If you've ever tried to get published, or if you've ever been to a writer's conference or taken a writing class, you probably already know something about a query letter (i.e., the letter that makes you or breaks you - just about every agent/publisher wants one, sometimes in lieu of the actual work you're trying to submit).
Today, I want to emphasize its importance and pass along some basic "don'ts" I've learned over the years. I'm not an official expert, but I've been to writer's conferences, read many books on the subject, and have had a couple of minor successes, myself (an article, a poem).
I actually assign a query letter in my Creative Writing class. I show the students an example of a good query letter, talk about its importance, and ask them to write one of their own. I think it's good practice for them. Because even if they don't want to get published now, they might change their minds in 10 years, and will already have one under their belts.
The most important thing to know about a query letter is that it is, primarily, a BUSINESS letter. Not that it can't contain creativity or originality or a "hook." But, ultimately, it should be professional, concise, and free of grammar errors and typos. Because, let's face it, this letter is the first (and perhaps last!) impression the agents/publishers have of you. Since you don't (usually) pitch your book in person, they won't see how spiffy your outfit is, or hear how sonorous your voice is, or see the sparkle in your eye as you talk about your characters. No, they'll just see words sitting on a page. So let those words BE your best impression. You're a writer, after all. Show the agent that you can write.
I actually begin writing my query letter while I write the first few chapters of my novel. By that point, the main plot is well-set in my mind, and I hopefully know the main "hook." So, I set about, crafting a query letter that I will return to and tweak over and over again as I'm writing the novel. Then, by the time the novel is finished, edited, and polished, I have my query letter.
Here are some small-but-imperative tips I learned at numerous conferences over the years: DON'T use fancy font or colored paper (light beige or gray are acceptable). DON'T tell the agent that you're the next John Grisham, or that your mother loved your story (the agent wants to find that out on his/her own). DON'T let your letter exceed one page (the agent doesn't have time for anything more). DON'T use gimmicks (this doesn't mean you shouldn't start with an intriguing "hook" for a first sentence - but if it's too showy or manipulative, it can turn an agent off). DON'T be arrogant in your tone (but also don't be too meek - you want to ride that line between confidence and humility). DON'T address the agent as "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sir/Ma'am" (it shows you haven't done your research and didn't take the time to look up the person's name).
So, before you eagerly send out that query letter, be SURE it's ready. Be sure it's concise, effective, and polished. And yes, the cliche is true: you don't get a second chance to make a first impression. So, take advantage of the chance you do have, and get it right the first time.