Look, it’s really easy to get totally consumed in fine-tuning every comma and adverb in your query letter, but what an agent is really looking for is a ‘distinctive new voice’. Show off your story. Convey your passion for the subject (without going off on a self-indulgent tangent). Find a way to make the agent as excited about your book as you are. Aaaand don’t forget to include the necessary details for an agent to actually work out whether you’ve written a zombie remake of Ulysses or the next Great American Novel.

Here’s some more excellent advice from Simon Trewin, literary agent at William Morris:

Life is short and less is more. No letter should be more than one side of A4 and in a good-sized (12pt) clear typeface.

Sell yourself. The covering letter is one of the most important pages you will ever write. I will be honest here and say I find selling myself very difficult, so I can see how tricky this is – there is a thin line between appearing interesting/switched-on/professional and arrogant/unreasonable.

The letters that include phrases like “I am a genius and the world doesn’t understand me” or “My mum thinks this book is the best thing she has ever read” (of course she does – that is her job!) don’t exactly fill my heart with longing! In your pitch letter you are trying to achieve some simple things: you want me to feel that you take your work seriously. Wear your writing history with pride. Tell me about that short story you had published or that writing course you attended and the fact that you are writing alongside a demanding job or in the evenings and weekends when the kids are asleep. Tell me why you write – I love hearing about the differentpaths that have led people to the moment when they think “I want to write”.

Tell me who your influences are and tell me about the book you are sending me. A few lines will do the job here; I just want to get a sense of the territory I am going to enter. Tell me what you want to write next. Hopefully you won’t be following your commercial romantic comedy with a three-volume science fantasy epic or vice-versa!

At the end of your letter I want to feel in good company and ready to turn the page. I am not interested in seeing what you look like or how old you are – we are not running a model agency here! Publishing isn’t as obsessed with age and beauty as you might think, but it is obsessed with finding distinctive new voices. And a final point: get a friend to read the letter and give you some honest feedback. Put it to one side for a day or two and come back to it – distance is a great editor.

Simon Trewin

Once more for the people in the back. Here are the bare essentials an agent is looking for in your query: 

  • Proof that you’ve done a little research on them as an agent – i.e. why they might be interested in representing you
  • What kind of a book you’ve written – including technical info like word count and genre*
  • An accurate representation of your story – remember: character + goal + conflict = plot
  • Some info on you as a writer – that means relevant experiences, background, and qualifications

*A wee note on ‘genre’: If you’re feeling iffy about having to categorise or pigeonhole your book into a specific genre, or can’t get your head around how to present your story from a ‘commercial’ point of view, then don’t stress too much about it. The main reason agents want you to mention genre in your query is to make sure it’s the kind of book they actually represent. There’s a massive list of book genres at Query Tracker if you’re not sure – and you don’t necessarily have to pick just one. Many books have intermingling elements of several different genres.

So what makes an agent say “YES, A THOUSAND TIMES, YES!”

There’s no singular answer to this question, but for a good idea of what really turns an agent on, let’s hear from the gatekeepers themselves: 

Agents need to fall in love with your premise.

Agents need to fall in love with your writing.

Agents need to fall in love with your storytelling.

(And/or agents need to fall in love with your book’s market potential.)

Julie Dinneen, lit agent at D4EO Literary

Above all, agents are book lovers. Tell them a damn good story. Make your book summary compelling and intriguing. If, after reading your query, they’re desperate to know more, you’re over the first hurdle.

Check out this example from Manuscript Wishlist, for example. Lit agent Andrea Somberg explains its irresistible appeal:

This letter does something that every successful query letter should do—it tells us about the manuscript while simultaneously creating questions in our minds.  I’ve read many query letters over the years—hundreds of thousands of them. And 9 times out of 10, they provide too much information that is the wrong type of information.

Or this golden piece of advice from Jennifer March Soloway, on what makes a “yes” manuscript stand out in a sea of submissions:

Over the last four years, I’ve realized the projects that captured my interest had at least three of the six following traits:

  • A dynamite opening line (or lines).
  • A strong, engaging voice.
  • An intriguing premise that somehow feels different from anything else I’ve seen.
  • An opening scene filled with drama that has enough context to immediately ground me in the world and pull me into the story.
  • An irresistible character with high stakes and agency.
  • An additional story thread that is also compelling.

This is a great checklist to use when redrafting your query. Snag ’em with a strong opening hook, show off your unique narrative voice, focus on the emotional journey of your character, and avoid vague familiarity by making the details of your story as specific and original as possible.

Here’s another example of a super successful query by Jessie Burton, author of The Miniaturist, which won not one but FOUR book of the year awards in 2014. In her blog, Jessie very honestly explains how she committed various cardinal sins of submission before finally finding success, and discusses with her agent Juliet Mushens why and how her query worked.

Now, this query breaks some ‘rules’. It’s definitely on the longer side, but you can clearly see how it works and why. You can hear Jessie’s lovely writer’s voice in both the letter and the book summary. It’s genuine, it’s funny, it’s engaging, and it’s full of details that show she’s put a lot of research into the book. She’s also researched Juliet’s likes and dislikes as an agent (in a non-stalker way, of course) and approached her in a polite but friendly way. It ticks all the boxes and leaves the reader wanting to know more. 

And then? And then? And then? What’s next?

We’re almost done here (waaaaah!), but before we go, a few words on your next steps:

  1. Make good use of the forum by sharing your query/book summary and offering feedback on others’. The best way to improve your query writing skills is to put ’em into practice.
  2. Spend some time researching prospective agents and make a list of their preferences and no-nos. There are looooads of agent interviews to be found on sites like Writer’s DigestManuscript WishlistWriters’ & Artists’ Yearbook and Lit Rejections
  3. Read as many queries as you can – successful and otherwise – dredge the archives at Query Shark and Slush Pile Hell until you start writing queries in your sleep.
  4. Don’t let rejections get you down. You’d have to be extreeeeeeeeeeeemely luck to sign up with an agent on your first attempt, so chin up, keep tweaking your query to perfection, and get back on that horse.
  5. Pace yourself. Put together a select list of agents you’d like to submit to and send out queries a few at a time. Sending out a hundred submissions at once in a scattergun approach is kinda unprofessional, and leaves you in a difficult position if you end up getting feedback that makes you want to completely change your query, because – too late, it’s already out there.

And finally….

It’s been emotional, guys. We hate goodbyes. But it doesn’t have to end here. If you need a little extra hand-holding during the synopsis-writing process, or want to know more about the dos and don’ts about manuscript submission and finding The Perfect Agent, check out our other Publishing 101 courses right darn here.

But for now, we’ll leave you with these final messages…

Gif of Leslie Nielsen in Airplane saying "I just want to tell you all good luck. We're all counting on you."
Gif of Ellie Kemper in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt looking excited, saying 'fingers crossed!' and crossing her fingers on both hands.
Gif of Catherine O'Hara in Schitt's Creek holding up her fist saying 'courage!'

Goodspeed, brave queriers. Go forth and submit those fantastic stories and bag yourself a brilliant agent who will cherish your book like a newborn puppy. And don’t forget to keep us updated on your progress in the forum. We’re all rooting for you!

Want to be a better writer?

Or just to laugh at bum jokes? Either way, you need the famous Writers’ HQ newsletter. You know what to do – put your thing in the thing.