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Nothing stinks like a pile of unpublished writing.

-Sylvia Plath

I have been an editorial intern for several months now, and it’s been wonderful introduction into publishing. From my little corner of the publishing world, I’ve been learning and absorbing as much as I can. I’ll be posting some of my musings about my editorial internship experience and also offer writers some thoughts to consider when it comes to their manuscript submissions.

The subject I want to discuss in this post is query letters. There are plenty of how-to’s out there about writing query letters, so my aim is not to repeat that information. After reading hundreds of query letters, I am still stunned at the various states they come in. It’s safe to say that a query letter won’t be the sole cause for rejection, as it’s also safe to say that a well-written query letter is not a guarantee for publication. At best, a query letter can get your manuscript through the proverbial publishing door.  At worst, it can set your book manuscript up for rejection.

If you take away anything from my humble editorial intern advice, it would be to keep your query letters brief. At the literary agency we ask for a synopsis and the first three chapters of the your manuscript right from the start, so I want to get to the actual manuscript as soon as possible rather than slog through pages of a query letter.

First of all, you don’t need an in-depth treatment of your manuscript in your query letters. That is what a synopsis is for. You should present your book as a kind of introduction, an invitation to read, so to speak. Tell us a little about it, but no more than a paragraph. This actually forces you to write very concisely and with restraint. As an admirer (and writer) of the short story  form, I have to say that some wonderful, creative prose can come from writing with restraint. Again, think no more than a paragraph to introduce your story in your query letters. Make it compelling by drawing us into the story in that one paragraph, so we will be interested in reading more. Think of it as a kind of elevator pitch. If you haven’t already heard of it, an elevator pitch is based on having only 60 seconds or so to convey (in an elevator) who you are, what your product or service is, or what your company does. You’ve basically got 60 seconds to sum up your book manuscript and why it should be published. That’s about as much time editorial interns or readers will want to devote in reading this paragraph.

An effective elevator pitch is designed to give the audience just enough information that they will have a sense of what you are talking about and want to know more. Second, and just as importantly, it is designed to not give [the audience] so much information so that they feel overwhelmed (and tune you out). Think drinking fountain, not fire hose.

Chris O’Leary

The next, brief paragraph in your query letters should then be about you, emphasis on brief, because in the end it’s really not about you; it’s about your book manuscript. So forgo the long dissertation about your life or why you became a writer. But you can certainly talk about yourself as a writer, about your writing experience and education, and especially if you’re writing nonfiction, convey how your experience informs on (is relative to) your book’s subject matter.

I have also noticed, in a few query letters, writers trying to be clever. Some are so clever that it makes us at the literary agency laugh or take notice, or talk about, or even tweet about it, but just remember, clever will never camouflage a poorly-written story. But there is nothing wrong in trying to distinguish your manuscript submission from others by being creative or clever with your query letter. I read one recently that was “written” by the novel’s central character who had an intriguing voice and an equally interesting take on the story as well as on the author. The meta nature of the query letter was certainly clever, but it would’ve been very easy to push it too far. Plus it doesn’t take much to misinterpret cleverness for crazy. Take, for instance, the writer who wrote in his query letter that he would take no less than a $3,000,000 advance for his manuscript, because it contained vital information that would “save the world.” Clever or crazy? I honestly didn’t want to find out. So keep in mind that this is a professional relationship you are trying to build. While we all love what we’re doing – you love to write and we love to read good writing – publishing is a profession. So along with keeping it brief and creative, keep it professional well.

The last point I want to make is about sending query letters on unfinished manuscripts and stating that you are now looking for a literary agent (a little premature, wouldn’t you say?), or sending in your first draft with a request for editorial feedback. Simply put: don’t do it.  If you have done this, hopefully when you really have an actual book manuscript to submit, you won’t be remembered as that guy. Agents and publishers just don’t have that kind of time. They’re busy looking for or working on book projects that require little or no development work. If you want feedback, there are better ways to get it, such as through a workshop, a writing group, or a freelance editor.

I’d love to hear from writers who have gone through the submission process. How do you approach writing query letters? Are there ways you’ve tried to be creative or clever with your query letters and succeeded? I’d also love to hear from others in publishing about their experiences with reading manuscript submissions and query letters. What do you like to see or not see in query letters?