The Complete Guide to Query Letters

TODAY I offer you a valuable guest post from Jane Friedman ( Jane has 20 years of experience in the publishing industry, with expertise in digital media strategy for authors and publishers. She is the co-founder and editor of The HotHand editing Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors. In addition to being a columnist for Publishers Weekly, Jane is a professor with The Great Courses, which released her 24-lecture series, “How to Publish Your Book.” She also has a book forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press, The Business of Being a Writer (March 2018). Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as BookExpo America, Digital Book World, and the AWP Conference, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund.

The Complete Guide to Query Letters

The stand-alone query letter has one purpose, and one purpose only: to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work. The query letter is so much of a sales piece that you should be able to write it without having written a single word of the manuscript. For some writers, it represents a completely different way of thinking about your book. It means thinking about your work as a product. And it helps to have some distance from your work to see its salable qualities.

This post focuses on query letters for novels, although much the same advice applies for memoirists as well; nonfiction book queries are addressed here. Before you query, novelists should have a finished and polished manuscript before they begin querying. Even though I repeat this recommendation again and again, numerous writers ask if they’re the exception. “But what if I’m two-thirds of the way done?” Or, “What if the manuscript is currently being copyedited and it’s almost finished?” Well, sure, you can query if you want. But what will you do if the agent/editor immediately asks for a partial or full manuscript, and you don’t have it? You may end up rushing your writing or editing process (undesirable to say the least), or admitting to the agent/editor that it will take you X weeks or months to follow up, which makes you look foolish. To avoid creating a high-pressure or awkward situation, I recommend you wait until you feel the manuscript is totally done—the best you can make it. That doesn’t mean you have to hire freelance editors or copyeditors or proofreaders, but it does mean fixing or revising anything you know needs attention.

5 basic elements of every query letter

I recommend that every query letter include these five elements, in no particular order (except the closing):

  1. Personalization: where you customize the letter for the recipient
  2. What you’re selling: genre/category, word count, title/subtitle
  3. Hook: the meat of the query; 100-200 words is sufficient for most novels
  4. Bio: optional for unpublished fiction writers
  5. Thank you and closing

This post elaborates on each of those elements, so keep reading.

How to open your query letter

You should put your best foot forward, or lead with your strongest selling point. Here are the most common ways to begin a query:

Maybe you’ve been vouched for or referred by an existing client or author; mention the referral right away. If you met the agent/editor at a conference or pitch event, and your material was requested, then put that upfront. When you’ve heard the agent/editor speak at a conference, or you read an interview or post that indicates they’re a good fit for your work, mention it. Starting with your story hook is a classic opening, but of course the hook should be compelling (more on this later). Published or credentialed writers may mention their track record, especially if they’ve won awards or received an MFA from a well-known school. However, very few fiction writers begin their query by talking about themselves because most are unpublished. (This isn’t a problem, though.) Many writers don’t have referrals or conference meetings to fall back on, so the hook becomes the lead for the query letter. Some writers start simple and direct, which is fine: “My [title] is an 80,000-word supernatural romance.”

Personalizing the query letter

Remember, your query is a sales tool, and good salespeople develop a rapport with the people they want to sell to, and show that they understand their needs. Show that you’ve done your homework, show that you care, and show that you’re not blasting indiscriminately. However, you will not be rejected if you don’t personalize your query. Still, I think it can set you apart from the large majority of writers querying—if it’s done meaningfully, and that’s the point.

Here’s an example of a strong, personalized lead. “In a January interview at the Guide to Literary Agents blog, you praised The Thirteenth Tale and indicated an interest in “literary fiction with a genre plot.” My paranormal romance Moonlight Dancer (85,000 words) blends a literary style with the romance tradition.”

If you personalize the query by saying, “I found you in Writer’s Market,” and you add nothing else, that’s not a meaningful context. You need to go further than that, and say something that can’t be added to practically every query letter you send.

Identify what you’re selling

Your book’s title, word count, and genre are generally stated upfront, although you can wait until the end of the query to spell out this information.


Everyone knows your book title is tentative, so you don’t have to explicitly state the title is tentative.

Word count

If your novel’s word count is much higher than 100,000 words, you have a bigger challenge ahead of you. Eighty thousand words is the industry standard for a debut novel.  If you have an off-putting word count, some agents recommend withholding this fact until the end of the letter, once you’ve potentially hooked them.


