Five-Minute Writing Tips

Five-Minute Writing Tips

Three Essentials You Need Before Approaching an Agent or Editor

There are two terms that make most writers, especially novices, cringe: rejection and slush pile. Before you approach an agent or publisher, you need three well-written items in your arsenal so your precious baby will not be tossed into oblivion. The first two are the same whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, but the third one differs.


  1. Query Letter: This is a one-page sales pitch that is your chance and only chance—to grab the attention of an agent or editor. Your query should include a short introductory paragraph showing that you’ve done your homework, and giving a reason why you’ve chosen that person as someone who might be interested in your book. Check out their website, type of books they publish, and pay close attention to their submission guidelines. The second paragraph should begin with a hook, a compelling statement about your work, and introduces your character, her burning desire, desperate mission, or strong motive for what she needs to accomplish. End with a vivid description of the setting. Give the word count and compare it to a similar well-known, best-selling book. Your last paragraph should include your bio and one sentence about why you are writing this book. If successful, you should receive a request for a synopsis.
  2. Synopsis: This is a one- or two-page summary that tells the entire story from the beginning to the middle, and to the end. It’s a narrative written in present tense. The difference between your query and your synopsis is that your synopsis tells the complete story and gives a more detailed development of your character. You should not include your bio or any comparisons to other books. The focus is only on your story.
  3. Manuscript: If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’ve accomplish a lot. Your manuscript should be revised, polished, and professionally edited to every detail. It should be the best writing you’ve ever done. And it should be sitting on your desk ready for the manuscript box and the post office (unless they’ve requested an electronic version).


The first two items apply, but the manuscript differs considerably. Your manuscript does not have to be finished, but you do need a polished proposal instead.

When I was ready to contact a publisher for my nonfiction book, The Man Who Saved the Whooping Crane: The Robert Porter Allen Story, things moved quickly. I e-mailed my query and received a response two hours later requesting my synopsis. The next day, the proposal was requested and two days later I had a contract. It rarely happens that quickly, but writing’s like baseball—you never know. Just do your homework and select a publisher that’s right for your book.