Ultimate Query Tips (No Really This Time…)

This morning, after a fairly Internet-free weekend, I opened my Google Reader to 1000+ unread items. After “reading” everything on The Huffington Post without actually opening anything, my Reader was boiled down to all the publishing news/blog posts I missed (OK, and some Cute Overload pictures). Since you also follow these agent, editor, and writer blogs (probably way more intently than I do), I don’t have to tell you that we publishing folk love to give advice. Like, a lot of it. Today was no different.

I searched on Twitter and in my Reader for “query tips” and the number of posts featuring those words were so many that there was no way I could link them all here. We all know there are tons of them. So much so that some writers have taken to mocking people who still don’t know the “rules.”

For sanity’s sake, I will focus on the two items I clicked today back-to-back – one from BookEnds and one from Rachelle Gardner. (By the way, both of these blogs are must-reads. Go follow them right now if you aren’t already.) Both posts offer query tips. Both posts are absolutely correct. And both posts should be largely ignored.


Every blog post or tweet offering query tips is useful. I do this on a regular basis via Twitter and offered a few blog posts myself in the past (here and here). However, every post you read about query tips, no matter who writes it, can be boiled down to one sentence: JUST TELL ME WHAT YOUR BOOK IS ABOUT.

Maybe it’s not in all-caps, since we’re all professionals here, but that is basically the sentiment. All agents ever want are a few succinct sentences that give a plot overview and an interesting character detail. No need to over-share or be overly coy. Just give us something that won’t make us ask any question other than “what happens next?”

The reason agents sometimes need to write posts detailing the more specific “don’ts” of querying are because sometimes writers need to be reminded that the story is 99% of what matters. We do not write them so you can analyze each one individually and obsess over whether you’ve committed that particular crime. We want you to stay sane! We just want to let you know when we keep seeing the same mistakes and try to prevent them.

Remember the one and only real query rule, which is presenting your book in an effective and direct way. Agents will always have different preferences when it comes to the “other stuff” in queries (grammar, personal info, novel comparisons, etc.), so take what we have to say and put it through your individual filter. If it doesn’t apply to you, move on. If it does, then take it under consideration. Note I said “largely” ignore us, but don’t discount us completely. We never open a query thinking “I can’t wait to reject this.” And if it becomes too hard to see why we shouldn’t, then we’ll write a blog post for you.

7 thoughts on “Ultimate Query Tips (No Really This Time…)

  1. That is good advice. I think many of the unsuccessful queries are probably from people who aren't reading these blogs or possibly not reading the guidelines for each agent. My friend works for a publishing house in customer service and she occasionally gets calls at the 1-800 number where people are essentially pitching their book idea. Some people have no idea at all. I don't say that to bash, but just that even the most basic homework to the industry can help a lot. Although, I'm still slightly terrified to query (not there yet).


  2. @Melanie – I think a lot of agents can have that mentality not because they want to reject something, but because of the need to limit their reading list. I'm also guilty of rejecting a query (w/out a writing sample) because of too much frivolity. If we can't tell right away if we want to read it, many of us simply don't have the time to search for it.

    @Anonymous – In a query, telling is preferred! It's quicker. Show through the writing.


  3. Thanks so much for this, Sarah. I think we writers often get so wrapped up in tiny details, we forget that the point of a query is just tell about the story and to generate more interest! This goes right to the heart of things. 🙂


  4. As a newbie writer, soon to begin querying, the simplicity of this advice is beautiful. I'm also encouraged to know rejection isn't foremost in mind when those queries are opened.


  5. I like that you state that you never open a query thinking “I can't wait to reject this”. I just finished reading a post on another literary agent's blog where she indicated that agents are so busy that they are just looking for a reason to reject it.

    It was incredibly discouraging.

    Thanks for brightening my day.


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