If you’re unsure of your genre, you can leave out any mention of it; however, in such a case, I recommend drawing a comparison between your book and another (hopefully recent) title. You can say that your book is written in the same manner or style as another specific book or author, or that it has a similar tone or theme. Just be careful of overdoing it. One or two comparisons should be more than enough, and the more thoughtful the comparison, the better. Comparing yourself to a current New York Times bestselling author can come across as arrogant or too easy; it’s better to demonstrate a nuanced understanding of where your book falls in the literary landscape.

3 elements of the story hook

For most writers, the hook does all of the work in convincing the agent/editor to request your manuscript. You need to boil down your story to these three key elements: > Protagonist + his conflict > The choices the protagonist has to make (or the stakes) > The sizzle Or, you can think of the hook in terms of: what does your character want, why does she want it, what keeps her from getting it? Some genres/categories should also be sure to clarify the setting or time period. The “sizzle” is that thing that sets your work apart from all others in your genre, that makes your story stand out, that makes it uniquely yours.

Sizzle means:

This idea isn’t tired or been done a million times before. How do you know if your idea is tired? Well, this is why everyone tells writers to read and read and read. It builds your knowledge and experience of what’s been done before in your genre, as well as the conventions. When a hook is well written but boring, it’s often because it lacks anything fresh. It’s the same old formula without distinction. The protagonist feels one-dimensional (or like every other protagonist), the story angle is something we’ve seen too many times, and the premise doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. The agent or editor is thinking, “Sigh. Another one of these?” This is the toughest part of the hook—finding that special je ne sais quoi that makes someone say, “Wow, I’ve got to see more of this!” And this is often how an editor or agent gauges if you’re a storyteller worth spending time on. Sometimes great hooks can be botched because there is no life, voice, or personality in them. Sometimes so-so hooks can be taken to the next level because they convey a liveliness or personality that is seductive. I have heard an eternity of pitches featuring women as victims, survivors, single mothers, etc. If someone pitches me a story about a 43-year-old unmarried woman who has had a successful career in advertising or law or pharmaceuticals or whatever, and decides at the last minute that her biological clock’s ticking and she wants to have a child … I will wait for the writer to tell me the rest of the story. And there is no rest of the story, because in their mind, that is their story. To which I say, “Who cares?” Seriously, who will care about that storyline? No one. We have seen numerous stories about women wanting to have children later in life. I could produce a list at least two pages long consisting of books and movies with this plot line. However, if one of the main characters is a 43-year-old single businesswoman having her first child and, at the same time, her 22-year-old niece is also having her first child—because the niece does not see the benefit of having a career and only wants to be supported by a rich husband—I suddenly see some conflict here.

Whenever I teach a class where we critique hooks, just about everyone can point out the hook’s problems and talk about how to improve them. Why? Because when you’re not the writer, you have distance from the work. When you do come across a great novel hook, it feels so natural and easy—like it was effortless to write.

Examples of brief story hooks

Every day, Publishers Marketplace lists book deals that were recently signed at major New York houses. It identifies the title, the author, the publisher/editor who bought the project, and the agent who sold it. It also offers a one-sentence description of the book. These hooks are inevitably well-crafted, and can help you better understand what hooks really excite agents/publishers. While your hook would/should probably get into more detail than the following two examples, these hooks help illustrate how much you can accomplish in just a line or two.

Bridget Boland’s DOULA, an emotionally controversial novel about a doula with a sixth sense [protagonist] who, while following her calling, has to confront a dark and uncertain future when standing trial for the death of her best friend’s baby [protagonist’s problem] (a doula with a sixth sense? cool.) John

Hornor Jacobs’s SOUTHERN GODS, in which a Memphis DJ [protagonist] hires a recent World War II veteran to find a mysterious bluesman whose music [protagonist’s problem] — broadcast at ever-shifting frequencies by a phantom radio station — is said to make living men insane and dead men rise [twist]. Check for red flags in your hook.

How to tell if your hook could be improved

• Does your hook consist of several meaty paragraphs, or run longer than 200 words? You may be going into too much detail.

• Does your hook reveal the ending of your book? Only the synopsis should do that.

• Does your hook mention more than three or four characters? Usually you only need to mention the protagonist(s), a romantic interest or sidekick, and the antagonist.

• Does your hook get into minor plot points that don’t affect the choices the protagonist makes? Do you really need to mention them?

