1) Use all UPPER CASE LETTERS for the name of your book. Use italics for other book titles. Most professional agents and editors expect you to use ALL CAPS when referring to your own work.
“Dear Pat Brown,
101 WAYS TO POWER-UP YOUR WRITING is a unique compilation of every good writing tip and technique I’ve come across in my 20 years as a professional writer…”
2) Provide a synopsis, summary of your work. This is also called an “elevator pitch.” Imagine you’re riding in an elevator with someone and this other person asked you to summarize what your book is all about. Can you do that before the elevator stops and your friend steps out? That’s how short and to the point your synopsis needs to be.
For fiction, you need a one-sentence LOGLINE that summarizes the what the “protagonist” does and why. You can add a “how,” “When” and the presence of an “antagonist” as well. You need to be specific. But you don’t need to mention the actual names of the characters at this early stage of querying.
For example “HUNTING FOR THE WHITE BEAR is a classic story of adventure” is not specific enough and tells us nothing about the protagonist.
“HUNTING FOR THE WHITE BEAR is an adventure story about a school teacher protagonist who is forced to become a hunter in the wilds of Alaska in order to save his kidnapped daughter from a group of international eco-terrorists.”
This is a lot more specific and immediately tells us pretty much all we need to know both about the genre, the main good character (protagonist), the main bad character (antagonist), the place/setting, and the plot line.
For non-fiction, your title itself can suffice to summarize the book or the article. Here are some examples: 10 Ways to Cut Your Taxes; 101 Ways to Improve Your English; 7 Worst Dog Behavior Problems and How to Treat Them; etc.
Every fiction work is unique but non-fiction is not and should be compared with other non-fiction works in the same category. You need to acknowledge the competition and explain why yours is different and better.
“PRIVATE TUTOR SAT MATH SUCCESS has twice as many exercises as the best-seller Continental SAT Math Prep and has a unique Self-Diagnostic Test that is not included in another best-seller, Mega SAT Math Book.”
3) Sell yourself. Your credentials, background, and the means at your proposal to market this work (i.e., your “platform”) is all important, especially when you are selling a book to an agent. For article editors the “platform” is obviously not that important since the magazine itself is the platform.
Mention your track record and bibliographical details that are relevant to the work you are proposing. Establish your credentials by mentioning any relevant educational or work experience.
For example, if you are sending a query letter about a book on basketball, do not mention the fact that you’ve worked for 30 years in Broadway shows since that has nothing to do with basketball. But even if you sold tickets at a sports arena mention that because it shows your affinity with and interest in professional sports. If, on the other hand, you’ve worked as a professional basketball coach that’d of course be perfect to establish your credentials as someone who is well positioned write a book on basketball.
“Platform” is important too in capturing an agent’s interest. You may not have much experience in the subject you are proposing but what if you have a TV show watched by 5 million viewers a month? That may suddenly tip the balance in your favor if you can promise to pitch your book on your TV show. That explains why so many TV and radio show hosts write and pitch best-seller books in different genres.
4) Keep your query letter to a SINGLE PAGE only. If you cannot express your idea within 300-350 words and on one page you should go back and do some more thinking since it means it’s not a fully-cooked idea yet.
Eliminate all unnecessary and trite words and expressions. A query letter is not the transcription of an informal talk. Here are some unnecessary phrases that have no place in a query letter:
“To be perfectly honest with you …”
“The long and short of it is …”
“So just as I was saying …”
“You know what — …”
“The truth of the matter is …”
“Needless to say …”
“Between you and I, …”
“According to my brother-in-law who is long in the tooth in matters relating to the subject matter of this very book that I’m pitching you now (wink-wink!), yes this book should indeed sell like hot-cakes!”
“… – you know what I’m saying?”
“OK, where was I?”
Also, eliminate all personal details from your letter that have no immediate relevancy to the book query at hand.
“I’m the second of four siblings.” (But you can include this if you are pitching a book about siblings and their relationships).
“I was born and raised in Nebraska.” (Does your book or article have anything to do with being born and raised in Nebraska?)