literary agents

How to Write a Query Letter

There is a lot of conflicting information going around for writing queries to literary agents. Some say that they should be lengthy professional letters; some say that they should be a brief “get in and get out” kind of email—almost a memo, if you will.

The answer is that a query should be exactly in between those two descriptions. Why the disconnect between the two, you might be asking. Well, that’s easy. Before the internet, it was important to write a pristine, professional letter. Agents received several letters a week, but not an overabundance. They could take their time and truly consider each and every letter. But we don’t live in that day and age any more. Now, agents are bombarded by emails in the hundreds every week, if not every day. They constantly struggle to keep ahead of the pile and an eye out for promising material—while also having to muck through the writers who have jumped the gun and sent a first draft that is, well, a royal mess.

So, what should be in a query?

  1. An opening sentence that is also a hook. (Example: “Sexuality is about more than just sex in my young adult novel, TITLE.”)
  2. A brief synopsis of your story. (Ideally, two paragraphs with three to four sentences apiece. It should address the situation, the complications, and the cost of the conclusion.)
  3. A demonstration of where your book fits in the market, the genre, age group, and word count.
  4. Your credentials and a polite thank you.

To help you on your query journey, here are ten Dos and Don’ts for querying!

  1. Do: Be concise. If your query is longer than 3/4ths of a page single spaced, your query is too long. Remember that the agent in question is most likely reading twenty to fifty of these today, so make your query attention-getting, but not over the top.
  2. Don’t: Jump the gun. Querying before you are ready is one of the biggest mistakes. You will know that your manuscript is ready to find an agent when it has been revised thoroughly at least a few times, and it has been scoured for typos. Ask yourself, is your manuscript “shelf ready?” Meaning, could you slap a cover on it and put it on a shelf? If the answer is yes, you’re ready to query. If your answer is no, and you’d like some help, check out our developmental and line editing services.
  3. Do: Be professional. Professional means smart, to the point, and clearly written. Absolutely no typos or grammatical errors. Under this heading, it’s also important to add that your query should never feel like a “blanket query.” It should address the agent by name and feel as though you wrote it specifically for him or her. Also, follow the explicit instructions for writing a query letter as provided on the agent’s website. Every agent likes different pieces of information, so make sure you tailor each query to the agent’s preferences.
  4. Don’t: Add extraneous information. This tends to happen in the “credentials” section of the query, meaning you want the agent to know everything that’s made you a fine writer. Well, the agent will want to know that information once she or he has read and loved your manuscript, but until that time, only include information that is pertinent to your story. (Example: Say you’ve written a book about a teenage spy. It would then be pertinent to add, “I am the daughter of a CIA agent.” Or if your book is about a rare medical condition, it would be very important to say, “I am a licensed, practicing physician.”)
  5. Do: Include your story’s unique voice in the brief summary. If your story is funny, the summary can be funny. If it’s a sad story, let it tug on some heartstrings. If it’s a thriller, by all means make it sound like a Hollywood movie trailer.
  6. Don’t: Name drop another one of the agent’s client unless you have specifically asked that person and they have given you permission to do so. Another one to add here? Don’t say that your manuscript is exactly like a book that the agent already represents. They’re likely NOT to read your pages because, well, they’ve already got a writer like you!
  7. Do: Demonstrate your knowledge of the market value of your manuscript. This doesn’t mean that you should say, “My book is just like The Hunger Games.” But it does mean that you could say, “My book is for fans of The Hunger Games and Ender’s Game.” However, I would encourage you to aim slightly lower than bestsellers. Know the books in the field you are writing, and that will be one of the best ways to prove to an agent that you have done your homework.
  8. Don’t: Query twenty-five people at a time. Querying is a waiting business, which means that a lot of people try to rush it. You will do much, much better if you make an A list of five agents, and a B list of five agents. Some agents even prefer having “an exclusive” look on the manuscript (this will be on their website). You may offer an exclusive to one agent at a time, and if the agent agrees, make sure you set up an expiration on the exclusive so that you can return to querying in a timely manner. 
  9. Do: Be selective. You do not want just any agent. I repeat: YOU DO NOT WANT JUST ANY AGENT! The agent you want is someone who is currently selling things in the market. Check Publisher’s Weekly rights reports. Check the agent’s clients’ websites. Every agent has different specialties. Some are editorial. Some are not. Some work with clients on a variety of genres. Some do not. The more you know before you query, the more likely that you will not get stuck with the wrong agent for your writing.
  10. Don’t: Lose hope. Querying is tough. Finding the right agent is tough. But if your manuscript is ready and the winds are in your favor (meaning you’ve done all your homework on the market and who would be the best fit for you), you will find the right person to help you launch your career. In the meantime, Yellow Bird Editors are here to help you! An affordable query critique is one click away.

