In this post, you’re going to learn exactly how many words should be in your query letter to get massive results, manuscript requests and offers of representation from literary agents.
How long should a query letter be?
The ideal length of a query letter is 1 standard printed page (8.5 X 11) or less. That is, a maximum of 500 words, single-spaced. The average length of a successful query letter typically falls into the 250-300 word range. Shorter is almost always better.
For our purposes, a successful query letter is one that received at least one (and often multiple) manuscript requests. A majority also received multiple offers of representation, eventually landed an agent and a publishing deal.
Yeah, we studied THOSE rock star query letters.
Here we go.
Query Letter Length Chart
I’ve spent the better part of two decades studying what works in writing successful query letters.
You might say I’m a little obsessed with the topic (just a pinch lol).
For writing this post, I spent a few hours specifically researching query letter length. I wanted you to get advice based on real data, not just the patterns I’ve picked up over the last 20 years.
One of the best resources I found shared the results of a 355-query letter analysis.
We’ll get to that study in just a moment. Since that data didn’t report directly on the ideal length of a query letter, I did my own basic study. I wanted to make sure my stats correlated with popular advice and the overall query letter study from Carissa (spoiler: they did).
First, I collected 25 super successful query letters (including the letter for what become the mega bestseller, Night Circus).
Just as in the overall study, I included query letters from multiple genres and levels of author experience (with most of them from zero-credit authors).
Second, I calculated the average word count for the entire query letter, and also for the intro/book details, pitch and bio sections.
With all that background, How long should a query letter be?
Here is a chart with my quick stat results for query letter length:
|Total Word Count
Here’s what’s cool to notice:
- The total word count matches popular advice to keep your query letter word count under 1 single-spaced page.
- The total word count matches the popular advice that shorter is better.
- The pitch section should by far the largest section of the query letter.
- The Intro/Book Details section should be kept relatively short.
- The bio section should almost without exception be the shortest section of the query letter.
More tidbits and takeaways from my small study:
- Many of the query letters contained no bio at all. I HIGHLY recommend you skip the bio section in your query letter.
- The longest query letter in the study (an outlier) was a page-filling behemoth of 444 words.
- The shortest query letter was a “blink-and-you-will-miss-it” 156 words.
How Long Should a Query Letter Be?
In this video, I share best practices tips for query letter length, along with a simple “mantra” or “guiding phrase” to help you determine exactly how long your query letter should be, down to the specific number of words.
The basic idea for the video and this article is the same: shorter is almost always better.
Query Letter Length Study
One of the best ways to accelerate your learning in any field is to study people who are already getting the results you want. Enter Carissa Taylor of Query Theory 101.
Carissa analyzed 355 successful query letters (fellow geek high-five!). These query letters came from authors with a range of publishing experience, but most were new authors with zero writing (bragging?) credits. These authors wrote in a mix of genres.
Check out some fascinating statistics from her data:
- The average pitch sections (story summary) were between 150-250 words. (The average in the study was 198 words to the 199 words in my smaller study)
- The average number of paragraphs in successful pitches were 3 paragraphs. (1-3 paragraphs seemed ideal).
- 77% (or 274) queries in her study started their query letter with the pitch section.
- 61% (173) included comp titles (compared their novel to other published novels in their genre)
If you were to take away one thing from both her more extensive study and my smaller, comparative study, let it be that there is no single best way to write a query letter. There are patterns and word ranges to follow, but in the end, your query is as unique as your story.
The only real “rule” is that your query has to work.
Ideal Query Length for Novels Vs. Nonfiction Query Letters
Maybe you are wondering if there is a different recommended query length for novels versus nonfiction query letters. Nope. Not in the macro sense anyway.
Both a fiction query and a nonfiction query should fall within one single-spaced page. No agent or publisher wants to read a treatise on a book idea. Less is generally better.
Nonfiction query letters can be higher in word count, but they don’t have to be.
This is because, in nonfiction query letters, there are more expected sections (usually a bio to demonstrate credentials and expertise, stats about need for the topic, audience demographics and marketing information).
How Long Should an Email Query Be?
You might also be wondering about email query submissions.
Do they follow the same guidelines for ideal query length? Should they be longer, shorter or does size even matter? (Nope, not going there 😉
The basic rule of thumb still fits: shorter is better. Less is more.
Aim to keep your email (or even online submission form) query letter within the same 250-300 word range. If possible, keep your letter short enough to fit on the literary agent’s screen without him or her having to scroll down to finish it.
Here’s a screenshot example of what I mean:
How Long Should a Query Hook be?
Most query letter hooks in both studies were one single sentence in length. Many of the hooks were short enough to fit on a single line (as opposed to overlapping two or more lines on a piece of paper or screen).
Here’s an example from Mary Elizabeth Summer’s brilliant query for Trust Me, I’m Lying: (By the way, that’s the title of the book not a confession of my character)
Julep Dupree is not a real person.
Feel it? A good hook punches you in the gut. Like a proverb or haiku, it’s short but powerful. If you use a hook (and you don’t have to), keep it short and sweet.
At minimum, cut it down to a single line. Then see if you can shave off even more words.
How Long Should a Query Pitch be?
Shoot to keep your your pitch section between 150-250 words.
Your pitch section (also known as the story summary or book blurb) is the most important and meatiest section of your query letter.
Compared to the other sections (intro, book details, book comparison, hook and possible bio), the pitch section should take up the most word count.
It’s a red flag to agents when ANY other part of your agent letter is longer than your pitch. Unless you are Stephen King’s son or already a bestselling author with a dozen titles at the top of the charts (hey, if that’s you, call me), ensure that your pitch section stands out clearly as the biggest section in your letter.
Your pitch should be the tallest player on the team, the biggest house on the street, the obvious clear answer to the question, “What’s most important in this query letter?”
How Long Should a Query Bio be?
My best recommendation (from 20 years of research) and validated by the two studies in this post, is to skip the bio.
Yes, skip it entirely!
Most inexperienced, unpublished authors don’t need to include a bio. It won’t hurt you not to include it but it might hurt you if you do.
The key here is to err on the side of caution. Unless you have super compelling credits with no doubt to their wow factor, skip the bio. If you do have amazing credentials, by all means, bio it up.
Heck, in that case, lead with your bio. In that case, still try to stick to a short bio of approximately 31 words (or less).
Most of us mere humans, however, are better off skipping the bio. Just thank the agent for his or her consideration and politely sign off with a “sincerely + your name”.
Final Thoughts & Next Steps
My favorite mantra for query letters is that they should be, “As short as possible and as long as necessary.”
For sure, keep them to a single page or “email screen”. But, remember, there is no single best way to write a winning query letter. The only rule that counts is that your query letter has to work.