Posted by: Kathy Temean | May 3, 2017

New Jersey Farm Scribe: The Query Letter’s First Line

Erika Wassall, The Jersey Farm Scribe here, with…

Query Letter: The First Line

Query letters are tough.  Here we have this work of art, something our entire soul has flooded for years.  And we’re sending it out to be JUDGED.  Like the golden eggs in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it feels like the agents or publishers are pushing some giant button that can make or break us.

Query letters ARE important.  They are actually the very FIRST of our writing that the person will be judging.  Snap decisions are made.  And we know it.  I may even end up spending more time tweaking query letters than I’d like to admit.

Did I forget a comma?  Should I have used their WHOLE name, but I read they have a nickname they prefer? Should I have moved that last sentence up? 

Didn’t I read in an interview once that they like horses?  WHY DIDN’T I MENTION HORSES?????

First off…. I try to remind myself to take a breath.

I’ve never spoken to an agent who says that a single typo in a query letter made any difference, or whether we used the specific adjective from their mission statement (yeah, I’m guilty of this!).  In fact… much of the time, they’re just scanning them anyway!!

The main things I’ve learned in speaking to agents, editors and publishers about query letters (specifically unsolicited ones):

1- Keep it simple.  Very simple.  As I said, they’re really just looking for key points.  A full page can actually be a bit of a turn off.  The message gets lost in all the… well, all those words.

2- Do NOT spell their name wrong.  Seriously, this is the only “single mistake” I ever heard anyone say gets the query tossed.  They know I’m basically using a form letter and then altering it to the specific entity I’m sending it to.  That’s fine.  But if I didn’t take the time to double, triple check that name… well it’s sort of insulting.  Right-click — DELETE!

3- The first sentence matters.  Don’t waste it.

— Comparing myself or my work to a famous or currently popular work, or basically saying how lucky the reader is to have found me and my manuscript, is bound to get an eye roll, could even get an automatic toss.

—   More commonly…. While there is nothing wrong with it, this opening can just be a waste:

“I am writing to tell you about my middle grade novel ….”

They know why I’m writing them.  They didn’t think I was just saying hello.  That’s an entire sentence wasted!  These letters should be short.  Not a word should be wasted.  Think about cutting precious words in a Picture Book.  Same application here!!

It’s a balance for sure.  I also don’t want to try to be overly “cutesy”.  Truth is, whatever I open with, they’ve seen something similar before.  But that’s okay!  Agents aren’t looking to reinvent the wheel!  (They are after all, looking for the NEXT book they want to work with, not the first.)  But still following The Hook, The Book, The Cook, let the first line somehow demonstrate how the book, you and your writing are special.

An actual quote perhaps, or the characteristic that makes your MC so relatable, or even what insight you have that makes you the person to tell the story.

For example, which grabs you more:

I’m writing to present my manuscript, The Book Thief, a 64,000 word manuscript…..


When narrated by Death, destruction and friendship take on new meanings….

(The Book Thief is a powerful book by Markus Zusak)

The bottom line is jump right in!  No introductions necessary.  (and as a side note, I also highly suggest writing query letters for books you love.  It’s a great exercise to practice!!)

You’re excited to share your work, as you should be.  Often years of preparation are behind that click of the “SEND” button or that lick of the envelope (yes, this still happens!!).  You’ve done your research, found the right folks to query.  First impressions might not be EVERYthing (the manuscript still trumps all), but they mean a lot.

Take the time to make those first few words count!  Because you want them to take the time to find out that…

… your manuscripts are worth it!


Erika Wassall is a writer, a farmer and a liver of life. She is a member of SCBWI and a proud Mad Scientist, bringing science experiments right into children’s classrooms, and hearts. She has a small farm in New Jersey with sheep, chickens, pigs and vegetables. Check out her new website at where as a first generation farmer, she often takes the long way, learning the tricks of the trade on The Farm. On her website is also The Shop page with tips and a free Q/A from her husband’s mechanic shop, and The Writer page where she shares stories, experiences and characters from the heart. Follow her on Twitter at @NJFarmScribe. She’d love to hear from you!

Thank you Erika for another great post.

Talk tomorrow,



  1. Ha! They didn’t think I was just saying hello, got a laugh from me first thing in the morning 😉 I love the idea of writing a query for your favorite books. What a great idea to get started!


  2. Great post and great advice! Thanks!


  3. Erika, I never heard “The Hook, The Book, The Cook” before. LOVE it! 😀 Excellent post!


  4. You have done us all a real service, Erika. Nice job and thanks!


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