Cori McCarthy is the author of four young adult novels and the middle grade category winner of the 2014 Katherine Patterson Award for her novel in verse. Cori’s books include the space thriller The Color of Rain (Running Press Teens, 2013), the near-futuristic thriller Breaking Sky (Sourcebooks, 2015), the contemporary mixed format novel You Were Here(Sourcebooks, 2016), and the forthcoming Now A Major Motion Picture (Sourcebooks, 2018). Breaking Sky is in development at Sony Pictures to become a feature length film. Cori holds three degrees in writing: a BA in Creative Writing from Ohio University (emphasis in poetry and memoir writing), as well as a graduate certificate in screenwriting from UCLA, and an MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Cori lives in the Midwest and is the cofounder of the charitable initiative Rainbow Boxes. She has been writing fiction, nonfiction, screenplays, and poetry for 15+ years, and editing all genres for 5+ years. For more information on Cori, please check out her website

AREAS OF SPECIALTY: Speculative fiction, science fiction, fantasy fiction (including high fantasy), poetry, novels in verse, contemporary fiction, humorous fiction, middle grade & young adult novels, screenplays, thrillers, unique memoirs, graphic novels, adaptations of fairy tales.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, query letter editing, content editing, developmental editing, writing coaching.


How to Land a Literary Agent: Don’t Make These Common Mistakes

The querying process is an exciting step in any writer’s path to publication, but it’s often one of the most nerve-wracking. It can be fraught with questions of etiquette and common practice. To add to the confusion, agents’ query guidelines have slight (but important!) differences. Today we’ll focus on mistakes you can avoid as a writer as you look for the perfect person to represent your work.

1. Don’t bombard an agent with your full manuscript if you meet in person. If you’ve signed up for a conference--even if you’ve purchased a one-on-one with an agent--don’t expect them to take your manuscript home with them. Don’t bring a hard copy and press it into their hands, even if they express interest in your pitch. If you meet an agent at a conference or other industry event and they invite you to send them your work, follow up with a polite email reminding them of how you met.

2. Don't query before you have a full manuscript. Ever. If the agent likes your query letter, requests a partial or the full manuscript, and you can't send it, because it isn't finished, that shows you haven't done your homework. You never want to query before you have a completed manuscript for the agent to consider. The agent has just wasted the time that would have been happily put into looking at your work--when it's ready. 

3. Don’t query without reading the most up-to-date guidelines on an agent’s website, and following them to the letter. As I mentioned above, agents all have slightly different guidelines. Some use a form on their website, others have a dedicated email. Some prefer a query letter and a synopsis, others only want the query. Many will ask you to send attachments in specific formats (or not use them at all). Make sure you’re following each agent’s guidelines, and that you’re not taking them from somewhere else online. Other sources are often outdated. And know that if you don’t follow the guidelines, you probably won’t receive a response at all. Agents have far too many queries coming in to go out of their way to people who didn’t research and follow the guidelines.

4. Don’t toss your manuscript out to any/every agent you find listed online. Be targeted and focused in your queries. Take the time to look into each agent you’re submitting to, including the genres and publishing categories they work in, their #MSWL (manuscript wish list) if they have one, who they already represent, etc. Educate yourself on the agents you’re querying. The more specific you can be, the more likely you are to find success. If you’re sending out a manuscript to 50 agents at once, you’re probably not narrowing it down enough!

5. Don’t forget to tell the agent if your query is an exclusive. Some agents prefer exclusive queries, while others prefer that you don’t send them exclusives. This is another piece of information you should be able to find by visiting an agent’s website. If it doesn’t include any information on exclusives, assume that either (an exclusive or a multiple subsmission) is okay. Make sure, in all cases, to include in your query letter if this is an exclusive or a multiple submission.

6. Don’t follow up too early/constantly. Once your query is out there, give agents time to respond. It can be tempting to check in and make sure the agent has received your query, to see if there’s any progress, or to find out if they’ve passed, but trust that the agent has a professional system for handling queries as they come in, and know that they are juggling many things--client manuscripts, submissions to editors, contracts--and that your query is only one thing on that list. Don’t follow up with an agent until a specified window of time has elapsed (again, something you can find on an agent’s website.) Even then, a single, brief, polite email is best. If no window of time is specified, consider four weeks the minimum amount of time to allow before checking in.

