Wendy Burt-Thomas: The Importance of Query Letters

Wendy Burt-Thomas

Wendy Burt-Thomas has more than 1,000 published pieces to her credit, including articles, short stories, essays, reviews, poems and greeting cards. She has worked as an editor, columnist, staff writer, copywriter, freelance writer, writing teacher and public relations specialist.

Her first two books, “Oh, Solo Mia! The Hip Chick’s Guide to Fun for One” and “Work It, Girl! 101 Tips for the Hip Working Chick,” were written for McGraw-Hill with co-author Erin Kindberg.

Her newest book, “The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters” (January 2009, Writer’s Digest Books), includes topics that Burt-Thomas taught in her class, “Breaking Into Freelance Writing” for eight years. She lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado and is a successful full-time freelance writer, editor and PR consultant. Yep, she makes a living as a writer!

1. Q: Can you tell us about your book?

The book was a great fit for me because I’d been teaching “Breaking Into Freelance Writing” for about eight years. In the workshop, I covered a lot of what is in this book: writing query letters to get articles in magazines, to land an agent, or to get a book deal with a publisher. Since I’m a full-time freelance magazine writer and editor with two previous books, this was incredibly fun to write because it didn’t require tons of research. I was lucky enough to receive lots of great sample query letters from writers and authors that I use as “good” examples in the book. I wrote all the “bad” examples myself because I didn’t dare ask for contributions that I knew I’d be ripping apart!

In addition to the ins and outs of what makes a good query, the book covers things like why (or why not) to get an agent, where to find one and how to choose one; writing a synopsis or proposal; selling different rights to your work; other forms of correspondence; and what editors and agents look for in new writers.

It was really important to me that the book not be a dry, boring reference book, but rather an entertaining read (while still being chock full of information). I was thrilled that Writer’s Digest let me keep all the humor.

2. Q: Why are query letters so important?

Breaking into the publishing world is hard enough right now. Unless you have a serious “in” of some kind, you really need a great query letter to impress an agent or acquisitions editor. Essentially, your query letter is your first impression. If they like your idea (and voice and writing style and background), they’ll either request a proposal, sample chapters, or the entire manuscript. If they don’t like your query letter, you’ve got to pitch it to another agency/publisher. Unlike a manuscript, which can be edited or reworked if an editor thinks it has promise, you only get one shot with your query. Make it count!

I see a lot of authors who spend months (or years) finishing their book, only to rush through the process of crafting a good, solid query letter. What a waste! If agents/editors turn you down based on a bad query letter, you’ve blown your chance of getting them to read your manuscript. It could be the next bestseller, but they’ll never see it. My advice is to put as much effort into your query as you did your book. If it’s not fabulous, don’t send it until it is.

3. Q: You’re also a magazine editor. What is your biggest gripe regarding queries?

Queries that show that the writer obviously hasn’t read our publication. I’ll admit that I did this when I was a new writer too – submitted blindly to any publication whose name sounded even remotely related to my topic. One of the examples I use was when I submitted a parenting article to a magazine for senior citizens. Oops! A well-written query pitching an article that’s not a match for the magazine isn’t going to get you any further than a poorly written query.

4. Q: There’s an entire chapter in the book about agents. Do you think all new writers should get agents?

Probably 99% of new writers should get an agent. There are lots of reasons, but my top three are: 1) Many of the larger publishing houses won’t even look at unagented submissions now; 2) Agents can negotiate better rights and more money on your behalf; 3) Agents know the industry trends, changes and staff better than you ever could.

5. Q: You’ve been a mentor, coach or editor for many writers. What do you think is the most common reason that good writers don’t get published?

Poor marketing skills. I see so many writers that are either too afraid, too uniformed, or frankly, too lazy, to market their work. They think their job is done when the write “the end” but writing is only half of the process. I’ve always told people who took my class that there are tons of great writers in the world who will never get published. I’d rather be a good writer who eats lobster than a great writer who eats hot dogs. I make a living as a writer because I spend as much time marketing as I do writing.

6. Q: What are some of the biggest misconceptions that writers have about getting a book deal?

That they’ll be rich overnight, that they don’t need to promote their book once it’s published, that publishing houses will send them on world book tours, that people will recognize them at the airport. Still, you can make great money as an author if you’re prepared to put in the effort. If it wasn’t possible, there wouldn’t be so many full-time writers.

7. Q: What must-read books do you recommend to new writers?

Christina Katz (author of “Writer Mama”) has a new book out called “Get Known Before the Book Deal” – which is fabulous. Also, Stephen King’s “On Writing” and David Morrel’s “Lessons from a Lifetime of Writing.” Anything by Anne Lamott or my Dad, Steve Burt.

8. Q: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned as a full-time writer?

Seize every opportunity – especially when you first start writing. I remember telling someone about a really high-paying writing gig I got and he said, “Wow. You have the best luck!” I thought, “Luck has nothing to do with it! I’ve worked hard to get where I am.” Later that week I read this great quote: “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” It’s absolutely true. And writing queries is only about luck in this sense. If you’re prepared with a good query and/or manuscript, when the opportunity comes along you’ll be successful.

