1. Follow Instructions. Check the publisher's website and scrupulously follow any instructions for creating and sending a query that are posted there. This is the most important step. If there are no instructions, create a 1-2 page letter (1 is better) that is clean and crisp and follows standard business letter format.
2. Finish your manuscript. A fiction work needs to be completed before you start sending queries. Make sure it’s your best work. If there are any parts that you feel aren’t quite up to snuff, work them out.
For non-ficton, a solid outline is usually adequate in the query stage, but I’m going to have to see finished product before I send a contract. Until then, you’re writing on spec. Hopefully, you write fast because “hot topics” can change quickly.
Before you call it done, have your manuscript read by 6 to 10 other people who know something about writing in general and your genre/subject area in specific. These need to be people who will be completely honest with you and won’t pull punches. (Recommended: a good writers group; Not recommended: mother, sister, husband, best friend.) Clean up your manuscript based on the suggestions of your readers.
3. Do research. Research the publishing house you’re sending it to. Read the submission guidelines on their website. Make sure they are looking for manuscripts in your genre/area. Make a quick call and ask the secretary who to address the submission to. Also ask them how to spell the editor’s name correctly.
4. Address. Address the query to the right person, name spelled correctly. If you use a title (Mr., Mrs., Queen-of-the-World, etc.), make sure you use the right one.
5. Introductory Paragraph. Introduce yourself briefly, making realistic statements about your writing ability and how much I might enjoy the book. Also, tell me how you came to submit to me. A referral by a current author or another publisher or someone I personally know is a plus. But don’t name drop unless it’s legitimate. I will check up on you.
If you don’t have a personal referral, just tell me how you heard about me and why you think I might like your book. Example: "I saw your company listed as an LDS publisher on the XYZ list. I went to your website and noticed that you’ve published several [genre or topic]. I believe my book will fit nicely with those…"
6. Pitch Paragrpah. Tell me about your book. What is the genre? Give me a brief synopsis. Who is your target audience? Why will they buy it as opposed to the 27 others like it on the shelf? Again, be realistic. You could say, “Readers who enjoyed ABC might also enjoy this book.”
7. Credentials. Brief description of your publishing credentials, if you have them. (Self-publishing only counts if your books were carried in bookstores and you sold more than 2,000 copies.)
Don't be afraid to say this is your first book. Every single published author had a first book.
If you’re submitting non-fiction, this would be where you tell me about your expertise in the area. Example: a nutritionist writing about a new weight loss program. I also consider life experience to be a credential, if it applies to the subject area. A formerly 300 pound homemaker can speak to weight loss as well.
8. Conclusion Paragraph. If you have some good marketing ideas, you might do a 1-2 sentence pitch on that. Otherwise, just say something polite and end the letter.
9. Clean Up. Run the spell check. Let it sit for a day, then print it out and read it to make sure you haven’t left out words, etc. Print your query in an easy-to-read font: 12 point type, Times, regular spacing. If you e-query, do a virus check before sending it. Also, do not attach a document file as your query letter. Just copy and paste it straight into the body of the e-mail.
10. Include SASE. (I know some of you don't believe in SASEs, but you asked for MY tips for a good query, and this is one of them.)
If you e-query, put the editor’s e-mail address in your address book so the reply does not bounce back. Also, if you have any of those annoying programs that make people “register” before they can send you e-mail, turn it off. Or get a separate e-mail address just for submissions, and don’t give out the address to anyone but editors or publishers. (And an address like firstname.lastname@example.org is probably not the best for creating a professional, businesslike impression.)
If you need more specific help, ask your published writer friends if you can see the query they used to get their book accepted. But don't cookie-cutter it. You are original. Your book is original. Your query should be original too. (And whatever you do, don't buy one of those software programs that writes your query for you!)