Writing about your background (your bio note)

For novelists, especially unpublished ones, you don’t have to include a bio in your query if you can’t think of anything worth sharing. But it’s nice to put in something. The key to every detail in your bio is: Will it be meaningful—or perhaps charming—to the agent/editor? If you can’t confidently answer yes, leave it out. In order of importance, these are the categories of pertinent info:

Fiction writing credits. Be specific about your credits for this to be meaningful. Don’t say you’ve been published “in a variety of journals.” You might as well be unpublished if you don’t want to name them. If you have no fiction writing credits, you don’t need to state that you’re unpublished. That point will be made clear by the fact of omission.

Nonfiction writing credits. Many novelists wonder if it’s helpful to list nonfiction credits. Yes, mention notable credits when they show you have some experience working with editors or understanding how the professional writing world works. That said: Academic or trade journal credits can be tricky, since they definitely don’t convey fiction writing ability. Use your discretion, but it’s probably not going to be deal breaker either way. I’d leave out credits like your church newsletter or credits that hold little to no significance for the publishing industry professionals.

Self-published books. Sooner or later this information will have to come out, so it’s usually just a matter of timing. Lots of people have done it, and past self-publishing doesn’t really hurt your chances with a new, fresh project. However, if you’re trying to get an agent or publisher for a book or series that’s already been self-published, my advice is to not bother trying. If your self-published book was successful enough for a traditional publishing deal, you probably would’ve had agents or publishers already knocking on your door. Do not make the mistake of thinking your self-publishing credits make you somehow more desirable as an author, unless you have really incredible sales success, in which case, mention the sales numbers of your book and how long it’s been on sale.

Your profession. If your career lends you credibility to write a better story, by all means mention it. But don’t go into lengthy detail. Teachers of K-12 who are writing children’s/YA often mention their teaching experience as some kind of credential for writing children’s/YA, but it’s not, so don’t treat it like one in the bio. (Perhaps it goes without saying, but parents should not treat their parent status as a credential to write for children either.)

Writing cred. It makes sense to mention any writing-related degrees you have, any major professional writing organizations you belong to (e.g., RWA, MWA, SCBWI), and possibly any major events/retreats/workshops you’ve attended to help you develop your career as a writer. You needn’t say that you frequent such-and-such online community, or that you belong to a writers’ group the agent would’ve never heard of. (Mentioning this won’t necessarily hurt you, but it’s not proving anything either.)

Special research. If your book is the product of some intriguing or unusual research (you spent a year in the Congo), mention it. These unique details can catch the attention of an editor or agent.

Major awards/competitions. Most writers should not mention awards or competitions they’ve won because they are too small to matter. If the award isn’t widely recognizable to the majority of publishing professionals, then the only way to convey the significance of an award is to talk about how many people you beat out. Usually the entry number needs to be in the thousands to impress an agent/editor. If you have no meaningful publication credits, don’t try to invent any. If you have no professional credentials, no research to mention, no awards to your name—nothing notable at all to share—don’t add a weak line or two in an attempt to make up for it. Just end the letter. You’re still completely respectable. On the other end of the spectrum: avoid cataloguing every single thing you’ve ever done in your writing life. Don’t talk about starting to write when you were in second grade. Don’t talk about how much you’ve improved your writing in the last few years. Don’t talk about how much you enjoy returning to writing in your retirement. Just mention a few highlights that prove your seriousness and devotion to the craft of writing. If unsure, leave it out. If your bio can reveal something of your voice or personality, all the better. While the query isn’t the place to digress or mention irrelevant info, there’s something to be said for expressing something about yourself that gives insight into the kind of author you are—that ineffable you. Charm helps.

Novel queries don’t have to address market concerns Don’t be tempted to elaborate on the audience or market for your novel. This is often misunderstood since nonfiction writers do have to talk about market concerns. However, when it comes to selling fiction, you don’t talk about the trends in the market, or about the target audience. You sell the story.

Also, novelists don’t need to discuss their marketing plan or platform. Sometimes you might mention your website or blog, especially if you feel confident about its presentation. The truth is the agent/editor is going to Google you anyway, and find your website/blog whether you mention it or not (unless you’re writing under a different name). Keep in mind that having an online presence helps show you’ll likely be a good marketer and promoter of your work—especially if you have a sizable readership already—but it doesn’t say anything about your ability to write a great story. That said, if you have 100,000+ fans/readers on Wattpad or at your blog, that should be in your query letter.

