Successful Queries Start with Honing Your Craft

By: Jennifer Wilson

Querying can bring on a whole slew of sleepless nights, obsessive inbox refreshing and a soul-crushing anxiety of the word “No”. While navigating the social media trenches of the querying process, the biggest question I see is “How do I make my work stand out?”

The bad news is there is no magical button. A unicorn is not going to trot in, tap its horn on your manuscript and make it a must-have best-seller that agents are going to fight over. But the good news is unlike Katniss Everdeen, you can stack the odds in your favor. And that starts with honing your craft and your manuscript.

Say you finished your final chapter last night, huzzah! Now you can write a quick query letter and start emailing agents tomorrow, right? That’s a hard no. Like I will slap your hands off the keyboard kind of no. So what are the steps to help hone your craft? To get an agent? To be successful? Read on, friends. Read on.

Step one: Research standard word counts for your genre

If you haven’t done this already, do it now! For the planners this is an easy feat, but for us pantsers the struggle is real. We don’t always like to plan ahead, but in this case, it’s a must.

Writing with word counts in mind is important for a multitude of reasons. #1 is that many agents will pass immediately if your word count is too far below or above industry standards. Sarah Nicolas of Pitch Wars has an excellent reference page for genre word counts here.

Step two: Write and finish your novel

This is obviously the most important step. You can’t query a project that’s not complete. Once done, make sure to stop and celebrate! You just finished a manuscript which is a huge feat in itself. So be proud, do a little dance and toast with your emotional support team.

Step three: Self-editing is fun! Not really… but do it anyway

Before you hand your work over to an editor or beta-readers. Go over it yourself! It should go without saying, but no first draft is ever amazing. From manuscripts to query letters to elevator pitches – if you’re not slightly ashamed of your first drafts by the end of editing, you’re not doing it right.

When self-editing, it’s crazy easy to overlook spelling errors, odd phrasing and  descriptions. But there are a few tricks to help hone your editing skills.

The first editing trick is to change your font. Your eyes have grown accustomed to the shapes of your current lettering, and by changing the font your brain will fire on to process the new lettering and catch more errors.

Next, study and fill out the same Beta Reader Questionnaire that you will give to your critique partners. This will prompt you to think like a reader and hopefully catch a few things you may not have thought about before.

Lastly, read out loud or have an auto-reader read to you. Your ears will pick up more than your eyes did. 

Note that some writers prefer to have ongoing feedback as they write, while others like to finish their entire project before handing it over to beta readers. Both are fine! But either way, self-edit before handing your work to someone else.

Step four: Get outsider feedback

Cultivate the right group of beta readers. This is your book baby you’re handing off, so trust is a must. Also, make sure they’re your target market. Aunt Sally may be a voracious reader, but if she only devours Erotic Fantasy, her feedback on your Middle-Grade Historical Fiction isn’t going to be as relevant as your 11-year-old nephew’s. And sadly, no “yes men”. It always feels good to hear how amazing you are and cheerleaders are important when you’re writing. But when it comes to critique time, you want people that are going to push you and call out the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Make sure they review your Beta Reader Questionnaire before your manuscript. (Here’s my favorite questionnaire!) This helps them shift from the pleasure reader mindset to a beta reader mindset. Make sure they fill it out or better yet, go over it with them. I like to get my betas together for drinks and dive in as a group. It spurs great conversations and also highlights sticky areas in my writing.

You won’t always like what you hear, so it’s vital to recognize the difference between critique and criticism. Remember, your betas genuinely want you to succeed, so listen to their thoughts. You may find their dislike of a character is because he needs to evoke more emotions, or that your favorite scene isn’t really as necessary as you thought in advancing the plot. A huge part of honing your craft during feedback is growing a thick skin. I promise this will serve you well throughout your writing career.

At the end of the day, don’t forget the number one rule of reader feedback – this is your story. If editor or beta feedback doesn’t jive with your storyline, it’s okay to ignore it. You don’t have to change a character’s name because someone didn’t know how to pronounce it or rewrite your entire plot to appease one person. Look for the overall sweeping themes. If multiple readers were confused by the same chapter, it probably needs reworking. 

Step five: The craft of the query

Truth? This is a whole other can of blog post worms for another day. But basically, repeat steps one – four in query form. Do your research. Know what agents represent your genre and follow their submission requirements to the letter. Write an amazing query – PPW has free classes on this regularly *wink wink* — and then begin the edit and critique process of your letter.

So no unicorn, but it’s a step toward success. If you’re putting your best work forward, you’re already floating to the top of those query slush piles.

Writing is not easy. And anyone who tells you differently is lying. So say this with me. Out loud. Right now. “My best writing will come from hard work.” Now commit to that mantra. Whether you’re striving to be a New York Times Best Selling Author or simply want to self-publish, your readers deserve the best version of your book and so do you.

Want a mini craft-honing practice you can do right now? You got it! Pick up your favorite book and go to your favorite scene. Now, read it with analytical eyes. Why did you love this part? How did it make you feel? What sentence structures give you the warm fuzzies? How can you replicate those feeling when telling your own story? It goes without saying to never, never plagiarize another writer’s words, but recognizing analytically what it was in their phrasing that reached you as a fan will ultimately help polish your voice to reach fans of your own.


Jennifer Wilson

Jennifer Wilson is the #1 Amazon bestselling author of the young adult New World Series. The gripping trilogy spans RisingAshes, and InfernoJennifer is constantly on the move, always working on her next storyline and drinking way too much coffee. When not writing, she is enjoying life in Colorado, rock climbing, camping, exploring new foods, playing with her golden retriever, Duke, and sharing life with her heroically supportive hubby. You can connect and nerd out with Jennifer on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and on her website.