The author S.A. Joo's Writing & Editing Advice & Tips

A professional Editor and YA Writer, represented by Black Hawk Literary Agency.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Basic Dos and Don'ts in Query Letter Writing

This might be the most succinct version of Dos and Don’ts of query letter writing. There are tons of great blogs that explains the process well. What I’m trying to do is to capture the most important parts and put it together in layman’s terms for easy understanding. I hope you'll find them helpful.

  1. A query letter must include book information (Title, genre, word-count), a pitch (a mini-synopsis without the ending), and your credentials (pertaining only to writing/publishing).
  2. The pitch has to introduce your protagonist and antagonist (if there’s any), the main conflict, what’s at stake, and what your protagonist must do in order to overcome this conflict. Be succinct. 
  3. Include your contact information. Include your real name if you're using a pen name.
  4. Check for any typos and grammar errors for this is a small example of your writing skill.
  5. Follow submission guidelines of each literary agencies.
  6. Make sure the agency is open to submission and does represent your genre. 
  7. Address the agents by correct title and name.
  8. Use basic fonts (arial, times, courier, etc.) sized 12 and use single space. 
  9. Use all caps for your book title only.
  10. Mention the conferences you’ve attended if you’ve met the agent there and have been told to query him/her.
  11. Mention a referral from another agent, the agent’s client, or another author with successful publishing history.
  1. Don’t go over 1 page. Keep it under 300-350 words. Be concise. 
  2. Don’t attach any materials unless requested.
  3. Don’t call or show up and pitch in person. That goes for pitching through Twitter or their blogs which is a big no-no.
  4. Don’t list your biography UNLESS your credentials are a degree in creative writing, memberships in large conferences/associations, or a previous publishing history. You may include your non-writing degree if it’s directly related to the subject of your book. For example, if you’re writing a nonfiction about child psychology, then do include your Ph.D. in Psychology.
  5. Don’t get cute in the letter with unnecessary compliments, jokes, or pictures. You’re trying to sell your book, not make friends.
  6. Don’t use gimmicks such as funny or unconventional fonts.
  7. Don’t underline, bold, italicize everything.
  8. Don’t ask questions. For example: “What would your do if you found yourself....” Agents don’t want to answer questions. They only want to know what it is about.
  9. Don’t write the query letter using your protagonist’s point of view. This irks many agents.
  10. Don’t refer to yourself in 3rd person as if someone else has written it for you. 
  11. If you’ve received a rejection letter, do not ask why. And do not re-query them until you’ve done enough revisions on your query letter and your MS (6 - 12 months).
  12. Don’t query more than one agent in the same agency.
  13. Don’t lie.
That’s the short recap of general Dos and Don’ts. Please read each agency’s submission guidelines for specific requirements. Most importantly, follow those guidelines. Remember, that your query letter is the only chance to pitch your book to an agent. Give them a clean pitch that will catch their eyes. If you need help with your query letter, I offer a query letter package on my editor website. Happy writing~


  1. I love your last line...don't lie. I've read so many agent blogs where they bash writers who have lied in their queries. I can't imagine being that foolish, but it happens in resumes all the time, so I suppose it must happen in queries too. Thanks for the tips, you did a great job summing things up.

  2. You always give us the low-down, and I thank you for that honesty in your approach.

    This is a post I will definitely by plugging :)

  3. This is perfect for those writers who don't know what they're doing and those who THINK they do. I just added a link to your site from mine as a resource for writers. I don't know what took me so long!

  4. Erica and Imran, thanks for your comments. Brinda, don't forget that I have the links to over 200 literary agencies in this blog as well. That also should save writers time. ^.^ Query with confidences, writers!

  5. *saves this to favorites list*

  6. All these do's and don't are perfectly correct Sirra.

    They are also the very same reason why I went Indie. Literary agents make so many rules, it's impossible to follow their petty wants for each and every one of them. And that is when they are even open to submissions.

    Quite honestly Lit Agents aren't interested in literary quality or polite queries. Only where the next buck comes from.

    Sorry, but I don't beg for food.

  7. Dear Mr. Haines,

    Thanks for visiting my blog. I always value your opinion. However, for someone who has to read anywhere from 50 - 120 letters a day on regular basis, it gets rather tiresome. Especially, if the letters are riddled with gimmicks, typos, and are simply incoherent. And some are addressed to Mister when in fact the receiving agents are women!

    This is strictly about being professional like in any job application or resume. One must put their best foot forward. These rules shouldn't make someone want to forgo the entire industry. Some of us still want to pursue this road because the result is rewarding to us. And that's our personal choice, our dream. Good luck with yours, Mr. Haines!


  8. Don't get me wrong Su. I agree that when querying you must pay strict attention and your do's and don'ts are spot on. For those who wish to take this path, your advice is right on the mark and should be followed.

    My point is that many (too many) Lit Agent make their own rules. There are still those who insist that they do not want authors querying other agents while your query is in process. Ridiculous. As I read this week on an agent's blog, she was only open to queries from people she knew. At least she was honest.

    My only addition to your list would be for those who wish to follow this route is to do some background checking on agents before querying. There are some very good agents out there, as well as the opposite.

  9. For a long period, I was drawn to doing it the old fashioned way... the traditional route.

    And then, the cosmos changed towards indie publishing, mainly thanks to high profile stories i.e.: Hocking, etc.

    Though, I had a long chat with myself (as you do) and still believe in Trad Pub. At the end of the day, we all have a choice, and if I want to put myself through the unpredictable role of applying to agents... then so be it.

    I don't think it is unachievable. Work hard, and the reward will come. Okay, that is not a given, but it is better to to try. And if I crack the agent market, then I will feel greater pride than to publish an ebook that only sold 2,000 copies, after I have invested just as much (and more) on advertising.

    I still prefer to look on a shelf and respect a book that has been through the hoops to get there.

    If I got a letter everyday... where the basics are not followed,I would be annoyed too. Heck, I feel like this in work... when someone contacts me, and they have ignored the dos and don'ts of communication...I do get ratty.

    For me... there are loads of sites that provide info on tips... but the collection of tips up there are fantastic.

    I strongly believe this post was created for those eager to hit the trad route. I know many will disagree with letter, agents, synopsis, etc... and some don't even bother with an editor... and well, good luck to you...but when someone takes the time to give us some insight...all I can say is... "Bravo".

    This comment has not been edited... and only skim-checked for typos...Douche-Me

  10. Thank you for putting my very thoughts into being. A concise listing such as this, which took obvious time to complete, can do nothing but help shape the future of an industry so desperately in need of a good lesson in etiquette.

    Every person who writes and who desires to be published - for the first or the fortieth time - ought keep this list for themselves. It's not just a list of how to query agents, it's a list of how to treat anyone within the industry. Good business is still good business. Nothing stabby about that - just sensible! Way to go, Su!

  11. I will live by that motto - Good business is still good business. Nothing stabby about that.

  12. Thanks, Terrie and Imran. Honest feedback as always~

  13. Lots of good tips, Sirra. I can only concur and I DO try to follow all of them...

  14. Typing errors is a big one. As intelligent as you are if you have typing errors in your letter people will assume your not that smart. It's unfair but it's how the world works.