Close your letter professionally

You don’t read much advice about how to close a query letter, perhaps because there’s not much to it, right? You say thanks and sign your name. But here’s how to leave a good final impression. You don’t have to state that you are simultaneously querying. Everyone assumes this. (I do not recommend exclusive queries; send queries out in batches of three to five—or more, if you’re confident in your query quality.) If your manuscript is under consideration at another agency, then mention it if/when the next agent requests to see your manuscript. If you have a series in mind, this is a good time to mention it. But don’t belabor the point; it should take a sentence.

Resist the temptation to editorialize. This is where you proclaim how much the agent will love the work, or how exciting it is, or how it’s going to be a bestseller if only someone would give it a chance, or how much your kids enjoy it, or how much the world needs this work. Basically, avoid directly commenting on the quality of your work (whether to flatter yourself or criticize yourself). Your query should show what a good writer you are, rather than you telling or emphasizing what a good writer you are.

Thank the agent, but don’t carry on unnecessarily, or be incredibly subservient—or beg. (“I know you’re very busy and I would be forever indebted and grateful if you would just look at a few pages.”) There’s no need to go into great detail about when and how you’re available. At the bottom of your letter, include your email address and phone number. Do not introduce the idea of an in-person meeting. Do not say you’ll be visiting their city soon, and ask if they’d like to meet for coffee. The only possible exception to this is if you know you’ll hear them speak at an upcoming conference—but don’t ask for a meeting. Just say you look forward to hearing them speak. Use the conference’s official channels to set up an appointment if any are available.

Appropriate query length

In its entirety, the query shouldn’t run more than 1 page, single spaced, if printed, or somewhere around 200 to 400 words. I recommend brevity, especially if you lack confidence. Brevity gets you in less trouble. The more you try to explain, the more you’ll squeeze the life out of your story. So: Get in, get out.

The following stuff doesn’t belong in the query:

• Your many years of effort and dedication

• How much your family and friends love your work

• How many times you’ve been rejected or close accepts

• How much money you’ve invested in editors or editing

• Such-and-such well-known person has read your work and/or offered advice on it. Perhaps it’s boosted your ego or confidence that some VIP has read your work or offered a critique. But agents/editors will make up their own mind, and if your VIP really believed in your work, why aren’t they offering you a referral to their agent or editor?

Special advice on email queries

Email queries tend to get read and rejected more quickly than snail mail queries; with that in mind, you may want to create two separate versions of your query letter, one for email and another for printing. Here’s a formatting process I recommend:

• Write your query in Word or TextEdit. Strip out all formatting. (Usually there is an option under “Save As” that will allow you to save as simple text.)

• Send the query without any formatting and without any indents (block style).

• Use CAPS for anything that would normally be in italics.

• Don’t use address, date headers, or contact information at the beginning of the e-mail; put all of that stuff at the bottom, underneath your name.

• The first line should read: “Dear [Agent Name]:”

Some writers structure their e-queries differently from paper queries—they make them shorter or add more paragraph breaks. Consider how much the agent can see of your e-query on the first screen, without scrolling. That’s probably how far they will read before responding or hitting delete. Adjust your query accordingly. Usually the hook should go first, unless you have a strong personalization angle. If you have an e-mail address for an editor/agent who doesn’t accept e-mail queries, you can try sending your query on a hope and a prayer, but you probably won’t receive a response. In fact, I’ve heard many writers complain that they never receive a response from email queries. (Sometimes silence is the new rejection.) This is a phenomenon that must be regrettably accepted. Send one follow-up to inquire, but don’t keep sending e-mails to ascertain if your e-query was received.

You’ve sent your query—now what? If you don’t hear back, follow up after the stated response time using the same method as the original query. If no response time is given, wait about 1 month. If querying via snail mail, include another copy of the query. If you still don’t hear back after one follow-up attempt, assume it’s a rejection, and move on. Do not phone or visit. If an agent asks for an exclusive read on your manuscript, that means no one else can read the manuscript while they’re considering it. I don’t recommend granting an exclusive unless it’s for a very short period (maybe 2 weeks). In non-exclusive situations (which should be most situations): If you have a second request for the manuscript before you hear back from the first agent, then as a courtesy, let the second agent know it’s also under consideration elsewhere (though you needn’t say with whom). If the second agent offers you representation first, go back to the first agent and let her know you’ve been made an offer, and give her a chance to respond.

