How To Write a Query Letter?

What is a query letter and when to use it

Query Letters: What are they, when do you send one, and what to do next

What’s a query letter?

For the scope of this course, I’m talking about a short story query letter. NOT the query you might send to an agent about a full-length novel. Just like you don’t want to mix up your cover letters, you really don’t want to mix up your query letters.

A query letter is a polite way of asking the submission status of your story and making sure it hasn’t slipped through the cracks somehow (because, yes, that happens).

This is what you send, no more, no less:

Dear Editors,

I was hoping to check the status of my story “TITLE,” submitted on DATE. 

Thank you for your time and consideration.


Your Name

Your Email

When do I send a query letter?

When you send a story out for submission, most publications will have a little disclaimer saying one of these:

  • If you haven’t heard from us in X amount of time, please query.
  • Please don’t query before X number of days.
  • If you don’t receive an automated submission response, please send a query.

After X amount of time has passed OR if you have been instructed to query if a certain event does/doesn’t happen, THEN AND ONLY THEN do you send a query letter.

For example, Janice submits a story to Flash Fiction Online. The guidelines say, please do not query before 90 days. Janice is very impatient and after 14 days, she sends a sassy email asking why don’t we hurry it up already. Janice might get thumped on the nose. Or she might be ignored. But what won’t happen is a story sale. Because Janice has been rude.

Now, if Janice waits her 90 days and then sends a polite email to the indicated email asking the status of her story, she will get an equally polite reply back letting her know that one of the following has happened:

  • Her story has exited the slushpile and is in the winnowing round
  • Her story is being held because we are seriously considering it for purchase
  • Janice who? We’ve never heard of you. Unfortunately, her story was never received,
  • We’re so sorry to tell you this, but we sent you a rejection 89 days ago. It must have landed in your spam folder. Here’s a copy of the email we sent.
  • Oh dear. We hit the wrong button and misplaced your story. It’s our error and we will move your story to the top of our reading pile. Thank you for your patience.

Any of these scenarios are quite possible and happen more than you would think. With thousands of submissions every month and thousands of rejection letters going back out, it is impossible to be perfection itself. We all make mistakes.

What do I do next?

The trick is to be a professional. Sometimes the error will be yours as the writer and you better hope the magazine gives you the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes it will be the magazine’s error and they will remember who was patient and professional in their response.

‘Cause nobody likes a diva, especially one who hasn’t earned the right to act like they own the place (and even then, I don’t suggest it).

If you receive a reply saying your story is being held for further consideration, reply to the editor and say:

Dear {Name the editor used in their email to you},

Thank you for checking on my story status. I look forward to hearing from you again.

All my best,

Your Name

If you receive a reply saying your story was never received:

Dear {Name the editor used in their email to you},

Thank you for checking on my story status. I will submit “Story Title” again now.


Your Name

And then submit it again using the main submission portal for that publication. Unless they offer to jump your story to the head of the line, don’t attach it to the email, send it via Facebook, lob it over their house attached to a drone. Just. Don’t.

Go back and start over. There’s a good chance you did something screwy in your submission. Sorry. Try again. You can do it.

If you receive a reply saying your story was rejected previously and your spam box ate it, you don’t have to reply at all. But if your mama expects you to send a thank you:

Dear {Name the editor used in their email to you},

Thank you for checking on my story status.


Your Name

If you receive a reply saying your story was misplaced due to a mistake on their end, there will usually be instructions on how to proceed:

Follow the instructions. Say thank you.

Don’t be a dick and yell at an editor for losing your story. It’s not like he put it in his hat and smuggled it out of the slushpile for giggles. No. It was a mistake.

Be gracious, polite, and patient.

Basically, if in doubt, be a repressed Southerner.

Have a query letter question? Check out the forum.

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