Tips on how to Write a Question Letter: three Paragraphs That Hook a Literary Agent
If you’re interested in getting your book traditionally published, it’s crucial that you sign with a literary agent who loves your story and has a vision for your career. To do this means you need to write the single most important page you’ll ever write outside of your book: a query letter.
No pressure, right?
If the thought of writing a query letter freaks you out or confuses you, hit the pause button and breathe for a second. You are not alone.
Here’s the good news: there is a method that will help you get an agent to say, “Sounds great! Send me more.” I call this the three-paragraph method. It’s all about the hook-book-cook!
Writing a query letter? I’d love to help. Get my professional advice for YOUR query letter with a query critique. Get the query critique »
What My Editorial Internship Taught Me About Query Letters
When I studied film and television in college, I learned how to develop and present an elevator pitch. After graduation, I turned to publishing. Eventually I attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in 2015, where I pitched my story in a pitch slam.
This experience was intimidating and fantastic. I had presented elevator pitches as an undergrad to my film professors, but I had never pitched my story idea live to a literary agent in under a minute. It also taught me one part of a query letter that you need to master in order to hook a literary agent.
Flash forward a few years later to when I worked as an Editorial Intern. To this day, I consider this one of the most valuable experiences in my writing and editing career.
And while I learned a lot more than just query letters in this role, evaluating query letters is an important part of any literary agent’s job. I witnessed this firsthand.
I’d like to share what I learned to help you write a great query.
What the Heck is a Query Letter?
A query letter is a one-page letter that acts as a sales pitch. Although these were once sent as snail mail queries, writers now email their letters. This email should be concise, one page, and sent to a specific literary agent. The goal of a query letter is to hook that agent and get them interested in reading more of your manuscript.
You don’t have to have a finished manuscript to write a query letter, but you absolutely should have a finished manuscript before you query a literary agent, unless you’re a nonfiction writer and pitching a book proposal for a nonfiction book.
Rule of thumb? Focus on quality over quantity. While I have read my fair share of longer query letters that literary agents considered, short ones pitched well stand out.
What does short mean?
A single-spaced page, in standard Times New Roman, 12-point font, that is probably around 500 words. I’d encourage writers to stick to this length when writing their query letters.
Going over this suggests that you’re trying too hard to tell your story. You shouldn’t have to try hard to pitch the big hooks. The main character, stakes, and unique plot should be able to stand on their own.
A query letter is the most important page you’ll write besides your book. Make your query letter stand out with these three paragraphs.
Do You Really Need a Query Letter?
Yes. You bet. 👌
If you want to publish with traditional publishing, you need a query letter. It’s as simple as that.
Query letters are one of the first steps in the publishing process.
Agents receive a lot of emails in their query letter inbox. Seriously, it’s a bucket load. Because of this writers might think that some don’t take query letters seriously. Writers might also take it personally if they don’t get a response from a literary agent months after querying them.
Look, all rejection stinks. Nobody likes that feeling. But this is part of the traditional publishing business, and I think understanding why agents don’t have time to answer every query makes the process more manageable.
- 3% to read partials
- 1% to read fulls
- less than .01% offered representation (signing about three to five clients a year)
It’s not a shock that this isn’t a lot.
Still, not querying gives you a zero percent chance at signing with an agent, especially since it is highly unlikely that a publisher will offer to publish a story that you have self-published or that is already published. There are outliers, like Andy Weir’s The Martian, but your best shot by far is by querying an agent.
So, how do you write a query letter that stands out?
A Note on Self-Publishing
Self-publishing does not require a query letter. But learning this three-paragraph method can still help self-published authors because the second paragraph teaches a strategy to write your back cover.
Back covers work as great sales copy for Amazon and other online sellers!
First, Personalize Your Query Letter
Do not submit a query letter that is not addressed to a specific agent. Literary agents are part of literary agencies, but the specific agent is the one you will grow a business relationship with.
Which reminds me, make sure you spell their name right! Double check.
You’d be surprised how many query letters spell the agent’s name wrong, and while this doesn’t guarantee a rejection, it doesn’t help.
If a literary agent is interested in representing you, they will do their fair share of research on you and your work. Mistakes happen, but spelling a name correctly makes for a friendlier beginning.
Some other reasons you want to query a specific agent are:
- When you query a literary agent and they like it but it’s for them, they may pass it onto a colleague who is a good fit.
- You should want a specific agent for a reason. Querying any random agent isn’t good for your business goals and writing career.
- Knowing a specific agent gives you an opportunity to make a connection with them (see paragraph one later in this post).
