On the (Real) Purpose of a Query Letter

Apr 26, 2021

By Christine Carron

Like old-school record albums, there are two sides to the writing adventure: the A-side and the B-side. The A-side, the Artistic side, is the work we writers do to craft a story that we hope will gobsmack our readers. Often, the A-side is the juice, the special sauce, the holy-wow-I love-doing-this! energy that keeps us going no matter the slings and arrows that come our way. 

The B-side is the Business side, the part of the adventure where we make a go of earning some money from our writing. Though the B-side often creates angst for writers, it generally doesn’t for me. Not because I’m an angst-free person (yet), but because two decades plus of corporate consulting work gets one super used to interacting in business contexts. On top of that, most of my career was spent in process improvement, which meant a lot of time deconstructing the how and why of business processes in order to make them more effective. Today, I offer you some process improvement know-how to a key B-side writerly process: crafting an agent query letter.

Quick, before you continue reading, answer this question: What’s the purpose of a query letter to an agent?

If your response was something like, duh, Christine, it’s to get me an agent already, then you are expecting your query letter to do more than it is capable of doing. As far as I know, a query letter never got a debut writer an agent all on its own. What the query letter did was get the agent to request a full (or partial) manuscript. People often make a similar expectation error about resumes, believing that a resume will get them a job, when all the resume is supposed to do (and all it can do) is get them an interview.

This kind of expectation error can have serious UUCs, i.e., unpleasant unintended consequences. Let’s examine them in context of you and your query letter:

  • UUC #1: Bloating: If you think your query letter is going to get you an agent all by itself, then you may be trying to cram too much into your query letter. A query letter is a teaser, an appetizer, i.e., enjoy this tasty story morsel. That’s it. You want the agent hungry for more. You will not get the entire story into the query letter, so don’t try to. Morsel that story. 
  • UUC #2: Unnecessary Stress: To fulfill their purpose (which to reiterate is to get you a request for the manuscript), query letters need to be professional and serviceable. Sure they are a particular artform*, but they do not need to be works of art. Last I checked, there was not a National Query Letter Award. So consider making professional and serviceable your new query letter mantra. 
  • UUC #3: Failure Conflation: Let’s be precise again. A query letter’s purpose is to get you the request for a manuscript. The manuscript will get the agent to offer representation, or not. If you don’t make that distinction, and you are getting rejections on your query letter, then it’s easy to start worrying that there’s something wrong with your manuscript. No. No. No. You may need to go to manuscript assessment at some point, but absolutely not first. If no agent is requesting your manuscript, all that you know for sure at that point is that your query letter is not doing its job yet. So resist immediately conflating query letter failure with manuscript failure. Instead consider query-related interventions first, such as revising your query letter or doing deeper research on agents to ensure they are interested in your type of story. Steady on!

The writing adventure requires serious mental and emotional chutzpah, regardless of if you are playing on the A-side or the B-side of the adventure. That said, adding process clarity to necessary B-side tasks like querying can ease the chutzpah burden on the business side of the adventure, making your entire writerly experience easier and less stressful. Sweet!

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* One of the best resources I have found for helping writers create effective query letters is Nathan Bransford’s blog, where he has a plethora of query-writing tips and also offers regular query critiques.


The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week

  1. Have you made this expectation error about your query letter’s purpose?
  2. If yes, have you experienced any of the listed unpleasant unintended consequences?
  3. Experiment with resetting your expectations about your query letter and observe what, if any, are the effects on your querying experience, i.e., your emotional equilibrium during the process. 
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