A query letter is a formal letter sent to magazine editors, literary agents, or publishing companies. It is an author’s first step in pursuing publication, and eventually, publicity. At its core, a query letter is the first pitch you’ll ever write for your book or article as you send it to editors, hoping to pique their interest.
At the heart of a query letter is the synopsis. No matter whether you query editors, agents, and publishing houses or not, you need to be able to describe your article or book in a quick, concise, and interesting manner. This is your elevator pitch, the fast and intriguing explanation that hooks whoever you’re pitching to. It can also be used as cover copy, for an Amazon description, on social media and various advertisements – anywhere, because it’s your starting point.
Begin by answering the questions, “What is your book or article about?” and “Why should this editor read it?”
You must know who your target audience is and tailor your synopsis to them. Having a specific idea of your audience will help you determine what publishing houses or outlets to pitch and which editors at those outlets will be most interested.
Once you’ve narrowed down your audience and the editors, agents, or journalists you’ll pitch, you can focus on personalizing your query. Vary your synopsis and descriptions to match the editors’ and journalists’ interests. Be aware of what your audience is looking for and make it easy for them to find it in your synopsis.
But, of course, summing your book up can be more daunting than writing the book itself. How do you condense hundreds of pages or the full article you’ve labored over into one or two short paragraphs?
Being able to rewrite entire stories in just a few sentences or paragraphs is a difficult skill to master. Summary length varies depending on who you are writing to—and you should always check for specifications on your target’s website—but the general recommendation is 250 words in the query letter itself or 500-1000 words in a separate, attached document.
Your synopsis should begin with the important factors of the story: who are the main characters and what is their situation? Basically, who is the story about and why should the audience be drawn to them? Then, move into the inciting incident and the conflicts the characters must solve by the end of the story. Don’t give away spoilers or the ending, unless that is a huge draw and necessary to explain or to hook the reader.
Don’t be afraid to write multiple synopses! Start with one long draft, and save multiple versions of it based on all the different angles and characters your target audiences will be interested in. Once you have a one-page draft of 1000 words single-spaced, whittle it down to 500 words and again to 250. Then pare it down even more to bite-sized, social media-ready summaries of 150 words, 180 characters, etc.
Preparing this many summaries will not only help you write your query letter but will give you a head start on other forms of pitches for other journalists and publicity opportunities. Tightening your synopsis as far as ten words or less is a trick to help you come up with headings and opening paragraphs as well.
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