Query Letters

Having narrowed myself down to three best-fit publishers, I now have to start selling my manuscript. The most common tool in the process is the query letter or email. A query letter is just what it sounds like: a question document (“Do you want to look at my book?”). It’s more than that question, though: you’re also providing a marketing document. What I’ll share here is my personal wisdom-drawn-from-experience, some inputs I received from friends, and advice offered up on Writer’s Digest.

My First Cut

My first draft at a letter was the best attempt I could manage based on my previous experiences with writing pitch letters in the past. My wisdom boiled down to this:

  • Start out “interesting.”
  • Explain why I’m qualified to write a book about tech writing.
  • Explain what the book is about.
  • Ask for the sale.

After two hours of arguing with myself, I ended up with the following draft:

Ms. X (names have been covered to save myself any undue embarrassment later):

I’ve had an odd but fantastic career as a technical writer. This career has allowed me to achieve all the dreams I had for myself when I was younger.  In an effort to “pay it forward,” I’ve written a book—Heroic Technical Writing: A Guide to Thriving as a Technical Writer and Business Professional—to help people succeed in this field that is growing at 11% per year. I’d like your company to publish it.

The book covers things they don’t teach in college, including the “P”s—Products, Processes, People & Politics, Professionalism, Pursuing Work, and Protecting Yourself—all seen from the working professional’s perspective. This book grew out of a blog I started in 2011 titled HeroicTechWriting.com,which now gets over 2,000 views per month worldwide and is dedicated to sharing the insights of someone who’s “been there, done that.

Before becoming a freelance tech writer, I answered complaint letters for Walt Disney World, written proposals for defense contractors inside the Beltway, and penned papers and speeches for NASA programs. I’ve supported large businesses, including Apple and Nissan, as well as small organizations such as a local boxing gym and the Science Cheerleaders. It’s been an exhilarating journey, but wow, I wish I had someone explain how the business world worked before I left college! I might’ve achieved my goals sooner.

I look forward to discussing the enclosed book proposal with you. Heroic Technical Writing is a stellar opportunity to provide literary mentorship to the next generation of technical communicators, and I would like to work with you to make that happen!

Sincerely,

Bart D. Leahy

 

The lady friend, who has been an editor among other lofty positions, shared the following thoughts:

To be honest I feel this is very informal. You are approaching a business partner. You need more formal language. And you don’t quite hit the boxes about what they do and how you are the same as them. You literally need to think about going back to middle school when you learned the funnel method. And you need to use the same words they do in describing how you match what they do. It’s interesting because you have the exact same ethos… You write the blog to help others avoid the pitfalls you’ve had or learn things that are unusual. But you don’t quite get that through… It gets lost in the middle.

You establish you are a credible source well (experienced)… But you need to really look at the circulation numbers of your blog to bolster that gravitas. If you don’t have the billions numbers or the high Google Scholar ratings, do it another way… I.e. via percentages. People love those because they mean something.

Take Two…

Keeping the lady friend’s inputs in mind, I took another swing at it:

Dear X:

I’ve had an eclectic, fantastic career as a technical writer, which has allowed me to achieve all the dreams I had for myself when I was younger. I’ve answered complaint letters for Walt Disney World, written proposals for defense contractors inside the Beltway, and penned papers and speeches for NASA programs. I’ve supported large businesses, including Apple and Nissan, as well as small organizations such as a local boxing gym and the Science Cheerleaders. Now, to “pay it forward,” I’ve written a book to help people succeed in this field that is growing at 11% per year: Heroic Technical Writing: A Guide to Thriving as a Technical Writer and Business Professional. I’d like your company to publish it.

The book covers technical writing’s “P”s—Products, Processes, People & Politics, Professionalism, Pursuing Work, and Protecting Yourself—all seen from the working professional’s perspective. As a result, I address not only what technical writers do for pay but also how they work with others in professional settings and advance their careers. This book grew out of a blog I started in 2011 titled HeroicTechWriting.com,which has grown in worldwide audience an average of over 40% annually since 2014. The book, like the blog, is dedicated to sharing the insights of someone who’s “been there, done that.

I look forward to discussing the enclosed book proposal with you. Heroic Technical Writingis a stellar opportunity to provide literary mentorship to the next generation of technical communicators, and I would like to work with you to make that happen!

Sincerely,

Bart D. Leahy

Taking Advice from Writer’s Digest

In the previous draft, content was rearranged, but it still felt bulky…and as I noted in the introduction, Writer’s Digest has some great articles on handling queries, which I highly recommend. They note both things to do and things NOT to do. (Top among the list of things not to do? Including typos or bad grammar in the letter. If you catch anything here, tell me!) Still, there were other things I could work on based on what I was reading. I landed here:

Dear X:

As a snarky Gen Xer, I made a lot of mistakes on the way to becoming a professional technical writer, from missing deadlines to irritating bosses. However, I learned from those mistakes, learned how to behave like an adult in the business world, and achieved the career of my dreams. Today, as one of the gray-haired people in the room, I see young professionals making some of the same mistakes I did at their age, and I want to help “pay it forward.” To that end, I’ve written Heroic Technical Writing: A Guide to Thriving as a Technical Writer and Business Professional. I believe this book aligns well with your company’s career books such as X, Y, and Z.

I write from the perspective of someone who’s “been there, done that.” Over the course of my career, I’ve answered complaint letters and written training materials for Walt Disney World, written proposals for defense contractors inside the Beltway, and penned papers and speeches for NASA programs. I’ve supported large businesses, including Apple and Nissan, as well as small organizations such as an online news site (SpaceflightInsider.com), small aerospace firms, a local boxing gym, and the Science Cheerleaders. In addition, I’ve taught business writing at the University of Alabama-Huntsville and given public talks about the profession.

Heroic Technical Writing covers technical writing’s “P”s—Products, Processes, People & Politics, Professionalism, Pursuing Work, and Protecting Yourself—all seen from the working professional’s perspective. As a result, I address not only the work products but also how tech writers work with others in business settings and advance their own careers. This book is based on my blog titled HeroicTechWriting.com, which since 2014 has grown its worldwide audience an average of over 40% per year.

I look forward to discussing the enclosed book proposal with you. Heroic Technical Writing is a stellar opportunity to provide literary mentorship to the next generation of technical communicators, and I would like to work with you to make that happen!

Sincerely,

Bart D. Leahy

Some of the things I did here were:

  • Made the introduction more personal and concrete.
  • Make the connection between my work and the publisher’s products clearer.
  • Tightened up the language a bit.
  • Added more substance to my experience section.

This might or might not be a final draft, but you can begin to see why it’s so important to get your query letter just right before you send it off to a publisher.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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One Response to Query Letters

  1. Pingback: Book Proposals | Heroic Technical Writing: Advice and Insights on the Business of Technical Communication

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