Personalizing your letter proves you’ve done your research, and it will likely make you more passionate and excited to work with that agent.
3 Research Strategies to Help You Personalize Your Letter
I emphasized the importance of research for specific literary agents, and you should do this.
However, there are a total of three elements you should research before writing your query letter to help not only with how you write it, but also give you a better idea about why you want to work with a literary agent and literary agency.
1. Your List of Dream Literary Agents
I recommend making a list of seven to ten dream agents before writing your query letter. This might make the letter easier to write, too, because you’re writing to someone specific instead of a general audience.
There are several great ways to do this. Here’s a list of ideas for you to consider.
You can find a literary agent who might be a good fit for you by:
- Looking in the acknowledgments section of a book that works as a good comp title for your story
- Visiting Query Tracker
- Checking out my upcoming podcast on #MSWL (coming soon!)
2. Comp Titles
Comparable titles (or comps) won’t break your query letter if not included in it, but good ones can seduce an agent into asking for more.
Before you include comps, however, make sure they are excellent ones.
Keep in mind that bad comps are worse than no comps, so it’s better to not include comps in your query than include bad ones.
How can you tell if your comp choices are good picks?
You can learn more about strong comp titles in this article.
3. The Agency: What They’ve Sold and How They Work
Although you should address the letter to a specific agent, you should also research the literary agency. Just because one agency makes more six-figure deals than another doesn’t mean they’re the best agency for you.
There are a lot of factors that might make an agency the right fit for you or not. It’s worth taking the time to think about what you want and need from an agency so you know whether the agencies you query fit the bill.
How to Write a Successful Query Letter with 3 Paragraphs
Agents look for specific details in a query letter. You can be sure they’ll want to know your book’s:
It can be tempting to try to explain your book at length, but a query letter is not a synopsis. You want to make this pitch short and concise.
This is why many agents prefer three paragraphs (give or take) that show a literary agent exactly what your book is about, whether or not it’s a good fit for their list, if it will sell, and a little about you.
If you read query letter examples, the order of these paragraphs might be mixed. However, I personally prefer the order I’m about to share with you because it (1) establishes clear expectations of what a literary agent should expect, (2) hooks with a back cover description, and (3) shares more about the author.
Agent Carly Watters calls this order the hook, book, cook approach.
Paragraph 1: Hook
Paragraph one is about hooking a literary agent by setting up expectations for the book and making a connection.
When submitting multiple query letters to different agents, this is the one paragraph you need to differentiate. The rest of the query letter can stay the same.
Why does this paragraph change? Because you should be querying a specific agent for personal reasons, remember?
Make a connection by doing this:
- Describes the word count, genre, and title of your book, which should appeal to their manuscript wish list.
- Identify why you want them as your agent, and why you think your book is a good fit for their list.
- Shares comps that the agent likes.
- Maybe include a story premise.
Let’s look at an example of how to do this.
One of my favorite books in 2021 is Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie. It’s a timely book that explores the issue of systemic racism in America, and could be described as Smart Book Club Fiction.
Nancy’s literary agent is Danielle Bukowski of Sterling Lord Literistic. I know this by looking at the acknowledgments section in her book.
Now let’s pretend I have a book that is similar to Nancy’s, and I want make a connection with Danielle. I research the books Danielle likes to represent by visiting one of the ways suggested in the dream agent section above.
Here’s what I find on Danielle’s website:
She wants to represent books “traditionally overlooked by the publishing industry, as working on books that represent the world is important to me.” Wow, I love that.
And if I thought my (hypothetical) book fit into this category, like The Kindest Lie does, this would be a phenomenal point to make in that first paragraph.
Sharing this in the first paragraph shows I’ve done my research on Danielle. That I want to work with her, not just any agent who represents my book’s genre. It also gives me a chance to share that I love authors and books she’s represented.
Knowing all this, I could use these details in my query letter’s first paragraph. Like:
- Briefly what my book is about (I’ll go into more detail with this in paragraph two, so don’t go overboard here; focus on how it connects)
- Genre, Title, and Word count
- Why my book would interest Danielle
P.S. Don’t forget to address Danielle specifically. Don’t make it out to the literary agency, and absolutely avoid “To Whom It May Concern.”
Put it all together (one to two sentences):
Dear Ms. Bukowski (or Dear Danielle),
After reading (and loving!) Nancy Johnson’s debut The Kindest Lie, I am submitting my BOOK TITLE HERE for your review. It is a 90,000-word Smart Book Club Fiction story about SOMETHING UNIQUE TO WHAT SHE IS LOOKING FOR or a ONE-SENTENCE SUMMARY. I think it will appeal to your interest in representing books that the publishing industry usually overlooks.
