Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Query Letters

There is a lot of skepticism, fear, uncertainty, and ignorance about query letters and the query letter process. There is just as much effort from agents and editors to show writers what query letters SHOULD be. One angle of looking at them that I've never seen: a query letter is a business communication.

Before I go any further, let me stop here and say that I see no problem whatsoever with the query letter system or query letters in general. In fact, I think they're great.

In every job I've applied for or gotten, I've sent a cover letter. And, when I was the hiring manager, I read hundreds of them from prospective applicants. I remember getting over 100 resumes and accompanying cover letters for a junior tech writing position, and out of those, perhaps five applicants had acceptable resumes and cover letters. As far as I can tell from what agents say on blogs, this is about the same with query letters for novels, except perhaps even fewer than 5/150 are acceptable. Resume cover letters aren't terribly different from query letters: they have to represent you and your skills, they must stand out in a good way, and they must entice the reader to ask for more (an interview or a manuscript). A cover letter is standard practice, and yet I have never once seen anyone complain about them. In the technical writing industry, your cover letter should demonstrate your writing skills just as a query letter does. Personalizing cover letters makes the hiring manager take notice, as it does with agents and editors reading query letters.

It's not easy writing cover or query letters, golly no. They're hard work. They are why designing business cards is super hard too: cramming succinct information in a small amount of space is a challenge, and it's not for everyone. That's why there are so many crappy cover letters out there, and why so many people get query letters wrong. That being said, query letters, like cover letters, are not only an initial inquiry. They're a demonstration of your ability to complete an assignment,* and a demonstration of your professionalism.

* Some readers will recognize this gem from my dad, who uses that statement to describe why completing school and getting a degree is so important: it shows people (employers, really) that you have demonstrated the ability to complete an assignment.

Now, agents and editors do want to see some specifics in a query letter. I see those specifics this way:

What the story is about
They want to hear what the plot is, what the climactic point is, what's at stake, and what the potential resolution is. If your story is weak on any of those points, you will have trouble crafting the language around those points. (Query letters are good practice for discovering early on if your story has weak points for this reason.) I know this because my first query letter attempts showed a novel weak on those points.

Your credentials
Are you professional? Have you published before? If not, keep it clear and simple. Don't moan. One cover letter I read once said "I know your company is an equal opportunity employer so you won't mind the fact that I'm wheelchair bound and can't move my upper arms." You're right, the company didn't mind it. What we minded was that it was too much information, and it contained a veiled threat of discrimination on the company's part. Don't be snarky or self-defeating or give too much information in this section. And don't be cocky, either. In one cover letter I got for a tech writer position, the person gave us a "free evaluation" of our web site and pointed several "errors." Too bad I was the one who managed the web site. As well, there were a ton of liars who said "I once took a journalism class and love to write, therefore tech writing should be a snap for me." Um, right. Likewise with query letters-- you don't want to say "Hi, yes, I write some awesome graffiti and have only been caught once, and I love to write so this book should be a bestseller."

Why you are contacting them
Same as cover letters for a job, no one wants to be blind cc'd and no one wants their name spelled wrong. I loved the cover letters I got for a tech writer position that called my company a different name, or obviously had no clue what the company did because they hadn't taken the time to Google it. Likewise, when I got my current gig, I Googled the company, read a few press releases from them, and then referenced those in my cover letter. In fact I even said something like "I read that the company plans to build X amount of X by the end of the year, based on a recent interview with your CEO in X magazine. I am excited about working for a company like that." (Or some such arse-lickey language, but the reference was there.) Do some research and be respectful.

That's it! It really is!
(Full disclosure: I have had to sweat over my own query letter just as much as everyone else. It's hard to write one. Doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.)


CKHB said...

I agree with absolutely everything you just said!

FictionGroupie said...

Great post. Although I do have to admit that when I was a management recruiter, I rarely read the cover letter. I looked at the resume first. If that passed muster, then I may give the cover letter a pass. Same goes with letters of recommendation. No one submits bad ones so they're almost pointless.

Hmm, I never realized how agent-like I was as a recruiter. Each person's resume had about thirty seconds to catch my attention.

Sierra Godfrey said...

See, neither did I! It changes it a lot when you look at it that way!

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