The Do’s and Don’ts of Querying

I doubt anything induces anxiety among writers more than querying. The continuous stream of rejections chip away at one’s confidence.

On the weekend, I attend an excellent presentation by the Donaghy Literary Group on the querying process. I decided to share what I heard with others. The query letter is like a resume. You may have great work experience but if your resume is poorly drafted, you may miss out on job interviews. Similarly, weak query letters put you at a huge disadvantage.

Typically, the querying process has two components – the query letter and a synopsis. How do they differ? The best way to describe it is, the query letter shows while the synopsis tells.

Purpose of a Query Letter

  • to get you foot in the door
  • stand out over the other submissions (the average agency can receive 10,000 a year)
  • seduce the agent to want to read more

Components of a Query Letter

  • personalized salutation (show that you researched the agent)
  • information about your book (genre, word count, title)
  • hook (1-2 sentences that summarize the book)
  • a paragraph describing the character’s, motivation and conflict and how the conflict is resolved, but don’t give away ending (100-200 words)
  • a writing-related bio (optional if the author is unpublished)
  • close

Some Do’s and Don’ts

  • research agents and agencies
  • don’t waste your time sending mass or blind emails
  • don’t use alternative emails, only the ones listed in the agency’s submission guidelines
  • always include genre, if the agent isn’t interested in your genre then you are wasting your time querying them
  • be clear on the genre and don’t overwhelm with too many
  • it’s important to include word count, if the word count is too high or low for the genre, you will get rejected
  • spelling and grammar are important
  • agents like to see comparable titles but it shouldn’t be books older than 3-5 years
  • highlight only major characters in query letter
  •  the bio should be brief and limited to past published works, past agent representatives, writing contests, etc.
  • include social media
  • word of advice regarding social media, avoid politics and controversy, use your social medial only for writing
  • every agency has submission guidelines on the website, follow them closely
  • do not send anything not requested
  • do not mention money, make demands in query letter or raise anything that might turn off an agent

Some agents will ask that a synopsis be sent along with the query letter. The query letter is intended to be a hook to get an agent to want to read more. A synopsis is a story map of your manuscript.

Components of a Synopsis

  • premise – tell about world, setting, key characters
  • rising action of conflict – focus on conflict, what are the stakes and hurdles
  • climax – what the MC overcomes
  • character growth – walk through plot and how the characters change
  • resolution – in the synopsis you are expected to include the ending

Do’s and Don’ts

  • tell the story in your own voice
  • even if your manuscript is told in first person, the synopsis should be third person
  • be detailed, focus on what’s important
  • describe MC’s successes and failures
  • describe MC’s emotions and feelings
  • be sure to describe the MC’s growth
  • tell but don’t neglect your creativity
  • a synopsis is typically 1-3 pages or 500 words, agents do not have time to read longer ones


12 thoughts on “The Do’s and Don’ts of Querying

  1. tanjasramirez says:

    This is actually very helpful, Willie! I could never understand the difference between a synopsis and query letter, but you highlighted their differences in such a clear and distinct way. I’ll definitely refer to this when I work on my own synopsis/query letter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ElusiveStory says:

    Thanks for sharing the information in such a clear and concise way, Willie.

    Wish I could have been there. Though I haven’t looked into querying all that much, the Donaghy Group is on my radar.

    But I’ve got the next best thing: your insightful blog post! 😀👍

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mica Scotti Kole says:

    Don’t forget age category! You MUST list that, too. Also, for the sake of argument, I find that you don’t always need a “hook” sentence; leaping right into the summary can work too (whether preceded by the word count/genre/category or not). Comp titles can also comprise a “hook.” On that note, comps CAN be older than 5 years if they are well-known and successful enough (I once got an agent’s immediate attention by citing MISTBORN, 2006). But at least one should be recent.

    Lastly, if you have no publishing accolades, it’s still a good idea to post a one-sentence biography line that gives a sense of your personality. Don’t say “favorite pastimes are reading and writing” because guess who says that? ALL WRITERS EVER, haha.

    Here’s a killer article on writing synopses that I love sharing:

    Liked by 1 person

  4. williehandler says:

    Mica, thanks adding your perspective. I didn’t agree with everything the agents said in their presentation. My notes reflect their preferences. I plan to use an older comparison because it is well known and it makes sense to use it.Also, thanks for the link to the article on writing synopses.


  5. Bryan Fagan says:

    I despised the querying process so much I had my editor do it for me. She is far more gifted in this particular category than I will ever be. It is a really hard thing to do. In one page we have to sell our work. Not fun and not easy.

    Good suggestions. Thanks!!!


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