How to Write a Great Query Letter

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From time to time all aspiring writers have to face the dreaded query letter—whether you’re looking for an agent or a manager you’re going to have to bite the bullet and write those letters. While this may seem like just a boring business letter, it’s actually a time to show off your talent as a writer and your understanding of the business.

Before we go into how to write a query letter, let’s start with how not to. Recently, I attended a conference where an agent talked about the fact that she got dozens of query letters every week that said little more than “You wanna read my manuscript?” She deletes those emails immediately. She has to; she gets two hundred queries every single week.

My most important suggestion on writing query letters is to prepare. There may be times when you get a personal recommendation and are writing to just one agent or manager, but the more usual experience is sitting down with a list (you can get them from the WGA or various places online) and figuring out who you should send to. Go through the list and pick the agents/managers you find most interesting based on the size of the agency, other clients, previous projects, and/or special interests. Find out as much about them as you can.

Now, there are services that will send out an email blast to hundreds of agents/managers/producers/et al in one fell swoop. While it may seem easy and time-saving, your query will need to be generic and will, therefore, lose much of its punch. Believe me, these people know a bulk mailing when they see one and that can work against you.

So, what should you write?

Salutation: Use a professional, personalized greeting. If you were sending me a query, ‘Dear Mr. Thornton:’ is a better choice than ‘Hey, Marshie, baby.’ It might be that casual fits your script or your style, but I’d save any looseness until after your synopsis so that the reader knows what you’re up to. A jokey opening will just make your reader wonder why you think that’s okay.

Opening: Put yourself in their position for a moment, if you were deciding whether to read a writer what would you look for? Whatever you come up with, those are your selling points. Start with them. If you’ve won screenwriting contests, or if you have a great education, say so right away. If you have some special connection to what you’ve written start with that. For instance, if you’re a championship diver and you’ve written a script about the world of competitive diving that’s the first thing you want to say.

What if you have nothing to say, though? That’s a very common question. At the beginning of most writing careers, there is little to say. If you read author bios you’ll very often see a statement like, “Marshall always wanted to be a writer and began telling stories in the cradle.” Don’t say anything like that. That kind of line might help if you’re marketing a novel, but it’s not what film professionals are looking for. If you truly have nothing to say go right to your story.

Image from 123rf

 

The Pitch: I hate writing blurbs, almost everyone does. Still, I have to write them and so do you. Here again, you need to ask yourself what will capture your reader’s interest. What are the selling points of your story? If it’s a comedy make that very clear in the first paragraph. If it’s based on a true story mention that. You may be noticing a trend here. Put the most important information in the first sentence of each paragraph. That’s what will get them to read the rest of the paragraph. Try to capture the flavor of your script. You don’t have to tell the whole story but you do need to include enough information to make them want to read your work. This is a marketing piece, so you may want to look at some blurbs put out by the studios and then write your pitch like that.

Mention Them: After your pitch, it’s not a bad idea to mention why you’ve chosen them. You might have seen them at a conference and been impressed by them, or be a fan of their other clients or you know they’re looking for scripts like yours. This is the time to mention that. You want to show them that you’ve taken the time to understand what it is they do and hopefully they’ll return the favor.

Closing: Agents and managers are interested in your career, that means you probably shouldn’t try to find an agent if you only have one script. As you close your letter, it’s a good time to mention that you have other scripts available should they be interested in your work. Then, sincerely thank them for taking the time to consider you.

Overall, be professional and appealing. Don’t write a letter that’s ‘good enough,’ write something you’re proud of. That will come across and you’re more likely to get a script request.

Let us know your experiences with query letters below.