Notice a few things about that paragraph:
- BOOK TITLE HERE: Write the book title in ALL CAPS, not italics.
- 90,000-word: The book probably isn’t exactly 90,000 words, but round to a nice even number.
- Smart Book Club Fiction: State the genre of your book, and make sure it’s on the agent’s list!
Some other good ways to make a connection with an agent could include:
- Make a connection with anything they say they’re looking for on their manuscript wish list.
- Share how it’s similar to any story they’ve represented in the past (remember those good comps!).
- If you heard an interview with them, mention it and tell them why you liked this interview.
- If you met them at a conference or heard them speak at a conference, mention the connection.
- If you’ve attended a workshop they ran, mention it and share why you liked it.
Paragraph 2: Book
Paragraph two is all about the big pitch for your story premise. It does not describe the entire plot or every minor plot. It should read like the back cover of a book, which is why it’s great to explore the back covers of comparable titles before writing this.
One element you’ll want to consider when writing the back cover is your story’s stakes. I like to think about James Scott Bell’s whiff of death suggestions: psychological, physical, and/or professional death.
A great way to write a knockout query letter is with the hook, book, cook format. Learn more about these three captivating paragraphs with examples in this article.
Another way to consider your story’s stakes and set up expectations for the climax of a story (without giving away the ending!) is to consider the value shift for your story. Joe Bunting identifies six types of stories and their value shifts in The Write Structure, or you might consider the twelve genre value shifts that Shawn Coyne talks about in Story Grid.
Note: Do not mistake value shifts for genres used in traditional publishing. While knowing your story’s main stakes are great for writing and editing it, a traditional publisher will want to know it’s a YA Fantasy story, not an Action or Performance story.
That said, knowing your value shifts can help you show them why your story has life and death stakes, or why your character’s professional reputation is on the line, or their sanity in some way.
There are various ways to write a story’s back cover, and some pantsers and plotters even use this to plan their book before writing it. However, I always turn back to James Scott Bell’s strategy for writing back covers, which he covers in his book Revision and Self Editing.
This is his suggestion:
- Sentence One: Identify the protagonist, their vocation, and their initial situation (status quo)
- Sentence Two: BUT when (this happens) + the main plot problem
- Sentence Three: Now + death stakes
Ultimately, you can write this back cover in as little as three sentences.
Some query letters write this in two to three short paragraphs (with a heavy emphasis on short: each paragraph is two to three sentences). Keep in mind that you do not want to explain too much of your story when writing this. Let the plot and main character stand on their own.
Do not give away the ending. Instead, suggest the journey.
Here’s the back cover for Nancy Johnson’s The Kindest Lie:
Notice the last paragraph? You don’t need an overarching description about the big ideas in the book in your query letter, but if you can write this well, that’s great to include.
Additionally, this is a published back cover, so it’s longer than what’s expected in a query letter.
If you want to read The Kindest Lie and more of Nancy’s amazing work, visit her website here.
Paragraph 3: Cook
The last paragraph in a query letter is your author bio. The most important idea here is that you write a bio that shares your credibility as a writer, or any big information that sheds light on your professional writing resume, seasoned with a dash of your personality.
Don’t force details here. If you haven’t published before, that’s okay. You absolutely can call yourself a debut writer. You don’t have to have an MFA to get a literary agent (although you can mention it if you do have one).
If you have published, mention this. Even better, if you have a big platform or other numbers that would benefit your book’s sales, include these.
Don’t hold back on anything that demonstrates your publishing career!
Ultimately, bios don’t need to be long. They are meant to give the agent a sense of who you are from a professional standpoint; think quality over quantity again. They could also include one memorable fun fact that humanizes you and shows your personality.
Here’s Nancy Johnson’s bio:
A native of Chicago’s South Side, Nancy Johnson worked for more than a decade as an Emmy-nominated, award-winning television journalist at CBS and ABC affiliates in markets nationwide. A graduate of Northwestern University and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, she lives in downtown Chicago and manages brand communications for a large nonprofit. The Kindest Lie is her first novel.
Bonus: Don’t Forget the P.S.!
Including a P.S. underneath your signature that reestablishes your connection with the agent is a good bonus piece. Be genuine with this, and speak to the agent when you write it.
Also, it’s nice to thank the agent for their time before your signature. It can’t hurt to include your website address directly beneath your signature. This will suffice for contact information; you don’t need to give phone numbers or addresses in a query. Try something like this:
Thank you so much for taking the time to review my manuscript.