Additional resources on query letters: QueryShark, run by an agent who critiques queries. AgentQuery: a database of agents, plus a community that can help critique your letter.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Sercices

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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The secret grammar of love

THIS tale is a romantic one—or so it may appear. The story begins with an email that John received one day from his new girlfriend. Consider how pleased he must have felt to read this note from Jane:

Dear John:I want a man who knows what love is all about. You are generous, kind, thoughtful. People who are not like you admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me for other men. I yearn for you. I have no feelings whatsoever when we’re apart. I can be forever happy—will you let me be yours?

Unfortunately, John was far from pleased. In fact, he was heartbroken. You see, John was familiar with Jane’s peculiar ways of misusing punctuation marks. And so to decipher the true meaning of her email, he had to reread it with the marks altered:

Dear John:
I want a man who knows what love is. All about you are generous, kind, thoughtful people, who are not like you. Admit to being useless and inferior. You have ruined me. For other men, I yearn. For you, I have no feelings whatsoever. When we’re apart, I can be forever happy. Will you let me be?

This old grammarian’s joke was made up, of course.

To get a whole buncha grammar lessons, click here:

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.


Should you join a writers’ group?

SHOULD you join a writing group? Maybe, or maybe not. Such groups might give you the kind of support you need; however, despite all its good intentions, a writing group may do you more harm than good. Why? For a number of reasons, including:

• Inexperienced writers are not the best people to critique the work of other inexperienced writers.

• Group members don’t always speak the truth, because they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings.

• Group members usually don’t want to hear the truth, because criticism hurts too much. They want the group to praise their writing so they can enjoy the fleeting high of affirmation—something we all crave for what we do and say.

At its worst, a writing group can cause deep self-doubt, crippling frustration, and sometimes years of wasted effort.

Let’s expand on those points.

Inexperienced writers are not the best people to judge the work of other inexperienced writers

Why would you think that being in a room with other people who are also struggling with the same writing problems you are and who have little or no experience with that struggle would be a good way to improve your work? Yes, you might get camaraderie and a sense of community, identity, and purpose, which is fine, but the odds of getting specific, useful help with your writing are low.

Aspiring writers who are not seasoned enough to assess problems with a story often get it wrong, or get it only partially right, or demand specific remedies by using a kind of unconscious group-think approach of what they like or don’t like. That’s not helpful. What others like or dislike is a subjective response that comes without any assistance with how to move forward. You might get the “It’s not working” feedback but not the education you need to fix your problem—and certainly not the editorial understanding you need to prevent it from happening again. People may offer ideas for how they would fix things or how they see your story or what they would do, but this is a sure path to crushing fragile new projects and wavering confidence.

No one tells the truth, and no one really wants to hear it

Most writing groups tiptoe around glaring weaknesses in the work being shared and sometimes tell outright lies about it because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. All the writer hears is praise or vague criticism that isn’t actionable, so novice novelists assume that what they are writing is solid (if not awesome) and plow on, creating fundamentally flawed work. Developing writers must find a way to welcome criticism, even harsh criticism, but writer’s groups tend not to foster this ability. As a result, no one learns new things, no one grows, and they become deluded about their work, believing it to be better than it is.

Some fixes for a flawed group dynamic

Tell the truth. If something is not working—if it has a fatal flaw, if it’s ill-conceived, if it has an underlying problem with literary conventions—say so, being as specific as possible. Don’t hold back for the sake of being nice. Nice could condemn a writer to years of writing in the wrong ways. A consensus regarding telling the truth should be one of the ground rules when a writing group is established.

Be open to criticism. If you get deep criticism of something you have written, consider that you might need to deep-six the book project and go back to the drawing board. Allow that reality a place at the table. New writers often say they know something is wrong with their novel, but they can’t put their finger on the problem. A writing group might be able to help them find the answer.

Talk about the failure. Discuss the doubt and the agony of writing a novel. Let the pain be part of the mix, because creating something out of nothing is not easy. It’s highly emotional work. Writers need support, and they need a safe place where they can fail. Let your writing group be a place where you can learn the craft and provide a valuable service to others.

Also see:
How to Find the Right Critique Group or Partner for You

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

Did you like this post? If so, please click Like and share it.