 

 

author-avatar

Marshall Thornton has an MFA from UCLA in screenwriting. He spent ten years writing spec scripts and has been a semi-finalist or better in the Nicholl, Samuel Goldwyn, American Accolades, One-In-Ten and Austin Film Festival contests. As a novelist, he writes the Lambda Award-winning Boystown Mysteries. The eight book series follows the cases of a gay detective in turbulent 1980s Chicago. Marshall has also been known to write the occasional romantic comedy. You can find him online at marshallthorntonauthor.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @mrshllthornton

17 Replies to "How to Write a Great Query Letter"

  • comment-avatar
    Michael Winn March 27, 2017 (4:34 pm)

    Thank you, Marshall, for pointing out some of the things we shouldn’t do or try to avoid but you really haven’t told us how to write a great query letter. Could you, perhaps, post a couple query letters you wrote that were successful. No need to post the unsuccessful ones but you might give some examples of great letters that failed and explain why they failed? Sincerely,

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton March 27, 2017 (4:44 pm)

      Thanks for the comment. A query letter should be about your accomplishments and your story so each should be different. It might not be a bad idea to go further into what makes a good pitch. I’ll toss that idea around and see what happens.

    • comment-avatar
      Mary April 15, 2017 (7:08 am)

      No offense but Michael Hauge put it into three sentences.

      • comment-avatar
        Marshall Thornton April 15, 2017 (7:37 am)

        I think the best approach to learning about any aspect of writing is to expose yourself to as many ideas as possible. To develop a sort of toolbox that you can rely on. Different ideas or even different ways of saying the same thing will resonate with you in different ways and at different times of your career. Glad you found someone who resonates with you.

  • comment-avatar
    William Sowles March 27, 2017 (4:45 pm)

    Sample letters?

  • comment-avatar
    Inspector clouseau March 27, 2017 (6:36 pm)

    Marshall,Marshall,Marshall. How about posting one of your successful queries?

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton March 28, 2017 (4:17 am)

      I don’t recommend looking at sample queries. Yes, it’s a lot easier to plug your information into someone else’s work but ultimately that shows–and is exactly what everyone else is doing. You really should be sending a query that shows who you are as a writer and looking at samples isn’t going to do that.

  • comment-avatar
    John Alarid March 27, 2017 (6:38 pm)

    I found Inspiration in your article. I think it’s because what I’ve heard and read from other sources who make money selling aspiring writers lotto tickets to winning a chance to getting their scripts read. What they’re saying is that: “Agents and managers don’t read query letters.”

    Emails and Industry websites sell access to junior agents representing agencies, production companies and studios for you to shop your wears. Pull the lever for a chance to getting read. Come back. Try again. Writing query letters is a loss art. I do hope agents and managers rediscover the magic of opening an envelope containing a great query letter.

  • comment-avatar
    Ron March 28, 2017 (6:42 am)

    Great suggestions! Thanks for the info. I’ll let you know how it works out.

  • comment-avatar
    Barry Brodsky March 28, 2017 (7:44 am)

    Good article. I guess my most successful query letter opened with a paragraph putting the reader in the protagonist’s place. Then I blabbed about myself for a couple sentences and then closed. I particularly liked your advice about saying something about the reader’s company. Anyway, when I was in sales sometime last century, I was told that if you got five positive replies to 100 sales letters, then you knew you had a great letter.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton March 28, 2017 (7:49 am)

      Thanks for the comment – your technique sounds very interesting. I can see why it worked well for you. And, yes, response is very low on large mailings. I’ve read three percent is average. thanks for bringing that up. It’s good that people know what to expect.

  • comment-avatar
    Anton S.Jayaraj March 28, 2017 (11:37 pm)

    Dear Mr. Marshal, I am very happy that I have got this chance of reading your guide on writing a great query letter at this very moment that I need it. Yes, I have written two feature film scripts and in the threshold of submitting them to potential agents or managers. Your guide helps me a lot in helping me form a very good and inviting query letter. I have already begun to draft a query letter on the lines of your guide. I will let you know, certainly if I succeed in this endeavor. Thanks a lot for this essay.

    • comment-avatar
      Marshall Thornton March 29, 2017 (4:10 am)

      Thanks for the comment. You’ve misspelled my name, though. Be careful not to do that on your queries. Spelling and grammar count in these situations. Best of luck!

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