Query Letter Basics

"This is really hard!" I’m quite certain that’s the most uttered sentence from writers about concocting a good query or cover letter.

They’re absolutely right. It is hard to write a good query letter, especially when you’re starting out. I don’t know anyone who really likes writing queries, and most agree: the process can be confusing and feel very daunting. But adhering to the list of ingredients and following the basic formula can make it that much easier.

These days, most queries to agents will be e-queries. In an e-query, you don’t need to start with your address, the recipient’s name/title/ address, or date as you will in a traditional snail-mail business letter to editors/publishers. For e-queries, simply begin with the greeting.

First paragraph: Some agents and editors like essential basic information in the first paragraph:

  • Title
  • Genre
  • Word count
  • Target audience/age range

Others prefer you to start with why you’ve chosen to submit to them, or to dive straight into the hook and synopsis, and leave these basics until near the end. But note: this basic information must be somewhere in the query.

Do your research, online and through writers’ organizations such as SCBWI, to learn about the agent you’re approaching. Does the agent maintain a blog? Then read it. For example, Agent X may be one those with a rampant distaste for queries beginning with a rhetorical question, especially one they can easily answer in the negative:

Writer: “Have you ever wondered what it’s like to escape from a pickled herring factory?”Agent: “Um. Actually, no.” *Queryfail*

Thorough research will make your process so much easier.


The Synopsis: You need to answer the basic questions:

  • Who is the protagonist?
  • What do they want and why?
  • What is getting in the way and what’s at stake?
  • What does the protagonist do about it?
  • How does the problem escalate?

Common errors:

  • It’s too vague. Be specific. Editors and agents see way too many vague synopses. What makes your plot different from all the others out there? What is specific about these characters that will make us want to hear their story? It’s no use whatsoever telling an agent or editor that:

Betty-Sue goes on an emotional journey of self-discovery and learns what family means to her.

That doesn’t provide any concrete information about the plot or character, except her name, and it’s also:

  • Too didactic-sounding. Agents and editors don’t need you to tell them what the protagonist or audience will learn from this manuscript. The themes of the book should be readily apparent from the synopsis—if it’s written properly.
  • Too much self-appraisal. Good writing is so much about Showing vs. Telling, and you, the writer, have the opportunity to show you can ‘show.’ Don’t tell them your text is whimsical or lyrical—let that come through in the way your synopsis is written. Show them that you can write—and with style.
  • It’s too dry. So often, writers say to me of writing the synopsis: “It doesn’t flow like it does when I’m writing my book. It feels stilted and awkward.” Try to get into your happy place or sad place or use whatever emotional fuel writing your book required. Make it exciting. Make it voicey. Make it sing. Have fun! Your passion and excitement will come through in your synopsis.
  • It gives away the ending. Set up the protagonist, setting, conflict, and what’s at stake, and then leave the reader hanging and desperate for more.
  • Not enough revision. Just like any fine piece of writing, a synopsis needs to be revised multiple times until it is right. I usually work with my clients and students on multiple versions of their query and cover letters before we consider them ready.


Bio Paragraph: What you include here should be as relevant as possible. It can only help to say you are a SCBWI member, if you are. Certainly, if you’ve won awards (as long as they’re not utterly obscure) include that. If you have relevant publishing credits, list them. Your day job may or may not be relevant. For example, if you’re an elementary school teacher or librarian, it is. But don’t try to plump up your bio with irrelevant details or tell them about your dream of being an author (Why else would you be subjecting yourself to this query torture?) And if it’s your first book, don’t be embarrassed to say so. (You’ve written a book. That takes guts and determination and dedication and lots of hard work. What a feat! Good for you! You’re amazing!) But never “argue for your limitations.”

Sign off: Thank the editor or agent for their time; that’s just common courtesy. Do say you look forward to hearing from them—but I recommend you don’t say “soon,” especially if you’re writing to an editor/publisher rather than an agent. It may be soon, but it may be not, and I’ve heard some agents and editors say use of the word “soon” may come across as impatience or a lack of understanding about the industry. And, if you're querying an editor or publisher, don't forget to say whether this is an exclusive or multiple submission.


Email signature: A neat, concise email signature—with your name and contact details and a link to online presence, such as a website or blog—looks professional.


And finally: Proofread it! Check for grammatical and spelling errors. Check for word misuse such as their/they’re/there, sight/site etc. Then have someone else proof it for you. If you have used clipart or fancy stationary (either e-stationary or the paper kind) get rid of it—simple and professional is best. Make sure you have the correct phrase in the email’s subject line. Follow the agent’s directions. And then proofread it again. Remember, this letter is your introduction as a writer, so errors in the query are unlikely to go down well.


