As an editor for Revise & Resub’s #RevPit contest, I recently read around one hundred authors’ carefully-crafted query letters and first five pages. In those letters and pages, I saw a lot of talent and creativity. I loved the stories that were introduced to me last month, and I hope I get a chance to see more of basically all of them someday!
As I read, I noticed points where each of the entries could have been a little stronger. As part of the contest, I tweeted anonymous #10Queries feedback on a number of queries, giving hints regarding what strengths and weaknesses I observed. A lot of this feedback was repetitive, and all of it was brief, so I’d like to expand on it.
Today, I’m going to share a few of my most common observations on people’s query letters. I’ll expand on each of them briefly, explaining what I meant by each and what might be a good solution to strengthening it.
Note that this feedback is not for people who are just learning what a query letter is and don’t yet know how to organize it. This is for people who have the basic form down but are looking for ways to make their query letters more engaging and true to their characters and story.
Let’s jump in!
Many times, I noticed and commented that the stakes were not clear in the query letter. What is at stake if your protagonist doesn’t succeed at their goals? Will someone reading your query letter be able to find the answer to this question? If your stakes aren’t clear in the query letter, the agent or editor who is reading the letter won’t know why this story is important to the main character—and why it should be important to them.
Make sure it’s clear in the query letter what the main character stands to lose if they don’t overcome the main conflict in the story. Only then will you be able to convince the reader that you have a page-turner worth investing in.
If it’s important to show the story’s stakes in the query letter, it’s also important to show the main character’s positive motivations. In many entries, I read the query letter and came away asking myself, “Why?” Why does the main character have the goal they have? Why do they care about this situation? If your query letter doesn’t show what your protagonist wants and why, the agent or editor might not understand why those goals matter enough to read about.
Make sure you know what the main character wants in life and why—and how that leads them into this specific situation. Then, make sure you show that motivation in the query letter. It will help the reader better relate to the story and inspire them to see those goals met.
Every story has two kinds of conflict—internal and external. External conflict is what’s going on in the world of the story and what the protagonist must deal with in their struggle against society, other people, or even nature. Internal conflict, on the other hand, is what’s going on inside the main character’s head and heart as they fight against their own weaknesses, fears, and problems. In a lot of query letters, I get a good look at what the external conflict is, but I see very little of what’s going on inside the main character. If the query letter doesn’t give at least a hint of the internal conflict, the reader might worry that there is none or that it won’t be an engaging story on a personal level.
To engage the reader emotionally, make sure your query letter clearly shows not only what the big-picture external conflict is but also what’s going on inside the protagonist. Often, those internal struggles are where the real heart of the story is. Including them in your query letter will help people see your story has that human element that helps us connect as readers to the characters.
Sometimes, I notice a lack of real tension in the query letters. This is probably one of the trickier aspects to pin down. It’s important to show that it’s not just a walk in the park for the main character to overcome the central conflict. What stands in the way of their plans? If you don’t show that the protagonist must overcome increasing challenges to reach their goals, you will make the reader think that the story progresses too easily, losing their interest.
To demonstrate the depth of your story’s tension, make sure you show not just the protagonist’s plan to overcome the central conflict but also what new troubles arise as they try to carry out that plan. The query letter should make it clear that it isn’t as easy as the characters expected to defeat whatever is standing in their way
Tension is what keeps your reader from relaxing—it keeps them engaged, emotionally invested, and eager to find out how your characters ultimately win.
As a writer, you know everything there is to know about what happens in your story—including a lot of background information that might not make it into the book’s actual pages. The person reading your query letter doesn’t have that same wealth of knowledge. One comment I often catch myself making is that a query letter doesn’t give enough context for what’s going on. What does the reader need to know in order to grasp the stakes and tension? If you omit vital information or fail to define what certain names or concepts refer to, your reader won’t understand the significance of the facts given in the query letter.
Make sure that the tension and facts given in your query letter refer to details the reader understands. Avoid leaving terms undefined if it’s not clear what they mean from the context, and make sure you’ve given just enough background information for the reader to understand why the main character’s motivations and conflicts are big deals to them. You don’t need to overshare, but don’t forget to share enough!
Know your own weaknesses.
The biggest secret to improving your writing is being able to identify your own areas of weakness and then learn to overcome them.
This applies to writing query letters, too. Fixing the five query mistakes above will help strengthen most people’s query letters, but remember that not every mistake here will be in every letter, nor are these the only mistakes that will pop up. There’s a lot of variety in the areas people must learn and grow, and that’s okay. Choose an area where you recognize your query letter here, and practice until you’ve gotten it right. Then, you’ll be better equipped to recognize and tackle other problem areas, leaving you not just with a stronger query letter but with stronger writing skills on the whole.
If you have any questions on any common feedback you’ve seen from me, other editors, or agents, leave a comment below! I’m happy to briefly answer or point you to outside resources.