September 20, 2019

To Get a Literary Agent, Make Your Query Letter–and Manuscript–Lean

Mike Wells

Mike Wells is an American bestselling thriller and suspense author who also teaches creative writing at Oxford University. He is known for fast-paced, ‘unputdownable’ novels.

His 5 Steps to Landing a Good Literary Agent is a helpful read.

I want to focus on a side comment he makes:

The main problem most writers have when they first start to compose queries is one of verbosity. The old writing adage “less is more” definitely applies here. Agents are extremely busy people and receive voluminous numbers of queries–they want you to get to the point, and get to it quickly. Ramble and they have the urge to say, “Just the facts, ma’am,” as Dragnet’s Detective Joe Friday used to say.

Yes, Mike could have edited this paragraph to half its length, while increasing its power:

Most inexperienced writers attempt to say too much when composing queries. Less still is more. Agents want you to get to the point–and quickly. Ramble, and they assume your story suffers from the same defect.

Yet, his point is well taken. Producing a lean query letter, a sparse opening sentence and paragraph in your manuscript, and a concise synopsis–and you have earned the trust of your first readers (namely, literary agents) to read more.

Sometimes, however, I have worked with authors who have a difficult time taking a weed wacker to their prose. In such cases, I recommend tackling the opening paragraphs of news articles or the jacket copy (author biography or storyline). Have fun!

Now, make every word sell your story or you as a capable author.

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