To Whom It May Concern – Writing a Query Letter

One of those <headdesk> moments occurred today when a query was received at Red Sofa Literary. In short, the following mistakes were made:

  1. My representative categories were explicitly ignored
  2. Initially the person addressed me by name, eventually resorting to addressing me as  “To Whom It May Concern”  (no joke)
  3. The lack of a short bio
  4. The summary of the book was not a summary, it was stream of thought writing and very incoherent
  5. No reference to commercial viability for the book.
  6. A book proposal was attached

I can’t speak for everyone, but take my word that the majority of us will not open any unrequested attachments. Computer viruses aren’t fun, as anyone would confirm. Which is why those queries with email attachments usually never go far when sent to editors or agents.  As for the other pitfalls, they happen more than most people would ever imagine. 

Here’s my challenge: wouldn’t it be better to present a well-crafted query letter vs. receiving a plethora of generic rejections due to a bad one?

A basic example:

Dear [insert agent’s name]

Imagine a world where query letters are written correctly, resulting in more authors getting agents, more books getting published, and an easier time of navigating the publishing world. Let’s face it, there’s nothing worse than a good book being camouflaged by a bad query letter! 

In my book AGENTS WILL CRY NO MORE – How to Write the Perfect Query Letter, I will present a series of exercises for authors on presenting the Who, What, Where, and Why of writing a query letter.  In addition to the basics of writing a query letter, I’ll guide writers on best practices in avoiding the pitfalls of the query process. I can guarantee they’ll think twice before mass emailing those queries, or sending queries FedEx overnight!

My name is I. C. Anwright. For the last 15 years I have counseled writers through my writing consulting business, I Can Write. I am the brains behind the popular website, where I share this expertise with writers all over the world.  I have been published in Writing is Good, The Writing Times, The Pencil Society, and multiple other online and print periodicals. Finally I have extensive connections throughout the publishing industry, which will be quite handy upon publication of AGENTS WILL CRY NO MORE.

Would it be possible to share my book proposal with you? As well as several sample chapters?


I. C. Anwright


See, was it that hard?  Short, simple, sweet.  It can be longer, it can be shorter, but in the end the recipient needs to actually have an idea what the book is about.  Plus just enough information to determine if the idea is a good fit for the agency.

What lessons have you learned during the query process? What do you feel you still need to learn? Let’s discuss. I’ll be a doing a drawing (from those who comment) for a free query letter critique for three individuals in two weeks.

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  1. Katie on June 28, 2012 at 7:49 am

    I’ve seen differing opinions about a bio paragraph for unpublished writers. If you’re without any publishing credits, what should you do? Should you include some interesting tidbits about yourself or not to put anything at all?

    • redsofaliterary on June 28, 2012 at 7:53 am

      For fiction, platform is not as important. An interesting tidbit is nice, but definitely try to avoid including TMI – specifically info about family life, where one works, etc. If it doesn’t really add to the writing life and/or your book, it’s not necessary to mention.

      For nonfiction, an author platform is absolutely mandatory nowadays. If one’s bio is reflecting a need to grow that platform, stop sending out queries, go read “Get Known Before the Book Deal,” execute a plan, and send out query letters once there is a noticeable platform. It will take time, as much as 1-3 years (but it’s totally worth the time)

  2. Phil Dwyer on June 28, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    What have I learned about the querying process? Strictly speaking I haven’t really started yet (my ms is currently with an agent through a referral), but I’ve done a great deal of prep work, and I have some interim lessons:

    1) Prepare as diligently as you wrote your book. If you’ve invested several years on a manuscript, don’t waste the effort with a half-baked query.
    2) Get feedback from professionals. I’ve pitched my books to agents and editors at conferences, and attended workshops on how to pitch agents. None of the above will guarantee success of course, but you’ll give yourself a much better chance if you are prepared to seek (and take) the advice of professionals.
    3) Try to stay out of the slush pile, if at all possible. I’ve built some relationships with editors, other writers and people in the agency world who are prepared to give me a referral. Much better than sitting in the slush.
    4) If you have to sit in the slush pile, differentiate yourself as quickly as possible by demonstrating that a) your work has generated interest from publishers (if possible) and b) you are taking a professional approach to your publishing career.
    5) Invest. Paid-for resources like the deal database on Publisher’s Marketplace is worth every penny of the $20 monthly subscription, for example. Now is not the time to cheap out. Subscribe to at least one of the writing journals (Poets & Writers, The Writer, Writer’s Digest). They’re full of good information.
    6) Research. You’re looking for a business partner. You’d better be convinced you’re going to be able to work well together. Of course, you can never know this absolutely, just by reading articles and checking out their websites and Twitter feeds, but you can certainly weed out any who are obviously not a good fit.
    7) Everybody (i.e. every agent) seems to have a slightly different perspective on what she wants to see. Pay attention to the details and respect them. Use them where possible to your advantage.
    8) Be patient. The waiting is agonizing, but it is also inevitable.
    9) Take your ego and feed it into a wood chipper. It’s no good to you in this process. You’ll be told the truth, and it will be painful, especially if you’ve been listening to your friends and relatives. We all need cheerleaders, but don’t expect them to be professional publishing folk.
    10) Trust your instincts. This is somewhat at odds with 9, but the book you’re writing/have written is ultimately yours. If you’re being told to do something to it that you feel violates its integrity, you’ll sometimes need the courage to disagree and soldier on. More often what you’ll need to do is think about the criticism and interpret it. It may be that there is a real problem, but the solution being offered is not the right one for your book. Learn to make that distinction.

