Five Things to Avoid for a Pristine Query Letter

If you want to sell your nonfiction writing, at some point you’ll have to write a query letter. This holds true whether you are writing a book, an article or an essay. If you remain uncertain about what writing a query letter entails, return to the origins of the word itself. The word “query” means “a question” or “an inquiry.” A query letter asks an editor or an agent if they might be interested in purchasing your work or representing you.

Remember that a query letter has three basic parts: a “lead” (Yes, just like the beginning of an article…) or a paragraph that “grabs” the reader and explains what the manuscript is about; a paragraph describing the details of the manuscript; and a paragraph explaining why you, the author, are the perfect person to write this particular book, essay or article.  (For more information on how to “pitch” yourself and your ideas, read yesterday’s WNFiN post.)

Once you’ve managed to get these basic elements into your query letter, there are some other things you need to do…such as turning out a flawless letter. Here’s what Carolyn Howard-Johnson, author of the  multi award-winning Frugal Editor, has to say about how to accomplish this feat.

Five Things to Avoid for a Pristine Query Letter
By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

We are selling our work when we approach any gatekeeper whether that’s an editor, an agent, a contest judge, or some other person who gets to approve or nix our work. Here are five little things to avoid so you’ll look like the professional you are:

  • Don’t tell the gatekeeper you always wanted to write. You can think of something more pertinent to your cause (and something more original!) than that.
  • Don’t use the verb “quote” when you want the noun “quotation.” Some style books will tell you that it’s okay, but agents and editors can be a picky lot. Use zero-tolerance grammar rules for your queries.
  • Don’t pitch more than one book or article at time. You want to give just one your best shot.
  • Don’t call your own idea or work marvelous or awesome. Gatekeepers think these are four-letter words.
  • Don’t overdo exclamation marks, question marks or the use of sentence fragments. (Yes, fragments are acceptable when they’re used for a good reason.)

Here’s one last suggestion from the stable of fiction writers’ tricks: Use anecdote and dialogue to make the nonfiction sample you submit with your query come alive.

About the Author

Carolyn Howard-Johnson is an award-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, a former publicist for a New York public relations firm and an instructor for the UCLA Extension’s renowned Writers’ Program. She is a former journalist and editor with years of publishing and editing experience including national magazines, newspapers and her own poetry and fiction. Her The Frugal Book Promoter: How to Do What Your Publisher Won’t ( won USA Book News’ best professional book award and the Irwin Award. The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success ( ) is top publishing book for USA Book News and Reader Views Literary Award.

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  1. Great tips for query letters and many types of business communications. Business proposals, pitches, and requests will benefit from applying these guidelines.

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