The Dreaded Query Letter

By Melissa Seymour, Spring 2014 intern 

Melissa SeymourThis past semester I had the pleasure of interning for Red Sofa Literary. I learned so much and had the ability to see what happens behind the scenes at a literary agency. One of my main tasks at Red Sofa was helping to read queries. And let me tell you, it’s not an easy task…for the writer or the letter recipient.

I have now been on both sides of the query letter. I’ve been the nervous writer sending my life work into the unknown and I’ve been the one clicking through hundreds of queries, searching for a golden egg.

Writers often associate words like “dreaded,” “terrifying,” or “the worst thing in the entire world” with the query letter but working for a literary agency has given me a new perspective. Your query letter is an opportunity. It’s exciting! This is your chance to show ‘em what you got.

Before Red Sofa, writer Melissa might have thought: I’m just going to write this query really quick.

And intern Melissa would respond: Big mistake. Did you realize you addressed your query to “Mr.” Frederick instead of “Ms.” Frederick? When I read your query it was clear you were rushing.

Writer Melissa: Well, yeah. But I was sending it to a bunch of agents, so I didn’t have the time.

Intern Melissa: Mistake number two. You need to research the agent you’re querying! Find out what type of manuscripts they acquire or what they’re actively searching for.

Writer Melissa: That will take forever. Can’t I just send it out to a bunch of people? They’ll never know.

Intern Melissa: Oh yes they will. It’s easy to tell when someone hasn’t done his or her research.

Writer Melissa: But my manuscript is excellent. Once they get to it—

Intern Melissa: They won’t get to it at all. That’s the problem. If the query letter is sloppy I’ll assume your manuscript is too.

I’ll be honest. Before working for Red Sofa I was “Writer Melissa”. I knew the importance of queries after all the conferences I attended, but I didn’t take it seriously. Tonight I’m going to be sifting through approximately 200 queries. When I come across queries that are addressed to the wrong people, have many spelling errors, or are just plain sloppy, I don’t continue. It’s not because I’m a mean person, it’s because there isn’t enough time.

Your query letter is an opportunity so don’t waste it. It’s your one-on-one time with an agent to say, “Look. This is what my book is about and this is why you’ll like it.”

My advice to any writer trying to get an agent is this: Polish your manuscript and make sure your query describes it well. Do the research and spend an ample amount of time on your query.

Your future agent will thank you.





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