We’ve all seen the general tips, advice and templates for writing a query letter or cover letter to an agent or publisher. But have you actually talked with one about what they specifically look for?

I attended the San Francisco Writing for Change Conference this past weekend and there’s something about being in a room with professionals at the intersection of writing and advocacy that really gets me jazzed about my own cause to build better writers. There were many many takeaways but I want to focus on two questions I asked a panel of publishers, author marketeers, and literary agents:

  • What are good tips for people writing query letters to literary agents and publishers?
  • How do you hook someone into reading or advertising your written work?

Here are 6 tips the experts shared for how to improve upon writing a query letter or cover or letter:

  1. Your ‘why’ should be crystal clear.This one might be the most obvious, but is worth repeating even if you’ve heard it over and over. Every single one of the folks on that panel either emphasized it or nodded in agreement. Since you have to keep your why succinct, make sure your letter clearly outlines why you wanted to write what you’re submitting, why it’s important to you, and who you think your target readers are. Here’s a great piece by Steven Pressfield that might help your pitch. Struggling to get to the Why? Try the Toyota 5 Why’s exercise to get to the root of the problem. 
  2. Do your research on who you’re querying. One publisher mentioned she’s always impressed, regardless of the story, by people who show through their letter that they did their research on her press, what they stand for and why their piece is a good fit.
  3. Don’t assume people know your name. One of the panelists anecdotally shared a horror story of someone who wrote up a long, intricate cover letter and then never added his name to the submission. Another told us how someone even called him and told him everything about what he was writing and how well it would sell–but by the end of the conversation, had still failed to mention his name. No matter how well you write, until you’re J.K. Rowling, don’t assume people will know you by your face, voice, or work. It should be obvious, but adding your name and how to contact you (very clearly) on all correspondence will probably increase your chances!
  4. Build up your social profile because people will Google you. A few panelists mentioned that if they were intrigued enough by a letter, they immediately went to Google to find out more about an author’s existing platform. If you do a good job of building your social profile, this will pay dividends. Google yourself from their perspective. Do you see relevant blog posts, an active Twitter account, or community engagement? Agents and publishers want to know whether you are savvy enough online–y’know, where a lot of engagement with your target audience will probably happen. Do you already have a good following–especially with people who might buy your book? If you have nothing, this could throw up some red flags and decrease your chances of getting a reply. Not sure where to start? Here’s a resource that might help.
  5. Any typos or grammar mistakes are deal breakers. One panelist said, ‘If you can’t show that you can write a short letter properly, why would I believe you can write a proper book?’ Proofread carefully. One tip is to get over your fear of judgement and share your letter with friends, writing peers or editors. Get feedback through a fresh pair of eyes every now and then. And reading out loud to a writing group might help as well! If you struggle mightily in this area, hire an editor. The small cost will, at the very least, buy you peace of mind. 
  6. Consider handwriting your letter, if appropriate. This tip depends on the person or organization you’re querying – can’t emphasize that enough. You should always, always follow submission guidelines first and foremost. However, the panelist who offered this tip said that handwritten letters get to the top of her pile. Handwriting a query letter these days may seem like overkill, but it may just be novel enough to show that you care for the craft and take it seriously enough to put the time and effort into it.

Many thanks to the speakers of this panel. Shout out to Marc Allen, Nina Amir, Jennifer Chen Tran, Rana DiOrio, Joel Friedlander and Dorothy Hearst. And many thanks to Michael Larsen and the organizers of SFWC!

Writing several query letters for your story? Join TheRightMargin and we’ll show how to break down the process into achievable, measurable steps!