Query Letter Construction

I’ve written a little bit about querying and how I got my agent (still in a state of disbelief). When I was developing my query (both times) I really appreciated how many writers provided their own query letters and how many agents did public query critiques. When I was still in college, I devoured Query Shark. Later, the successful queries on Writer’s Digest became one of my must-read features. And Jackie Lea Sommers’s (author of Truest) blog post about writing her query is something I’ve returned to time and time again. I also was lucky enough to read hundreds of queries while interning at a literary agency and had many teachers advise me through my MFA program.

There are lots of Internet resources to learn more about writing a query and many different opinions on how to structure the letter. But in case anyone is curious, here’s what worked for me! 

Salutation: Personalize your letter and get the agent’s name right! I’ve heard several agents list these kind of mistakes among their top pet peeves.

Dear [agent’s name]

Paragraph 1: My goal for the first paragraph was to explain why I specifically was querying that agent and provide a hook to get them interested in my story.

I am writing because [list a reason like “you represent x author” or “we talked at x event and…” or “I saw on twitter you are looking for….”]. I’m hoping you will want to take a look at my YA novel THE REVENGE PLAY, complete at 78,000 words. Stolen kisses. Shattered friendships. Betrayal. Nothing is more dramatic in high school than falling in love. Part coming of age romance, part humorous take on the high school theater world, I hope THE REVENGE PLAY will appeal to fans of [I wrote comp authors instead of comp titles and included any clients of the agent that felt relevant to my story]. 

Paragraph 2: In the second paragraph, provide a more in depth description of the story. Don’t get in the weeds with minor characters, subplots, or giving away the ending. Think of it like the back cover copy on a book. It should make people *want* to read more.

After a cross-country move, sixteen-year-old Riley is only looking forward to one thing – auditioning for the play at her quirky new school. She quotes Shakespeare and talks to the posters of Audrey Hepburn and Judy Garland in her room. Simply put, acting is her life. So when her one friend in town, Victoria, warns her against trying out because her ex-boyfriend, Spencer, is king of the theater clique Riley doesn’t know what to do. She loves acting but also wants to stay on the good side of her new and only friend. After the girls discover that Spencer’s written a play about his break up with Victoria, Riley becomes the assistant director so she can feed Victoria information and help represent her friend’s side of the story. But soon Riley starts enjoying her work with Spencer –maybe too much. As a crush develops and her friendship with Victoria starts to deteriorate, Riley begins to wonder whose side she’s on and why she ever got involved with the revenge play in the first place.

Paragraph 3: Author biography. Many agents have also told me going on too long here is a faux-pas. I tried to keep it relevant to writing.

I am a recent graduate of The New School’s MFA program with a concentration in writing for children and young adults. I worked on THE REVENGE PLAY as my master’s thesis under the advisement of Penguin editor, Jill Santopolo. Now, I teach writing to undergrads at The New School and to children and teens at Writopia Lab. Additionally, I am a contributor at Book Riot and author a young adult book blog, Hardcovers & Heroines, which averages over 2,000 unique viewers per month.

Wrapping It Up: Say thanks and finish the letter!

Thank you for taking the time to read this. Per your submission guidelines, I’ve [look up the guidelines on the agent’s website and show that you are following directions here. Whether that means pasting the first three chapters into the email or attaching a two page synopsis of the book].


Alison Doherty

Hope this was vaguely helpful or interesting to read! Now back to revisions and daydreaming about a one-day, someday book deal!

4 thoughts on “Query Letter Construction

  1. Excellent guidelines and template!

    When I read submissions getting the name wrong (or addressing it to the wrong publishing house) is my biggest pet peeve…or when someone addresses it to “Mr. Theresa xxx” (if you don’t know someone’s gender/marital status I’d just leave the formal salutation off and use their name).

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