The top 25 grammatical terms you should know


Active voice is a type of sentence or clause in which the subject performs or causes the action expressed by the verb. Contrast with Passive Voice below. Example: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)


An adjective is the part of speech (or word class) that modifies a noun or a pronoun. Example: “Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig.” (Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007)


An adverb is the part of speech that modifies a verb, adjective, or other adverb. Example: “There I was, standing there in the church, and for the first time in my whole life I realized I totally and utterly loved one person.” (Charles to Carrie in Four Weddings and a Funeral, 1994)


A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. A clause may be either a sentence (independent clause) or a sentence-like construction included within another sentence (that is, a dependent clause). Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)


A complex sentence is a sentence that contains at least one independent clause and one dependent clause. Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)


A compound sentence is a sentence that contains at least two independent clauses, often joined by a conjunction. Example: “I can’t compete with you physically [independent clause], and you’re no match for my brains [independent clause].” (Vizzini in The Princess Bride, 1987)


A conjunction is a word that connects sentences, phrases or clauses. Example:  “I can’t compete with you physically, and you’re no match for my brains.” (Vizzini in The Princess Bride, 1987). Common conjunctions include and, but, for, nor, or, so and yet.


A declarative sentence is a sentence that makes a statement. Example: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)


A dependent clause is a group of words that begins with a relative pronoun or a subordinating conjunction. A dependent clause has both a subject and a verb but (unlike an independent clause) cannot stand alone as a sentence. Also known as a subordinate clause. Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)


A direct object is a noun or pronoun that receives the action of a transitive verb. Example: “I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers.” (Sophia in The Color Purple, 1985)


An exclamatory sentence is a sentence that expresses strong feelings by making an exclamation. Example: “God! Look at that thing! You would’ve gone straight to the bottom!” (Jack Dawson looking at Rose’s ring in Titanic, 1997)


An imperative sentence is a sentence that gives advice or instructions or that expresses a request or a command. Example: “Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig.” (Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007)


An independent clause is a group of words made up of a subject and a predicate. An independent clause (unlike a dependent clause) can stand alone as a sentence. Also known as a main clause. Example: “Don’t ever argue with the big dog [independent clause], because the big dog is always right [dependent clause].” (Deputy Marshal Samuel Gerard in The Fugitive, 1993)


An indirect object is really a prepositional phrase in which the preposition to or for is not stated but understood. It tells to whom or for whom something is done. The indirect object always comes between the verb and the direct object. Example:  “The doctor sent me (indirect object) a bill (direct object) for his services.


An interrogative sentence is a sentence that asks a question. Example: “What is the name of the Lone Ranger’s nephew’s horse?” (Mr. Parker in A Christmas Story, 1983)

16. NOUN

A noun is the part of speech that is used to name a person, place, thing, quality, or action and can function as the subject or object of a verb, the object of a preposition, or an appositive. Example: “Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikas.” (Harry Burns in When Harry Met Sally, 1989)


Passive voice is a type of sentence or clause in which the subject receives the action of the verb. Contrast with Active Voice. Example: The jewelry was stolen by burglars. In the active voice this sentence would read: Burglars stole the jewelry.


A predicate is one of the two main parts of a sentence or clause that modifies the subject and includes the verb, objects, or phrases governed by the verb. It is everything that is not the subject. Example: The man from the shop is a crook .


A phrase that begins with a preposition and ends in a noun, pronoun, or noun phrase. Example: “He is from Russia.From Russia is a prepositional phrase. Common prepositions include about, below, off, toward, above, for, to, on, under, across, from, onto, after, in, out, between, by, at, around, and before.


A pronoun is a word that takes the place of a noun. Example: “A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)


A sentence is most commonly a group of words that expresses a complete idea. Conventionally, a sentence includes a subject and a verb. It begins with a capital letter and concludes with a mark of end punctuation. Example: “I don’t ever remember feeling this awake.” (Thelma Dickinson in Thelma and Louise, 1991)


A simple sentence is a sentence with only one independent clause (also known as a main clause). Example: “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.” (Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, 1991)


The subject of a sentence is the person, place, thing, or idea that is doing or being something. You can find the subject of a sentence if you can find the verb. Ask the question, “Who or what “verbs” or “verbed”?” and the answer to that question is the subject. Example: Jack threw the ball.