The process of concocting a query is not nearly as difficult when you know the right formula. Keep it professional, keep it courteous, and above all, don’t be afraid to send it. An atrophied manuscript is far, far worse than a rejection.

So You Want to Write for Kids: The Least You Need to Know

After years of editing, teaching writing, working with writers, and learning about the industry as a writer/illustrator, I have a created a list of things I believe new children’s book writers need to know. I also asked some published author and illustrator friends to tell me what they wish they’d known when they began. Following is a compilation of the very least you need to know when you’re starting out. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but it will give you a solid foundation as you begin your journey toward publication.

Be prepared

Always carry a notebook or another way to record your ideas. Always. That incredible idea you have at 3 am that you’re certain you’ll remember in the morning? You won’t. Great ideas and inspiration can strike at any time: in the car, in line at the supermarket, while cleaning your bathroom. Be prepared.

Know your audience—know the genre

The genre “children’s books” is divided into the following basic sub-categories based on the age range of the readership:

  • YA—young adult
  • Middle grade—for eight to twelve-year-olds or so
  • Chapter books—divided into chapters, some black and white illustrations, for elementary-age ranges six to nine, seven to ten, and eight to twelve-year-olds.
  • Early readers—for young children learning to read
  • Picture books—fully illustrated, for four to eight-year-olds (sometimes three to seven)
  • Board books—for babies and toddlers, made to be tough so they can withstand everything babies throw at them, including chewing
  • Graphic novels are also increasingly popular and can be for various age groups
  • Non-fiction picture books and other, various ages

If you write a 3000-word picture book or a 120,000-word middle grade novel, expect it to be rejected. Your picture book should be under 1000 words when you submit it; in fact, the industry is tending toward books about half that length or less, currently. A middle grade novel over 60,000 words (75,000 words for fantasy) is going to be treated with serious caution. These word counts aren’t arbitrary, but have been defined by what sells and what works for young readers based on their age, comprehension skills, interests, and attention span. If you’ve written something 3000 words long, consider it may not be a picture book but perhaps a chapter book for slightly older readers—or it may just need editing, development, and revision. Agent Jennifer Laughran has an excellent post about word counts. 

Time spent in libraries and bookstores educating yourself about the different sub-genres of children’s books and reading both classic and recently published children’s books is not time wasted. Also, the industry has changed since you were a kid, so don’t rely on the stories you loved as a child for role models. Look at what is being published now.

Think story, not message

Remember when you were a kid and you got a lecture from your parents or a teacher? How did it make you feel? Did it feel great and make you beg for more? Or did you just wish you could get it over with? Compare how you felt when watching your favorite movie or reading your favorite book. Were you immersed and entertained and a little sorry when it was over? That is your job as the writer: to draw the reader in and immerse them in the narrative, not to deliver a lecture. The story should come first, and any message you are trying to convey or teach is best subtly delivered through the narrative, not by heavy-handed didactic lessons, which give a publisher or agent an easy reason to reject your manuscript. Kids should absorb any message or lesson by default, not because they’re having it flapped in their face.   

And while I’m on the subject of narrative, a weak narrative arc is one of the biggest reasons manuscripts get rejected. See myblog post on narrative issues.


One of the things that always surprises me is that newer writers think they should automatically know how to write a publishable story. You wouldn’t expect to win a tennis match the first time you played or give a great haircut or perform brain surgery without acquiring the necessary skills. So why do so many newer writers assume they should already know how to write for kids and feel terrible about negative feedback? We ALL have to travel the learning curve. If we don’t, forget getting (traditionally) published.
Take a course, read books about writing, read blogs about writing, join SCBWI, work with an editor or writing mentor, and above all, read, read, read.


Unless you are an illustrator and hope to have your own illustrations published with your story, you do not need to (and should not) have your manuscript illustrated before you submit it to traditional publishers or literary agents. If your story is acquired by a publisher, the publisher will choose an illustrator whose work complements your own. You have, in the vast majority of cases, no power over this decision, but keep in mind that publishers are very good at knowing what you intend, as well as seeing possibilities for your work that you might not have considered. Publishers tend to pair new writers with established illustrators so books can be marketed on the established party’s previous success in creating books that sell. Publishing is, after all, a business. 

Also, you do not need to make suggestions for what should be in the illustrations or about any matters of style, layout, typography, etc.

Of course, if you self-publish, you are in charge of it all. Keep in mind that illustrators will not work only for the promise of royalties somewhere down the track. Most will require a deposit and progress payments along the way. Illustration is a skilled and time-consuming process, and you wouldn’t expect your hairdresser or brain surgeon to provide services for free. Also, there is a difference between a graphic artist and a children’s book illustrator, and children’s book illustration has particular requirements that are best understood by someone who has studied children’s book illustration and knows how picture books work.


