. If writers can’t hook an editor or agent enough to request more material, then it doesn’t matter if they write the best books ever–because the decision makers won’t ever read them.

Query letter sample

WritersMarket.com actually has a few online in a piece titled Query Letter Clinic. As soon as I started to try including query letter samples, I realized it should really be a post all by its lonesome. So here’s my query letter sample list!

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Learn more about query letters with the Killer Query Letters Kit, which is a bundle of products from Writer’s Digest all aimed at helping writers improve their query letter writing skills, including a professional query letter critique. Click to continue.