Tense is the time of a verb’s action or state of being, such as past, present, and future. Example: “Years ago, you served [past tense] my father in the Clone Wars; now he begs [present tense] you to help him in his struggle against the Empire.” (Princess Leia to General Kenobi in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977)

25. VERB

A verb is the part of speech that describes an action or occurrence or indicates a state of being. Example: “Send this pestilent, traitorous, cow-hearted, yeasty codpiece to the brig.” (Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, 2007.)

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Writing tips: Sentence variety

WRITERS often fall into the habit of building all their sentences the same way: subject, verb, object; subject, verb, object, with independent clauses strung together with the conjunction and. This kind of repetition quickly becomes boring. Here are some ways to combine ideas in a sentence:

• Use a series to combine three or more similar ideas: The unexpected tornado struck the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a relative pronoun (who, whose, that, which) to introduce the subordinate (less important) ideas: The tornado, which was completely unexpected, swept through the small town, causing much damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use an introductory phrase or clause for the less important ideas: Because the tornado was completely unexpected, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Use a participial phrase (a phrase that includes a verb ending with –ing or –ed) at the beginning or end of a sentence: The tornado swept through the small town without warning, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction.
• Use a semicolon (with a conjunctive adverb such as however when appropriate): The tornado swept through the small town without warning; as a result, it caused a great deal of damage, numerous injuries, and several deaths.
• Repeat a key word or phrase to emphasize an idea: The tornado left a permanent scar on the small town, a scar of destruction, injury, and death.
• Use an em-dash to set off a key word(s) or phrase at the beginning or end of the sentence: The tornado that unexpectedly struck the small town left behind a grim calling card—death and destruction.
• Use a correlative conjunction (either, or, not only, but also): The tornado not only inflicted much property damage, but also much human suffering.
• Use a colon to emphasize an important idea: The destruction caused by the tornado was unusually high for one reason: it came without warning.
• Use an appositive (a word or phrase that renames) to emphasize an idea: A single incident—a tornado that came without warning—changed the face of the small town forever.

In addition, get a book about composition. One good one is called The Art of Styling Sentences: 20 Patterns for Success (Third Edition) by Waddell, et al. Remember that prose has a rhythm just like poetry. Even small changes make a difference to the reader. Pick up any book, fiction or nonfiction, and read one page at random. You should find (emphasis on should) a page full of sentences written in a variety of ways. One of the best ways to find that rhythm, that pleasing flow of words, in your own writing and to make sure you’re not repeating the same sentence structure over and over is to read your manuscript out loud. When the words are vocalized, they sound different from what you hear in your head as you are writing.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.


Fiction tips: How to write a sex scene

SEX scenes are notoriously difficult to write well. Even celebrated authors struggle to describe this basic, essential human behavior in ways that are actually sexy. Too often their best attempts still fall into the realm of the too cheesy, too flowery, too technical, too cold, or too . . . well, icky. Poorly written sex scenes in novels are so common that the Literary Review (U.K.) has an annual competition to award the worst sex scenes in literature. Here’s one winner:

“I slide my hands down his back, all along his spine, rutted with bone like mud ridges in a dry field, to the audacious swell below. His finger is inside me, his thumb circling, and I spill like grain from a bucket. He is panting, still running his race. I laugh at the incongruous size of him, sticking to his stomach and escaping from the springing hair below. All the while, we stifle our noise and whisper like a church congregation during the sermon. He pinches my lips when I yelp, I shove my fingers in his mouth when he opens it to howl. ‘Anne,’ he says, stopping and looking down at me. I am pinned like wet washing with his peg. ‘Till now, I thought the sweetest sound I could ever hear was cows chewing grass. But this is better.” He sways and we listen to the soft suck at the exact place we meet. Then I move and put all thoughts of livestock out of his head.”

Arrrgh! This guy needs to get off the farm more often.

William F. Buckley called lovemaking episodes the “O.S.S.”—the Obligatory Sex Scene. Of course scenes that include sexual acts aren’t obligatory at all, but many writers include them nevertheless. You must decide whether such intimate activity should be shown to the reader (and how much you should show) or skipped altogether. Having two of your story people make love is a natural occurrence, and it could be a wonderful part of your reader’s experience. One can argue that a reader wants to escape the drabness of the world in a novel, where lovemaking is always perfect. But nowadays even romance novels shy away from anything perfect, including sex. Readers today are too sophisticated to believe in perfect sex, even as a fantasy. It’s better to create a sex life for your characters that seems real.

