Wednesday, March 17, 2010

4 How to Write a Query Letter: What Agents WANT to See

Okay fellow submitters, back to the mysterious art of the query letter. As I’m wrestling with the beast, I decided to see if I could figure out what agents want to see, instead of concentrating on what they don't want. It's been a bit of a revalation, and I thought I would share the results of my research.

We already know that query letters have to be great, or your manuscript won’t get read. Fact of life. Second fact, if your first paragraph isn’t good, the second paragraph won’t get read. Just like in your manuscript. And now for the really bad news. If your first sentence isn’t good…

Well, you get the idea.

The question is, what do agents consider good? See below for a list. It starts with the easy basics and proceeds to the more elusive elements that separate the soon-to-be-published from the gotta-keep-trying.

Query Letter Minimum Requirements:
  • Agent’s name properly spelled, in the same font as the rest of the letter
  • 12-point font, single-spaced, two returns between paragraphs, no indentations
  • Inclusion of the title in caps or italics, genre, protagonist’s name, and your contact information
  • Word count appropriate to the genre
  • Confirmation that the book is finished
  • Inclusion of the writer’s writing credentials (if any)
  • Personalized snippet about the agent, the agent’s blog, or a client or book the agent reps
  • Grammatical correctness
  • A target length of 250 to 350 words
  • A first-sentence hook—the one thing about your book that makes it unique enough to stand out in the marketplace
  • Description of the complicating incident, antagonist, plot and protagonist’s goal
  • Enough specific details to complete the differentiation from other books, without bogging the query down in clutter
  • A sense of strong conflict and characterization
  • Active voice in present-tense, third-person POV, cleverly written to suggest the style in the manuscript
  • Solid, rhythmic flow from the beginning of the query to the end
  • Writing that’s up to the level of the genre and the nature of the story
  • Writing strong enough to defy any trends that could work against the story
Not convinced? I'm going to include some some responses and examples directly from the agents’ keyboards.

Let's start with the always pithy Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown who likes specificity:

And provides query critiques:

Examples of good query letters:

And even a query letter mad lib (formula):

Then there's an example from Jessica Faust at BookEnds, LLC of a query that launched a successful career:
(Other examples are also available on the BookEnds blog--well worth a trip!)

Next, we have a page of all things query from agent Kristin Nelson at Nelson Literary Agency, LLC:

And finally, a recap from on what to include and what not to include:

There's also a fabulous on-going Guess the Plot feature on Evil Editor's blog that will knock your socks off:

Now, taking into consideration what I've learned in researching query letters from the "What We Want" instead of the "What We Don't Want" perspective,  have I gotten my queries right? Nope. That's why we all have to keep improving our research as well as our writing. Excuses don't matter. The right query letter has to get results.

Need more info? Check out this list of What Agent's Don't Want in a Query Letter. Successful Query Letter Examples are here.

Happy submitting,


About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. What a great list of resources! Methinks you will do well writing this query of yours!

  2. Great post! Handy to have such a comprehensive summary. I've bookmarked it!

  3. From your mouth to someone's ear, Suzette. I don't normally have trouble with summaries, but this particular query may kill me.

    And thanks so much, Linda! I hope you will both keep participating!

  4. I'm about to write an article on my Blog called, "I'm Firing My Agent." They're one of the top lit agencies in the country, but I'm still sending them a certified letter. Don't get me wrong, It's my decision and I'm content with it. I found both your blogs on what lit agents are looking for excellent, with sage advice. But you have to know when to get out and how to do it on your own. Write on Writers, Jennifer B. White


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