YOUR WEBSITE ADDRESS
P.S. Congratulations on NAME OF CLIENT’S BOOK surpassing 100,000 copies sold! What a deserving milestone!
P.P.S. Pitch Your Story with Confidence!
Spend time with your query letter. If you want, get a professional critique and share it with your writing community. And when you’re ready, pitch your story with confidence.
At some point, you have to hit send. You’ve done the research. Do it confidently!
THE GOOD PLACE: A Query Letter Example
This sample query letter is not a real letter used to query an agent but one I’ve crafted to model the Hook, Book, Cook format. To model this, I selected a hypothetical literary agent and built on the DVD description for one of my favorite TV shows, The Good Place (season one).
I also made this query letter YA by imagining that Eleanor is sixteen years old and not thirty-something.
Keep an eye on this space. As writers in the Write Practice community pitch successful query letters, we’ll share those here, too.
Dear Ms. Schur,
I absolutely loved the fun sense of humor and uplifting tone in Leslie Knope’s YA debut, The Wonders of Pawnee, which is why I think you’ll enjoy my 70,000-word YA Fiction novel, THE GOOD PLACE . It is a perfect blend of serious life questions explored by spunky characters full of wit, and will attract readers who adore love stories like Justin Reynolds’ Opposite of Always and philosophical questions like in Gayle Forman’s If I Stay.
After sixteen-year-old Eleanor Shellstrop dies in a tragic accident, she winds up in the afterlife—and it’s amazing. Here, in what’s called the Good Place, Eleanor enjoys the endless pleasures of frozen yogurt, soulmates, and wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to performing good acts. Eternity here is perfect. The only problem is Eleanor isn’t supposed to be here. In fact, her life decisions wouldn’t have even gotten her close.
But when Eleanor confesses the clerical error which only happens because she’s reaping someone else’s reward to her soulmate, indecisive ethics professor Chidi, trouble really starts to boil.
Now, with the help of three unlikely companions, Eleanor struggles to learn how to be good in order to make sure her secret stays a secret. Not only for her eternal life, but the friends she grows to care about, and increasingly endangers with her growing mess.
I am a veteran actor turned writer with a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film and have spent the last decade studying story structure on the stage and now in books. As an avid YA fiction reader, I enjoy supporting authors on Goodreads and Instagram, where I have 14,000+ followers as a #bookstagrammer. THE GOOD PLACE will be my debut.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
P.S. I really enjoyed your latest podcast episode on New Girl. That Jessica Day cracks me up!
Other Places to Find Examples
My favorite place to find query letter examples is on literary agent Eric Smith’s blog and with literary agents Carly Watters and Cecelia Lyra and author Bianca Marais on the podcast The Shit No One Tells You About Writing. Both do an amazing job at showing writers exactly what they look for in a query letter, and I highly (highly!) recommend you check some of them out.
Here are some of my favorite examples:
What About Stories Written in Dual POV?
I’ve talked to a lot of writers who ask this question: what if your book has more than one point of view? Should you include all of these in your query letter?
The answer: most likely.
Query letters set up expectations for your story, right? So if your story is written in dual POV, it wouldn’t hurt to give the literary agent a heads up about this. Mention each POV and show how each has their own story arc that inevitably weaves together by the end.
How do you do this? Check out how authors of multi-POV novels have summarized their books in their back cover copy.
Here are some examples of strong multi-POV back covers:
What You Should Expect After You Hit Send
Most literary agencies have a policy that you won’t hear a response from the literary agent if it’s a pass. Others might notify you that you’ve been rejected. And everyone who wants to read more will contact you.
It hurts to be rejected. I get it. But please do your best to not take rejections personally, or get bummed out if an agent doesn’t let you know directly that the book isn’t for them.
It can feel very much that a rejection of a book is a rejection of you, but it isn’t.
You might think, “Well what the heck, why don’t they let me know why it’s a pass? Or even that it is a pass?” While most literary agents would love to write personal rejection notes and give some notes for edits, they just don’t have the time to do this. Query letters and signing clients is part of the job, and an exciting one at that!
But they also have to agent.
While you’re waiting, work on your next book. Keep writing! Read some of those books piling up on your bookshelf. Go for a run with your pup. Play with your baby. Eat popcorn. Plot out your next big idea!
And if you get rejected, keep going. Submit to other agents on your agent list.
Remember, it only takes one yes!
Red Flags to Avoid in Your Query Letter
One final note.
We’ve talked about what a literary agent likes in a query letter, and what will catch their attention and hook them.