No work by any writer comes out perfect or publishable the first time. A lack of adequate revision is one of the biggest mistakes aspiring authors make, in my opinion. Revise, revise, revise. And then, revise some more.

Join or start a critique group

You need multiple sets of eyes on your work as you develop your work, revise, and then prepare for submission. Family and friends can be a great source of support, but they’re less likely to give accurate, impartial, or even knowledgeable critical feedback. A good critique group is also a source of support and friendships on the up-and-down journey to publication. SCBWI (see next point) can advise you about critique groups in your area.

Become a SCBWI member

TheSociety of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators is an invaluable resource for writers and illustrators alike (whether you seek traditional publication or plan to self-publish). You do not need to be published to join. It’s also a warm, friendly, generous, international community of like-minded people. It’s your tribe.

SCBWI conferences and events are a great source of information, inspiration, industry contacts, invitations to submit manuscripts, and enduring friendships. You can also sign up to have your manuscript or portfolio critiqued by an editor or agent.

Get to know people

“I wish I’d known that sometimes it isn’t enough to be a great writer,” one author friend told me. Imagine the following scenario: there are two equally excellent, highly marketable manuscripts, and an editor is forced to choose between them. Writer A is a complete unknown. The editor has not heard of him, and he has no social media presence. Writer B has become well-known by kid-lit industry folks over the years for her personable, easy-to-get-along with manner, and the editor has had very pleasant interactions with her several times at conferences and kid-lit events. When she critiqued Writer B’s work at a recent conference, Writer B was open to suggestion, easy to work with, and very appreciative of her advice. Turns out they’re even friends on Facebook and from time to time, the editor has chuckled at Writer B’s upbeat, amusing, positive, supportive (of fellow kid-lit folk), book-and-creativity related posts on social media, which bodes well for how she will interact with the buying public and how she will work to market her books. Which writer do you think is more likely to get the deal?   

Contests and Awards

One illustrator friend said she wished she’d known about writer and illustrator contests and awards before she’d progressed too far to enter them. SCBWI and its regional chapters offer various contests, awards, and scholarships, and there are other similar opportunities out there for writers. Just make sure that you do a thorough online search for any negative info about scam contests designed only to separate unwary, hopeful writers from their money. 


This a topic for a blog post of its own, but some basics:

  • format your text properly for submission and make sure it is properly copyedited without word misuse, spelling mistakes, punctuation and other grammatical errors, or typos.
  • Write and revise an excellent query/cover letter. (See myblog post on writing queries for the kid-lit market.)
  • Start with The Children’s Writers & illustrators Market (Writer’s Digest Books). Always use the latest edition. An excellent print resource for finding publishers and agents.
  • Then make a list of suitable publishers who are accepting unsolicited manuscripts in the genre in which you are writing and confirm their submission guidelines on their website—then follow them!
  • Avoid the scatter-gun approach to submissions by targeting your submissions to publishers and agents whose work is a good fit for your own. (I once had a client give me a list of publishers she’d submitted her sweet, lyrical picture book to, and one was a publisher who only published material about southwestern architecture and history…for adults.)
  • If you submit to agents, don’t also submit to publishers. If an agent takes you on and then finds your manuscript has already been submitted to and rejected by a bunch of publishers she was going to contact, that’s annoying and self-defeating.
  • Online resources such as QueryTracker.net and AgentQuery.com can help you navigate the process of finding an agent.
  • Don’t be arrogant, gimmicky, or demanding. Be professional, polite, and personable. Don’t be a jerk. Nobody wants to work with a jerk. 
  • Don’t take rejections personally. Look at them as a chance to improve your craft. EVERYONE, no matter how talented, gets them, and manuscripts are rejected for all sorts of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the quality of the work. If you keep writing and submitting, you can expect to get a huge pile just like every other writer who eventually achieves publication. Learn to love rejection


If you’re aiming for traditional publication, be aware that it will take time. Don’t expect that your first manuscript will be on the bookstore shelves in time for Christmas. It just doesn’t work that way. You first have to learn to write for kids—think of it as doing your apprenticeship. Learning takes time. Revising takes time. The submissions process takes time. (I don’t know anyone who’s achieved traditional publication in less than five years, and I know many who have taken longer.) And even if your book is acquired by a publisher, expect two years to pass before you hold your published book in your hands.  


Don’t be quick to quit your day job, and don’t expect to make buckets of money when you are finally published. Kid-lit authors almost always supplement their book income by doing school visits, speaking engagements, teaching writing, and editing/mentoring.

The best reason to write for kids and create books is because you love writing for kids and creating books. This path is definitely a journey, not a destination—and a most wonderful journey it is. Remember the 3 P’s: passion, patience, and perseverance. Good luck!


Originally posted on cleverbirdy.blogspot.com on 5.14.15