How to Format a Query

A few days ago, I published a thread on Twitter that really seemed to resonate with querying writers.

Everywhere you look these days, people are complaining about querying. They’re saying that they’re getting no responses back from their queries at all, or they’re getting form rejections on full manuscript requests. They’re getting horrible request rates and they’re giving up on querying entirely.

However, I’ve looked at a lot of queries and, often, querying writers shoot themselves in the foot before they even get a chance with an agent, by either not formatting their query appropriately or by just writing a plain ol’ bad query.

In my thread, I break down how you need to format a query to make reading, and relating to your story, easier for agents. However, since I know a lot of us (me included!) struggle to follow formatting advice without an example, I decided to recap my thread here, plus add in the actual query letter I sent my agent when I was querying.

How to Write Your Query Letter

First up, include your meta data. At the top or at the bottom! (I prefer top, so the agent knows what to expect, right away.) It should have your title, (CORRECT) genre, age group, word count and comps. The comps should be recent, recognizable, and multiple. Better yet, get specific about why you’re using the comps you are. Don’t just say “My book is similar to The Night Circus.” Tell us that you have a cast of strong female characters like in Comp 1, a tantalizing mystery like Comp 2, and a sexy love story like Comp 3.

Then get into the meat of your query, about your plot. This bit should be 3 paragraphs (there was some question about whether or not this was too long; do note that these should be SHORT paragraphs, a few sentences each). Paragraph 1 should describe your MC’s opening world/situation. But make it interesting! What do they hate? Love? Set things up so you can blow it apart with the inciting incident!

Paragraph 2 should show the inciting incident. What happens and why do we care? How does it rock your MC’s world? What do they do about it? Paragraph 3 should show how things get even HARDER, and then end in the stakes. The stakes are the hardest bit for me.

But the stakes need to be good. What does your MC stand to lose at the end of this journey you’ve set them on? Do they need to make a difficult choice in order to survive? Make those stakes more specific than just “they’ll be miserable.” Make them MEANINGFUL.

Then, wrap everything up with a brief paragraph on yourself. Give credentials. Brag about yourself. Don’t have anything to brag about? Yes, you do. There are multiple things that make you awesome. Find ’em and sell ’em.

And that’s it! That is how you format a query letter that should get you at least one step further in your querying process. You do have to write the above WELL and have a hook that grabs the agent, but this is the general format that you NEED from the start.

An Example of a Successful Query Letter

This was the query letter that I used when querying from June 2021 to October 2021. WITCHCRAFT AND WHISKEY is my second book queried and the stats are as follows:

  • 45 queries sent
  • 23 rejections
  • 8 full requests
  • 3 offers of rep

You can find more about my querying journey here, but here’s the actual query letter used (do note that I flip-flopped between putting my meta data at the top or bottom, but top was what worked for me in the end).

Dear Laura,

Witchcraft & Whiskey is a 115,000-word, adult, historical fantasy novel. The female-driven plot features gang family dynamics similar to Peaky Blinders, but with a magical backdrop similar to Once and Future Witches. It also looks at the darker side of religion, in the vein of The Poisonwood Bible. Lastly, the manuscript draws on my personal experiences in rural Kentucky, where I grew up as a member of a similar religious community as the one featured in the manuscript.

In 1920s Jabez, Kentucky, you’re either for the Lord or for the Devil. Joy had always assumed she was on the side of the former — that is, until her cult-like congregation’s preacher killed her twin sister to hide their illegitimate child. Her world shattered, Joy’s entire existence becomes wrapped in avenging her sister by ensuring Preacher Man Adder meets the painful death he deserves.

When her long-time beau James and the preacher announce plans to win the sinner side of Jabez to the Lord by driving out the town’s primary spiritual threat — the bootlegging Lemar family, who own half the town and are rumored to be murderers and witches — Joy volunteers to act as their spy. Working in the Lemars’ general store and using the opportunity to get close to the dangerous family, she thinks she’ll convince them to kill Preacher Man Adder on her behalf, either by brute force or witchcraft.

But the closer Joy gets to the Lemar family, the more her preconceptions are challenged. The Lemar matriarch’s magic seems harmless, even helpful. Joy develops fast friendships with the Lemar siblings and romance blooms with the eldest brother. Meanwhile, James’s conversion tactics become increasingly violent and then murderous. As Joy taps into her own witchy magic under the matriarch’s tutelage, her quest for vengeance evolves into a choice: family and faith, or freedom and her newfound powers. Both mean losing people she loves.

I earned my B.A. in 2014 from the University of Kentucky with an emphasis on English literature and creative writing and am currently a freelance journalist and content marketer. My work has appeared in such places as Forbes, Bloomberg, and AccuWeather, while my content marketing experience includes work with household names such as Kraft and Hotels.com. I was an Author Mentor Match Round 8 mentee, with Witchcraft & Whiskey as my focus.

Thanks in advance,

Holly Riddle

And That’s It!

That query letter led to an offer of rep from my current agent within about two months of sending the initial query.

Now, I KNOW that querying is in a different state right now than it was in 2021. Response times are slower. Editors quitting means fewer opportunities to sell books, which means agents are taking fewer clients (at least, that’s what I’ve heard). But this makes it all the more crucial that you present your book correctly using a properly formatted and structured query letter.

Questions? Let me know! Drop me a line on Twitter, here.

Holly Riddle is a freelance travel, lifestyle and food journalist and marketing content writer who dabbles in fiction. She can be reached at holly.ridd@gmail.com. Her website is hollyriddle.org and her Twitter handle is @TheHollyRiddle.

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Holly Riddle

Holly Riddle

Content creator, full-time freelancer. Passionate about non-traditional careers. Published thousands of articles for hundreds of clients.