    Easy really, eh?

    • redsofaliterary on June 28, 2012 at 2:12 pm

      Like this to the nth degree 🙂

  3. Inion N. Mathair on June 28, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    We always appreciate when agents give us advice to help us on our journey. I believe the query process is another step we take which teaches us growth and patience, while perfecting our work & making it commercially appealing.Thank you so much for the hepful tips.

  4. Corrin on July 2, 2012 at 7:16 am

    I have not actually sent a query to an agent yet. But I have taken online classes which included critiques. I have submitted to online forums for thoughts and paid some published consultants for critiques. I cannot decide if it is frustrating or funny, but even the same organization can have totally opposite advice.

    I have also read successful query letters posted by agents which conflict with the advise given. So my conclusion is I need to do my homework on what each individual agent wants.

    I find Twitter and blogs to be valuables source when a couple of agents consistently express frustration. I can\’t remember who said, ”By simply avoiding the do nots, your query has a better chance of success.”

    And I am flabbergasted by the lack of common sense, curtsey and professionalism of the query writers. Do a little research to discover who to address in the letter and spell their name correctly. Do not boast about your book, writing or self. But do not belittle these either. Simply make a straight forward presentation.

    For me, the hardest part of writing a query has been writing the hook or the summary.

    • redsofaliterary on July 2, 2012 at 8:21 am

      Great points! I wouldn’t say all our advice necessarily conflicts, but ultimately what we need to see is the “skinny” on a book as smoothly and efficiently as possible. What I provided was a very basic, no-nonsense example. Obviously with a novel, you’ll need a little more on the summary, but alas it’s better to keep the query engaging vs. spouting off details and not keeping it coherent. I come from a heavy nonfiction background, and let’s just say I’m an agent who appreciates when the letter is less “stream-of-thought” and more direct. (But that’s just me).

      And yes, the summary is always the hardest. Just look at it as an opportunity to express your book in 15 seconds. And that those 15 seconds are the figurative “carrot” to gain an agent’s interest.

      • Corrin on July 2, 2012 at 11:32 am

        You are correct. I shouldn’t have made a blanket statement. There are basics to queries. I’m just thinking about one online class where two different agents seemed to conflict with the class material in some specific areas. Then I received critiques on the same query. One said, shorten the summary. One said expand the summary. One said tell me about other books you have in the works. The other said, don’t tell me about other books. These are just a couple of examples I found funny/frustrating.

        Thanks again for your post and your reply. I’m always trying to improve. 🙂

  5. Jason Myers (@Jas0n_Myers) on July 5, 2012 at 7:23 am

    I always use colorful fonts in my query letters, and really bright pink stationery to catch that agent’s eye!

    Is that wrong?

    • redsofaliterary on July 5, 2012 at 7:30 am

      Jason, I’m shaking my head at you. But alas I’ll get my “revenge” when we all go roller skating next year 🙂

  6. K.G. on July 5, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    One of the joys of having a critique group is bringing a query letter template (especially the pitch paragraph) to workshop. After reading someone’s manuscript its fun to help her (or him) figure out how to pitch it.

    I’ve generally found if someone can’t distill the inciting incident and story set-up into 200-300 words than usually the author has a bigger problem than writing a query. It probably means something about the story set-up doesn’t work. I saw this regularly when I worked for a small press.

    I’ve always thought the key to querying is to show your professionalism. If the agent likes your story summary, and your letter shows that you’re a sane person, s/he won’t care that certain preferences, like whether you put the paragraph about why you queried him/her after the pitch paragraph, etc.

  7. Jason Myers (@Jas0n_Myers) on July 6, 2012 at 6:31 am

    Oh no. Roller Skating!!!! If I break an ankle I will be torqued!

  8. gold price on July 8, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    After spending months or even years writing a book, writers rely on a one-page document to interest literary agents in reading their work: the query letter. A successful query letter showcases the writer’s original voice and intriguing story, and compels a literary agent to request the writer’s manuscript. A daunting way to make a first impression, the query letter is a careful balance of brevity and detail, more akin to marketing than creative writing. By understanding its structure and basic elements, a writer can move one step closer to publication by crafting a winning query letter.

  9. Louise Willis on July 28, 2012 at 11:03 pm

    Wow! So simple, yet so complex! I am studying the process by involvement in critique groups, reading, Writer’s (pay for) critiques, etc. Hope mine does not end up in the rejection pile! Thanks for your example.

  10. lwillis1 on July 28, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    Wow! So simple, yet so complex! I have been studying the query letter by involvement in local critique groups, paying for query critiques, reading books, blogs, and tweets on the subject, reading posted query letters on Snark and other sites, etc. Thank you for your example. I hope my query doesn’t end up with a host of rejection letters. Still working on it.