7. Don’t send a new/updated/revised version of the manuscript to an agent after you’ve queried. This is hugely important, and it’s the darker side of the very important advice: Don’t query until you’re ready. Make sure that manuscript is powerful and polished, because once you’ve queried, you don’t get to send a frantic email five days later saying that you’ve done a few more revisions. If you send a new version to the agent, it signals that you weren’t ready to query in the first place. If they’ve already begun reading, you’ve wasted their (very precious) time by sending a new version.

8. Don’t worry about asking the agent questions about how they work—yet.  Questions of this sort are best saved for when an agent offers you representation. At that point, you will have plenty of opportunities by email or phone to ask them about their communication style, how they handle submissions, sub rights, contracts, etc. Any question about working together should be saved for the moment when the agent expresses interest in working with you.

9. Don’t forget to tell other agents you have the manuscript out with if you receive an offer of representation. This is a matter of agent etiquette. Even if you’re received an offer from your top agent, you need to go back to anyone who has your query and let them know that you’ve received an offer. Oftentimes, an agent hasn’t responded yet because they’re intrigued, but haven’t gotten to the project yet. When you give them this nudge, it lets them know they have to pass or offer in a short amount of time. Two weeks is usually considered a reasonable window, and you should specify a time period in your email. If you follow up, you’re more likely to receive multiple offers, and be in the enviable position of choosing between agents!

10. Don’t rush a revise and resubmit. If an agent offers you a chance to revise your work, and takes the time to critique or offer suggestions, do not send the manuscript back in less than a week. Writers are often afraid that they need to move quickly on R&Rs, but that’s not the case. You already have the agent’s attention and interest with your project. What you need to do now is show them that you’re capable of revising thoroughly and improving the story in ways the agent believes would help it in submissions and on the shelf. If you’re unsure that an agent’s feedback resonates with you, talk it through with friends or fellow writers. Make sure that you take R&Rs seriously, because they mean that an agent is invested in your work.

11. Don’t ignore a trend in rejections. If you send out five queries and receive five passes with different reasons for rejection, you probably just haven’t found the right fit yet. If you send out five queries and everyone points to the same issue, one that’s fixable with revision, take the time before you send the manuscript out for another round of queries, and fix it. The agents you’re sending to are masters of story--they deal with pitches and manuscripts all day long. If they’re all pointing out the same problem with your work, make sure you address it before continuing to query.

12. Don’t send a revised version of the same manuscript to the same agent, UNLESS they specifically ask to see it. When an agent passes, they are passing on this project. Not this version of the project--the entire project. It doesn’t mean they will never read anything from you again, and you will find many stories of writers ending up with agents they have previously queried. But if you send the same query or manuscript in a slightly altered version, the agent will notice, and you’ll burn a potential bridge.

13. Don’t respond to a rejection from an agent. Many of you are probably thinking: but the agent sent such a nice email! But we bonded over our love of puppies/mochi/HEAs! I want to build a relationship so I can query with a different project later! Those reasons make sense, but the agent needs to allot their time elsewhere. If you had a pleasant, polite, and professional interaction, the agent will often remember you when you query (with a new project!) later. Sometimes there are more negative feelings when a query is rejected. This is the moment to confide in your friends, your writing group, your significant other, your cat--ANYONE but the agent in question. Rejections can feel personal, but they’re not. When you take them personally, you’re moving out of the realm of the professional, and you don’t want to send this kind of email to someone in your profession. Walk away from the rejection, shake it off, and live to query another day! 

Amy Rose Capetta is the author of a YA sci-fi duet, Entangled and Unmade (HMH). Her third YA novel, Kiss/Kill, a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery, is forthcoming from Candlewick in 2017. Amy Rose holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has previously worked for the Writers’ League of Texas and served as assistant editor for the Children’s and YA section of the literary journal Hunger Mountain. In addition to novels, she has written screenplays, the most recent of which debuted at the Toronto ReelHeart International Film Festival.

AREAS OF SPECIALTY:  Sci-fi, fantasy, mystery/thriller, dystopian, supernatural, middle grade, YA, literary fiction, genre-bending fiction, LGBTQ fiction.

AVAILABLE FOR: Manuscript critiques, content editing, developmental editing, first chapter reviews, synopsis editing, private writing coaching.