The Art of Querying

Author: Megan Zimmerman, 2nd Year English MA Student

Querying is the first step in getting the attention of a literary agent and, as with most first steps, the most important step. An author needs to boil down their story into a couple of sentences that have to be the most intriguing part of the query. Additionally, authors need to take the time to introduce themselves properly; maybe give some impressive accolades; and then help the agent gain an understanding of their story by providing an example of a similar, already published story. Some literary agents might put some weight on experiences such as prior books published or working for literary publications, but unless an author can intrigue an agent with their story hook and make it stand out amongst the rest, the agent will probably move on – after all, there are another hundred queries for agents to review.

It is also important that the query be as professional as possible. A literary agent is an industry professional who has worked long and hard to get their standing – giving the proper greeting and proper sign off shows respect. Moreover, querying authors should also introduce themselves with their full names – not their pen names – as the author-agent relationship is based on mutual trust. It’s not a good look if an author isn’t willing to trust an agent with their name from the get-go.

Compared to the academic conference abstract, I think querying is a bigger challenge. With an abstract, an author can get 250 words – sometimes more – to talk about their project. Also, the paper doesn’t have to be completed at the time of abstract submission and the abstract can differ quite a bit from what the paper ultimately ends up being as long as the main argument is similar. A good query – one that won’t bore an agent or take up too much of an agent’s time – should be short, simple, and to the point while including most of what I previously mentioned. I would go as far as to say that a whole query shouldn’t be longer than 300 words. Additionally, an author should be ready to produce a completed manuscript when they query. If an agent is interested in the work, then they’re going to ask for a manuscript and they’re going to expect it to be completed – the turnaround between the query and the manuscript request could be as little as two weeks. Finally, the query’s story premise should align with what the story is about so that an agent knows exactly what they’re getting into.

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