9. What did you enjoy most about writing this book?

Writing the “bad” query letters. I’ve read – and written! – so many horrible ones over the years that it was a little too easy to craft them. But misery loves company and we ALL love to read really bad query letters, right?

10. Q: What do you want readers to learn from your book?

I want them to understand that while writing a good query letter is important, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You can break it down into parts, learn from any first-round rejections, and read other good queries to help understand what works. I also want them to remember that writing is fun. Sometimes new writers get so caught up in the procedures that they lose their original voice in a query. Don’t bury your style under formalities and to-the-letter formatting.

You can learn more about Wendy and her work at www.guidetoqueryletters.com/

26 replies
  1. christinakatz
    christinakatz says:

    Hey! Can I get credit for referring Wendy. (See first comment, “Where do you get such cool guests?” Ahem. 😉

  2. Robin Burcell
    Robin Burcell says:

    Where were you back in the early nineties, when I was muddling through my first queries?

    Thanks for a great blog. Since I’m interested in adding freelance articles to my writing, I will definitely check it out!

  3. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    So, the above paragraph is about the synopsis. Give away the ending in the synopsis.

    A query, however, is more of a tease. You don’t tell the ending. You’re enticing the editor/agent to request the entire proposal or manuscript. As Joyce and I were writing about earlier, I do think it’s a good idea to write a query hook (opening) more like the back cover of a book.

    And thanks for buying my book, Barb!

  4. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    Hi Barb,
    I’m going to type in a paragraph straight from the book: (p. 132)

    “Unlike the summarizing ‘pitch’ paragraph in your novel query letter, a synopsis does more than tease; it tells the entire story of your book. Your synopsis will explain your entire novel from cover to cover – INCLUDING THE ENDING. You’ll be describing characters, settings, major events, and plot twists, narrating the developments from start to finish.”

  5. BarbEarly
    BarbEarly says:

    The “Guide to Query Letters” book was already sitting on my couch when I checked this blog today. I’ve admittedly only skimmed through portions, since I’m not at the query stage yet. (I definitely plan on reading it through before I write one.) I did enjoy the examples, but it let to a question.

    How much of the plot do you give away when writing an agent query for a mystery? I’ve seen suggestions that it be like the back cover of a book. But I’ve also heard that you should give the plot including the ending, culprit, motive, etc.

    Any help for a slightly confused wannabe?

  6. Lee Lofland
    Lee Lofland says:

    I did Pike Peak last year. It’s a wonderful conference. The people are fantastic, too.

    Nathan and I were both presenters at the East of Eden conference last year in Salinas, Ca. We had a chance to chat for a little while. He’s a really nice guy.

  7. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    By the way SZ, thanks for the nice comment in the first post!

    Lee – just saw that Nathan and I are both presenters at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference in April. I emailed him a note to tell him I was on your blog today and that we’ll have to meet up at the conference. Small writing world!

  8. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    Regarding landing bigger assignments, here are a few pieces of advice:

    1) Pitch to trade magazine.There’s a lot less competition and many of them pay really well. I sent an article about getting free PR to “Pizza Today” (magazine for people who own pizza shops) and got $500 for 1,000 words. Then, the editor asked me if I wanted to write another piece for him about juices! What do I know about juices? That they taste good. That’s it. So I accepted, did some research, interviewed a couple people and made another $500 for 1,000 words. Your turn!

    2) Get freelancedaily.net Suzanne Franco sends this list of writing gigs out every weekday and it’s like $30/year. There’s everything from writing and editing to copywriting and translation. I don’t make a commission – just highly recommend it. A lot of it is from Craigslist.org, but for less than $1/week, it’s worth my time to have someone else doing the collecting.

    3) If you don’t already know, learn about rights. I explain the different types of rights in my book, but here’s the short version: If you sell reprint or one-time rights, you can sell the same article over and over again to noncompetitive markets. I’ve sold the same article to 14 or 15 different publications. It works especially well with regional parenting publications, regional senior mags, regional sports mags, etc. because there are hundreds in the U.S. and they don’t care who else uses them outside their city. So I can write one parenting article and sell it to Houston Parent, Newark Parent, Kansas City Parent, etc. It’s virtually no extra work on your part and you can just as easily get twenty $50 checks to add up to $1,000 as you can writing four $250 articles for larger publications.

  9. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    I feel very strongly about NOT writing for free unless it’s to promote a product (like my book in the byline) or business/service (like if you uncle says he’ll change your tire if you write a profile on his auto shop).

