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The Secret Ingredient in Query Letters

Personalize your pitch

You’ve written a winning query letter with “the hook, the book, and the cook.” Then, you’ve researched agents who are looking for your type of novel. Don’t worry if you haven’t done this yet; I’ll show you how to find the right agents in a future post.

The final step in writing your query letter is to personalize it with a line or two that speaks directly to the agent. Here are a few ways to personalize the opening of your query:

Mention how you found the agent. E.g., “I learned about you and your agency on and researched your recent deals on Publishers Marketplace.”

Reference how you learned that the agent represents your genre. E.g. “I understand from your website you are interested in upmarket commercial women’s fiction.”

Gush about how impressed you are with a novel the agent represents. But only if it’s similar to yours. E.g., “Since you represent Jane Coltron’s Leave Her to Heaven, one of my favorite novels, I thought you would be the perfect agent to represent my historical romance, Love’s Last Goodbye.”

If you were referred by a friend or fellow writer – definitely open with this. Just be sure you mention the writer, preferably someone the writer represents. And be certain your writer friend is cool with you approaching his agent.

If you pitched the agent at a conference – of course start with this. Remind her of the name of the conference. At the end of the letter, when you mention your enclosure(s), remind her that these were materials she requested.

Okay, it’s is a little ego stroking, but what agent doesn’t like the strokes. Sure beats receiving a letter that starts with “Dear Agent” and looks like it was photocopied and sent off to the first thirty agents listed in a phone book.

By opening with something specific about the agent, you’re showing that agent four things:
1) You’re a professional who does his homework.
2) You know what genres the agent represents and/or is currently looking for.
3) You have targeted the agent specifically as one you’d like to represent you.
4) You are someone who cares about the writer/agent relationship and not an egocentric writer only concern with yourself.

At the end of your letter, after the bio, list anything you have enclosed or attached. Follow the agent’s submission guidelines to the letter and do not include more or less then requested unless you have met the agent personally and she asked you to send additional pages or synopsis. Submission guidelines are generally found on the agency’s website. Don’t try to impress the agent with your creativity by varying from the agent’s guidelines. This only tells the agent you’re a writer who is not going to pay attention and can’t follow direction. Always remember, in addition to good writers, agents want to work with professionals.

End your query with a line thanking the agent for considering your work. E.g., “Thank you for your consideration of Susan’s Strange Summer.”

Learn from those who have succeeded. The shows you more than forty successful query letters and comments by agents on why they worked. Check it out at:,category,Successful%20Queries.aspx

The “cook,” your mini-biography

Present yourself as a career writer

Hopefully, you are following the industry standard format for query letters, often known as “the hook, the book, and the cook.” You’ve started with a great “hook” to capture an agent’s attention. Then you’ve summarized your “book” in two or three paragraphs. Now, tell them about you – the “cook” – in the biography (bio) paragraph.

Don’t be nervous. It’s only a couple of lines, and you don’t need an MFA or to be published to have a writer’s bio. The purpose of the bio is show agents you are a professional who’s serious about a career as an author – that’s all.

Education and experience demonstrate your commitment to writing, so include:

Publishing credits. Nonfiction counts, so do trade journals. If you were paid for it, it shows you’re a professional writer.

Work experience related to writing. E.g., editor of your company newsletter, newspaper reporter, columnist for the local paper, your regular blog.

Education. Include it if you have an MFA, certificate in writing, or a degree in English, communications, or journalism.

Writing awards, residencies. Preferably these are related to fiction, rather than nonfiction. Even better if you won them for an excerpt from the novel you are querying the agent about.

What if you have no previous writing experience or credits?
Remember, the purpose of the bio is to show an agent you are serious about a career as an author. I’ve heard agents say many times that the only reason they want to know something about the writer is to weed out the crazies (I am referring to the slang definition: an unpredictable, nonconforming person; oddball). If an agent is going to invest significant time in developing your career, he or she wants to know you’re a professional who's serious about your craft and willing to promote your book at school visits, author signings, etc. Agents are looking for a long-term relationship with a career author, not a one-book wonder.

Tell them you’re serious about your writing by mentioning:

Writing classes. E.g. “For the last five years I’ve attended writing workshops at The New School in New York City.”

Critique groups. E.g., “I am a long-standing member of a critique group focused on middle-grade novels.”

How long you’ve been writing. Five, ten, fifteen years; this speaks to your commitment to make this your career.

The number of novels you have written. It doesn’t matter if they are unpublished; again, it speaks to your diligence to make it as a writer.

When the “cook” becomes the “hook”
If you recently received your MFA from a prestigious college, or your manuscript (or excerpt from it) won a significant award, you might want to start your query letter talking about that. These are the kind of achievements that get an agent salivating, because you’ve established yourself as a professional writer right up front. The agent has to read on.

Here’s my bio from a recent query letter:

I am a graduate of the UCLA Writers Program in Creative Writing. As a marketing/communications writer and editor for eighteen years, I have produced nonfiction articles for numerous corporate and trade publications. I recently launched a marketing services business and blog ( to inspire and empower writers on their journey to publication.

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