Thursday, October 10, 2019

What’s Killing Your Query Pitch?

By L. Diane Wolfe 

Part of the How They Do It Series 

JH: The query letter is often the first thing an agent or editor sees from you. And first impressions count for a lot. L. Diane Wolfe, visits the lecture hall today to share tips on getting your query letter in tip top shape. 

Known as “Spunk On A Stick,” L. Diane Wolfe is a member of the National Speakers Association. She conducts seminars on book publishing, promoting, leadership, and goal-setting, and she offers book formatting and author consultation. Wolfe is the owner and senior editor at Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C. and contributes to the Insecure Writer’s Support Group.

Dancing Lemur Press, L.L.C | Spunk On A Stick | Spunk On A Stick’s Tips | Insecure Writer’s Support Group

Take it away Diane…

It’s all about first impressions. A query letter is often the first time a publisher or agent will see you and your work. You want to come off as professional and show them you can follow instructions. You also want to send the best and most compelling description of your story possible.

What happens when you keep sending out queries and receiving only form rejections? What can you do to increase your odds of getting past the first step of the process?

Let’s go over proper query letter etiquette and see what might be killing yours.

Your first priority is to produce the best manuscript possible.

This involves reading, research, and practice, practice, practice. It takes time to develop a skill for storytelling and a strong voice. Using critique partners (even an editor) is essential. You can’t dress up a poor manuscript with a snappy synopsis.

Determine your exact genre.

Genre-blending is okay, but you have to know the primary genre and sub-genre. Check with the BISAC Subject Headings List to decide which category/sub-category best describes your manuscript.

Learn how to compose a proper query letter. It should be ONE page and contain:
  • Greetings using the person’s name.
  • State the title in all caps, the genre, and word count.
  • Short 2-4 paragraph synopsis. First line should define and identify the main character. It should cover who-what-where-when-how.
  • A couple lines about your writing qualifications. Mention previous publications and contests won. Or state why you feel it would be a good fit for them.

Things to avoid in your query letter:
  • Personal information – it’s not needed at this point.
  • A history as to why you wrote this manuscript.
  • Making claims how great your manuscript is.
  • Anything that makes you sound arrogant or demanding.
  • Images.

Learn how to do a proper full synopsis/outline.

A synopsis is a brief encapsulation of a novel or book written in paragraph form, 2 - 5 pages, double-spaced, and the ending must be included. (Usually for fiction.) An outline is an exhaustive summary of an entire manuscript, taking the organization one chapter at a time, 5 - 10 pages and double-spaced. (Usually for non-fiction.)

Research publishers and agents well.

Make sure they accept your genre and they are currently open for submissions. Check their reputation online and contact their authors.

Prepare a detailed, one-page marketing plan.

Many now ask for one. List everything you will do online and in the real world to promote your book, organizations you belong to, your social media sites, and anything else that will assist with promotions.

Use your critique partners and query letter sites to polish your query and synopsis/outline.

Wording is so important and you don’t want typos and misspellings in those items.

Note what each publisher and agent wants and send ONLY what they ask for.

Unless they request it, NEVER send anything as an attachment. Be sure you include your full contact information including your email in the query letter.

Once you’ve sent the query, don’t pester the recipient.

No response after a couple months usually means no. Spend your time sending more queries instead.

Finally, do not think that any of the guidelines and rules DON’T apply to you.

Skimping on the quality or skipping the steps leads to one thing – rejection. And if you can’t follow directions, no one will want to work with you.

Look over the guidelines above. Is there an area that needs improving? Have you been sending an unedited query? Or sending too much information or an attachment? You can control these things and give your query a fighting chance.


  1. Great points.

    Especially, I think the last one might be the first as well. Any guideline a writer is "uncomfortable with" is probably the one that will get them rejected if they don't respect it. And the surest way of all to doom a query is to ignore any guideline the *agent* or the *editor* puts out. With the busy workload that those professionals have, breaking a hard requirement like that is more than enough excuse for them to throw your work out on sight.

    1. And sadly that's the main reason we reject queries. It's so simple to fix, too.

  2. Great post Diane. I have never tried my hand at it, but made notes for the future and bookmarked. Thanks for hosting Janice this is one of my favorite blogs.

  3. Excellent tips! Even when you self-pup, these rules are good to follow because when you launch, you will need to send out the same sort of information to advertise the books. As much as I hate putting a book in a nutshell (so to speak), it's crucial to selling your book anywhere.

  4. Janice, thank you for allowing me to post here and represent the Insecure Writer's Support Group.