We probably should also briefly cover some red flags, or items that will (likely) lead to hard rejections. Take note of this list, and be sure your query letter is free of all these items:
- A query full of typos. Mistakes happen, but a query letter littered with grammar mistakes suggests careless writing, and anything that draws an agent’s attention too much will distract them from the story pitch.
- Misspelling the agent’s name. This doesn’t lead to an automatic rejection, but try to get this right. Proofread your query letter!
- Anything suggesting that you’re the next James Patterson or another big writer, or your series will sell like Harry Potter. It hasn’t yet, so don’t state this.
- Saying your book will sell millions of copies. Again, it hasn’t yet, so leave this out.
- Being rude, threatening, or gimmicky in any way.
You have one chance to impress each agent with your query letter, and you want your letter to shine, with no bumps or hangups that might cause them to turn away. Make sure your commas are all in the right places!
Can You Follow Up?
You haven’t heard from the literary agent in a while. Should you follow up?
If the submission guidelines say a no response is a rejection, and it’s been longer than three months, it’s probably a rejection.
Some agents don’t mind a polite follow-up, but don’t be hasty with this. Give the literary agent time to review their query letter inbox. And keep in mind, not every agent loves follow-ups. If you follow them on social media, they may talk about this on their platforms. Follow their lead.
Overall, I err on the side of leaving it be and not putting your book in one inbox. You can absolutely have that number one agent, but don’t be afraid to query other agents after a significant time has passed (again, I recommend three months).
There’s nothing wrong with following up politely. But best not to put your book in one inbox.
The Key Principles for How to Write a Query Letter
We’ve just covered a lot of information about query letters. Here are the key takeaways to keep in mind as you write your query letter.
- A query letter is the most important page you will write besides your book.
- Don’t query an agent until you’ve finished your manuscript (or written a nonfiction book proposal).
- Research and build a dream agent list (seven to ten).
- Query a specific literary agent, not just any agent.
- Use the preferred three-paragraph format: Hook, Book, Cook.
- Add a P.S. to make your query letter stand out.
- Follow submission guidelines.
- Be respectful, don’t use gimmicks or lash out if you’re rejected.
- Three months is a common wait time before hearing from a literary agent.
- Avoid query letter red flags.
- Write your next book after you submit your book to literary agents.
- Submit your story with confidence! Remember, you have a say!
Above All Else, You Need to Write a Great Book!
Publishing is a tough industry, and you need to dig deep and stay true to your passion if you want to publish you need to muster your love for storytelling and keep going!
I genuinely believe that stories have the greatest chance to engender growth in positive directions. They are bright gifts that teach us perspectives we couldn’t learn intimately if locked away instead of put into print.
You are a writer.
You can do this. But to traditionally publish, you will want a literary agent. Your relationship with a literary agent is a business relationship first, and the submission process is also part of that business.
When you understand the mechanics of the submission process and master the three-paragraph format in your query letter, you’ll boost your chances in the slush.
Ultimately, though, a query letter is only the first step in signing with a literary agent. Even more important than writing than a knockout query letter is writing a great book!
A great book is what a literary agent will offer to represent! The query letter gives them exciting reasons to check it out.
What scares or confuses you about writing query letters? Do you think these three paragraphs will help you overcome that fear or confusion? Let us know in the comments.
Writing a winning query letter is tough. But you don’t have to go it alone.
I’d love to share my best advice for your query letter with a professional query letter critique. Get the feedback you need to make your query letter shine, and send it to literary agents with confidence.
Get a Query Letter Critique
Now that you know the preferred three paragraphs in a query letter, pick the paragraph you find most intimidating and give it a go!
Spend fifteen minutes writing this paragraph.
It doesn’t have to be perfect. You can’t revise anything that isn’t written, and we all need to start somewhere!
Once you’re done, post it in the comments section for feedback. Do this confidently and with an open mind for critique.
Then, comment on three other people’s paragraphs. Ask for them to critique your paragraph, too. This is how we help one another!
Good luck, and happy querying. I can’t wait to see your book debut in the world!
Abigail Perry is a Certified Story Grid Editor with professional teaching, literary agency, and film production experience. In addition to writing Story Grid masterwork guides, she works as a freelance editor and is the Content Editor for The Write Practice. Abigail loves stories that put women and diverse groups at the center of the story—and others that include superpowers and magic. Her favorite genres include: Smart Book Club Fiction, Women’s Fiction, YA Fantasy, Historical Fiction, and unique memoirs. She also has a B.S. in TV, Radio, and Film and loves working on screenplays that are emotionally driven and/or full of action. You can learn more about Abigail on her website.