February 23, 2011

Editing Query Letters: a Necessary Skill?

A few years ago, my editing partner and I were negotiating a cost estimate to work on an author’s manuscript, and we got to sort of an impasse; the writer was hemming and hawing about the amount the editing would cost him, and we just wanted to land the project. What could we do, we wondered, short of lowering our already then-low price?

During our conversation, we had found out that the author’s intentions included, post-editing, plans to pitch the manuscript to agents and publishers. It was then that my partner and I realized: why not offer to edit his query letter, gratis, if he hired us? What’s one page, right?

We did get the project, and we did edit the letter, after some time spent scrambling to learn exactly what should be included in it. We knew it was akin to a resume cover letter: catchy and brief; one page only. But beyond that, we weren’t sure.

We found Michael Larsen’s How to Write a Book Proposal helpful to some degree; Larsen covers much more than query letters, but it’s a good overview on the entire proposal/pitch process. There are several other books on the market directed only at the art of writing query letters.

There are some great online resources too, such as the website agentquery.com and the blog queryshark.blogspot.com. There are many others, but these two have been invaluable; as both my partner and I have edited several query letters (and book proposals) since.

Many of these sources give strict advice along with examples of sterling query letters (and even databases of agents that you can refer your writer-clients to). Most advice is, of course, geared toward writers—but if you’re going to edit a query letter—and chances are you will—you’ll need to learn about what makes one sparkle, and what the no-nos are.

Not sure what a query letter is yourself?

Agentquery.com instructs: “A query letter is meant to elicit an invitation to send sample chapters or even the whole manuscript to the agent.

“[It] has three concise paragraphs: the hook, the mini-synopsis, and your writer’s biography. Don’t stray from this format. You won’t catch an agent’s attention by inventing a creative new query format. You’ll just alienate your chances of being taken seriously as a professional writer.”

Clearly, as a professional offering my services on such letters, it would be a critical mistake not to know standard protocol.

I now actually quite enjoy editing these letters, particularly if I’ve already read the manuscript, since by then I know what’s special or at least interesting about the work.

And I do think it’s a good skill to have in your editor’s toolbox: the more tools, the more you can offer clients. And yes, I do still sometimes offer this service as a bonus to a balky author—and I do find that they do very much appreciate the gesture.


  1. Yes, definitely a skill to write and edit these, and I'm glad to see this topic up for comment.

    I'd also recommend Nathan Bransford's blog (http://blog.nathanbransford.com). He's no longer an agent, but his blog archives contain lots of instructive query critiques.

  2. One writer I met told me he'd be far more likely to pay an editor for help with a query letter (or synopsis!) than for help editing her novel. She felt she had the tools to keep working on the novel, but the query letter was more stressful and less fun. So I think this could be a good tool for editors working in fiction. I've also heard some writing coaches work with authors on nonfiction book proposals, as well.

    Kara, do you know how much time you expect to spend on a one-page query letter? If it's like a resume, I'd expect it to take a lot more time than "one page" would suggest.

  3. Kyra,
    I've spent anywhere from 15-20 minutes total to an hour over a couple of passes. Kind of depends on how good a grasp the writer had on how to sell his/her story and how polished it was. For many writers, it may be a case of it's often harder to write short than long. They often want to tell so much about the work and themselves.

  4. What a good idea you had, offering to edit the author's query letter for free! I will remember this the next time I'm in a similar situation (it happens too often).

    Thanks, too, for sharing the links and book you find useful for editing query letters.