Sex scenes can help develop characters

On the plus side, sex scenes can give the writer an opportunity to deepen the characterization of someone or create a change in one or both participants or in their relationship. Such character-driven couplings serve a better purpose than trying to stimulate the libido. If the sex scene doesn’t reveal more about the characters involved, and hence have some importance for character development and for the plot, either remove it or rewrite it so that it that does. If the rest of your story is written well, you won’t lose information by leaving out the scene. Remember that you can always refer obliquely to the lovemaking or have one of your characters think about it afterward.

My view on this subject is that less is more and that a writer can be explicit without being clinical—without sacrificing passion for physical details. I think a sex scene can be rendered effectively if the writer keeps the five senses in mind and strives for the sensual, the tactile, and the passionate, all of which target the heart. That’s what a writer should always do, because emotions are much more significant to a reader than ideas—or the graphic description of sexual gymnastics. If a writer can do no more than offer a standard-issue play-by-play of physical actions that are familiar to readers, then I’d rather see the writer stop short and go to a scene break, leaving the details to the reader’s imagination. One more thing: Don’t include multiple scenes of gratuitous sex with the hope of attracting readers unless you have embraced the dubious goal of writing another Fifty Shades of Grey.

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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Fiction writing: The importance of rewriting

MOST new writers publish their novel too soon. Once they consider their book “finished,” they start chomping at the bit to get their baby “out there” by self-publishing it. These writers saddled themselves with a self-imposed deadline in order to make that happen. Jeez, isn’t there enough stress in life already?

So why do they do this? Award-winning novelist Lawrence Block got to the crux of the matter, I believe, when he said, “Too many writers don’t want to write, they want to have written.”

Have written.

Think about this. Do these writers take their work seriously enough to want to improve their craft? Or do they just want to be able to call themselves an “author” and impress their friends?

Successful novelists all agree that writing is rewriting. Hemingway said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” He also called a first draft his “junk pile,” meaning that his initial finished version of anything was the raw material through which he could sift for whatever might be good enough to keep. His junk-pile metaphor encapsulates the most painful truth that any aspiring novelist has to learn: A novel isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Hemingway said, “I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.”

D.H. Lawrence rewrote Lady Chatterley’s Lover three times. Amy Tan labored through more than twenty rewrites of what eventually became The Joy Luck Club. J.K. Rowling rewrote the opening chapter of her first book fifteen times. For one story that was 20,000 words when finished, James Thurber wrote a total of 240,000 words and fifteen different versions.

Some quotes on rewriting

“The biggest difference between a writer and a would-be writer is their attitude toward rewriting. Unwillingness to revise usually signals an amateur.” — Sol Stein

“A first draft is nothing more than raw potential; to rewrite is to take that potential and use it to create a complete story or novel, which is just as much an art form as a painting or a symphony.” — James Thurber

“Writing without revising is the literary equivalent of waltzing gaily out of the house in your underwear.” — Fantasy writer Patricia Fuller

“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

“I have rewritten—often several times—every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

“Writing is rewriting. Books are not written—they’re rewritten.” — Michael Crichton

Don’t allow your excitement and impatience to get your book published compel you to do so before it’s ready for prime time. No matter how many times you give your manuscript a superficial rereading and how many friends and writing group members read it, what you have written is a first draft. As such, it should be professionally edited and rewritten at least twice. If you don’t do this, you are setting yourself up for a heavy dose of disappointment and embarrassment when readers trash your work with one- and two-star reviews on Amazon. Read some of those bad reviews—the ones NOT written by friends, family members, and family pets—and you will occasionally find ones that say the book needed to be edited. I’m pretty sure that any reader who says this is not a professional editor. Mature readers can easily identify a poorly written, unedited book. Bad reviews will kill your sales.

You must try with all your might to delay gratification. Don’t rush the writing process. Be patient. You’ve devoted considerable time and effort to your book. Rushing the process will almost always prove harmful in the long run. Do you really want to “waltz out of the house in your underwear”?

If rewriting seems like too much trouble to you, ask yourself: Do I want to write, or do I want to have written?

Paul Thayer
Thayer Literary Services

Paul Thayer is a full-time professional book editor with more than 35 years of experience. During that time he worked in the trenches of the real world of writers, editors, and publishers. He uses his extensive knowledge to help writers who still have a lot to learn, offering them critiques and line editing of their work.

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