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.
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.