    FYI, my book covers queries for magazines, agent and book deals, plus how to write a synopsis for a variety for genres (romance vs. mystery vs. kid’s book vs. speculative fiction). There’s also a section on other letters (cover letters, turning down an assignment, begging for money…)

    Regarding getting faster with queries, I’ve learned to streamline them. I basically copy the document and just remove the first couple paragraphs, leaving the “about me” section, contact info, closing, etc. If you really want to speed things up, try completing an article first. I’ve had great success writing an article, then either sending it with a cover letter, or if a query is required, just opening the query with the opening of my article. (I’ve got an example of this in the book. Check out the piece on pumpkins.)

    more in a bit…

  10. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    I’m an author, not a book consultant (although I do some editing), but for some reason I’m good at boiling down an entire book into a paragraph.

    I’m lousy at those elevator pitches, though. I just hang out with Lee at conferences and let him do them for me. 🙂

  11. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    And to answer your question about getting their voice down in only a few sentences:

    1. Practice your LOGLINE. This is typically 12 words or less used to describe your book. Read a movie listing in TV Guide for examples. (TV shows work too, but they’re usually describing episodes, not summarizing the show.)

    2. Practice your ELEVATOR SPEECH. A bit longer than a logline, your elevator speech should be a few sentences that you could pitch to an agent/editor if you ran into them in a restaurant. Many writers’ conferences offer 3-minute sessions in which a writer can sit down one on one with an agent/editor and pitch their book idea. It’ll help you with your query and it’s good to have it memorized in case you ever DO run into an agent/editor.

    3. Open with a strong paragraph from your book/article. It doesn’t have to be the very first paragraph of your book/article – but it should be one that showcases your writing style and gets your summary across. I do this a lot with magazine queries.

  12. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    You must be a book consultant! Thrilled to hear that we offer the same advice. Like you, I often advise writers to write the pitch like the back cover of the book. And I completely agree about using the same voice in your query as your book.

    This actually reminds me of a recent debate on Nathan Bransford’s blog. He’s an agent that has quite a following on the Web. Someone asked if they thought it was ok to hire someone to write their query letter. My thought is ‘no’ because it could be a bait and switch for the agent/editor. You need the same voice in the query to accurately portray your book. Of course, this sparked quite a debate and one guy said that I wasn’t exactly impartial because I had a new book on query letters. : )

    What does everyone else think? Would you hire someone to write your query?

  13. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    My book has a great collection of good queries that landed book deal, agents and magazine assignments. It also has a collection of bad queries – with notes throughout explaining why they’re bad. As Joyce said, some are just too dry/boring, others are presumptive (“You’re gonna love this book!”) and others are outright funny (“My mom loves my book” or “Let’s talk TV rights.”) While the bad ones are fun to read, I think it’s the collection of REAL queries that makes the book unique. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find queries on the Web that landed actual book deals??

    Anyway, the general rule is to stick to one page for a query. The max is two, but never more. And I don’t think it’s possible to go a lot LESS than a page (like half a page) and still include all the necessary info (summary of book, platform, why you chose that agent/publishing house, contact info, etc.) If it’s only a paragraph or two, it’s more of a cover letter (in which case the manuscript is included), not a query letter.

  14. SZ
    SZ says:

    Thanks Wendy. So leave all the loser info out huh ?

    Just an after thought, how short is too short, how long is too long ? I have never read a “bad” query till recently when it was pointed out and corrected. (on Workingstiffs I believe)

    Joyce and Lee, the dinosaur is going down ! I tried Workingstiffs and it is working for first time in a week. I am on firefox. This is indeed an old computer. Time to dig in to that tiny laptop, step up to the 19th century!

  15. Joyce Tremel
    Joyce Tremel says:

    Wendy, this is all great advice.

    Many writers underestimate the importance of the “pitch” paragraph, which I think either makes or breaks the query letter. I’ve critiqued some queries where the pitches just don’t work. They’re either way too dry and matter of fact, or too over the top. I usually tell them to try and write the pitch like what you’d want on the back cover of the book, and most importantly, use the same voice they used in the book. Can you give some advice to writers who have trouble getting their voice across in only a few sentences?

  16. askWendy
    askWendy says:

    Although a query letter to an agent is very similar to what is sent to an editor at a publishing house, you do want to tailor it to a specific agent.

    This could mean mentioning other books that she has represented that you enjoyed or that are similar to yours (“Since you represent chick-lit mysteries….”) Anything you can do to explain WHY you chose them as an agent (“You’re my 15th choice. Everyone else said no” might be best kept to yourself.) will help you stand out among the slush pile of “Dear Agent, please represent me” queries.

    The remaining two-thirds or so (what your book is about, your credentials, your platform) will probably the same as what your agent will send to the publishing house on your behalf.

  17. SZ
    SZ says:

    Lee where on earth do you find these fabulous people ? !

    Good morning Wendy,

    Thank you for your time. On the agent information, seems that is the best route to take. How would an aspiring writer get one ? Is that a different type of “query” letter ?

    Congratulations on such an obviously fantastic career you have going for you already. Well done.

    (is it just me dinosaur, or is Workingstiffs site down ?)

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