Sunday, July 25, 2010

Query and Cover Letters with VS Grenier

We all have written at least one version of a query letter or cover letter. In my opinion, there isn’t much of a difference between the two; except one is sent with your manuscript and the other is sent before a manuscript is sent to an editor. Either way, what you write on that one page will make a big statement about who you are as a writer.

With this in mind, let’s talk a little about what is important to list on your one page selling sheet (i.e. Cover letter or Query Letter).

I call cover and query letters a sales sheet because . . . basically we as writers are trying not only to sell our manuscript, but the fact we are the best person to be writing about this particular subject matter or concept.

There is no magic formula on how you should format your letter, but you do want it to look professional. One of the best books I read about query letters was, You Can Write Children’s Books by Tracey E. Dils. In chapter 7 Give Your Manuscript a Fighting Chance, Tracey says, “A query letter describes your project and your credentials and asks an editor if she would like to see the rest of the manuscript.”

I do not think I could put it any better than Tracey on this one when she says, “Your credentials.” That right there should tell you . . . you’re not just selling your manuscript, but you as the writer as well. Your background in writing is very important when it comes to selling your skills as a writer to an editor. I know we all start off with no writing credits, but does that mean we don’t have experience?

Think of your letter as your interview with an editor. When I first started writing for children’s magazines a little over two years ago, I had no writing credits to my name. Instead of saying this on my sales sheet (cover letter), I listed what experience I did have as a Cub Scout Leader in putting together the Pack Newsletter each month, my background in catalog copy, my help in writing training manuals, etc. These things showed that I had experience in writing and editing. It showed I was able to learn different writing styles and I had some writing background. I also listed all the writing courses I have taken and workshops I’ve attended.

Your sales sheet (query or cover letter) also needs to be engaging, you want to hook the editor just like you need to hook your reader in the first couple of sentences of your manuscript. An editor when reading a query or cover letter will only skim over it. If you can’t grab their attention in the first line or two . . . then how can they expect you to grab a reader’s attention?

The Writer’s Institute Publication says in their Children’s Market Guide, “A good query letter is short and to the point. If you can’t get your idea across in one page or less, your manuscript may not be as tightly focused as it should be.”

I know it is hard to write everything wonderful about your manuscript and you on one page, but think of a sales sheet (query or cover letter) as a test on how tightly you can write.

One more thing, DO NOT forget to read, read, read, and read out loud your letter. As writers, we spend so much time revising, reading, revising, reading aloud, and revising our manuscripts that sometimes we forget to do the same thing with our sales sheets. Remember this is your interview and you want to put the best foot forward and make a good lasting impression.

Below are the key steps in writing this one page sales sheet:

  • Direct your letter to a specific editor (if you can)
  • Lead with a paragraph that grabs the interest of the editor and conveys your slant.
  • Give a brief description of your manuscript and its central idea.
  • Show how your idea fits with this publisher or editor’s needs.
  • Give approx word length and readership age (if writing for children).
  • Cite sources, research, and/or interviews.
  • List your publishing credits, refer to resume, writing clips or samples (if requested in guidelines from publisher), and writing workshops and/or experience. Make sure to emphasize relevant or unique writing experiences you may have in regard to the subject.
  • Note any published titles you have read by this publisher and why you chose them.
  • Close by letting the editor know if this is a simultaneous submission and that you look forward to hearing from them.

I feel writing a sales sheet is the hardest part of writing. I would rather write 20 short stories, articles, or even five books in a month over a query/cover letter. But the fact remains . . . it's part of process to becoming a published writer. So what do I do when I've finished writing my manuscript and it's time to write that dreaded letter? I do a couple of things:

1st- I find at least three different publishers I think my manuscript fits with.

2nd- I write a letter for each one and read them over a couple of times. Then I have my critique group look my letters over. This helps because they always ask me questions as to why this publisher or these publishers. Why do I feel this really fits with them, etc. These questions allow me to go back and relook at my letters to see which publisher is the best fit.

3rd- I revise my letter to reflect the new questions I asked myself or my critique group asked.

4th- I let the letter sit a day or two before reading it over again.

5th- I make final revisions and send the letter with or without the manuscript based on the publishers guidelines.

Okay, now it's your turn to sit down and write your sales sheet using this tips.

To learn more about VS Grenier visit her sites at or


Scott said...

I've read a lot of good advice on queries, and this is up there among the best. Very comprehensive and helpful. Thanks.

Virginia S Grenier said...

Thanks Scott. I believe in paying it forward. So many writers have given me such great advice over the years, so now it is my turn to take what I've learned from them and on my own to share with others.