Janey Burton


Editor & Contracts Negotiator


The pitch letter

A basic structure for a pitch letter

The synopsis

A basic structure for a synopsis

The ‘Don’ts’ of submitting

Do your best

If your pitch letter does not intrigue and compel a literary agent to read your sample chapters, they won’t get as far as reading them. If your synopsis doesn’t show where the narrative is heading and make them want to read the rest, they won’t ask for the full manuscript. So, how do you go about writing these essential elements of a fiction or narrative non-fiction book submission?

The pitch or covering letter must be persuasive enough to induce the agent to read through the rest of the submission package. Naturally, the opening chapters of the manuscript must be equally compelling, so they ask for more. They might read the synopsis after the chapters, or before, but it should give the agent good reason to hope the rest of the manuscript lives up to its promise.

The pitch letter

So, how do you write the pitch letter? It should be concise, around 300 words so it fits on one page. Address the literary agent by name (no Dear Sir/Madams please, they go in the bin). Follow the submission instructions each agent or agency has provided on their website. Don’t depart from the submission guidelines because you think your way is ‘better’ – the agents and their assistants are the ones who actually have to deal with a teetering pile of submissions, and they just want you to do as you’re asked.

Your tone should be professional, but not too formal. If it’s possible to personalise the letter, do so – for instance, you met at an event or conference and the agent invited you to submit – but if there’s no material for personalisation, skip it rather than forcing it. You can instead show your attention to their work by mentioning one or two books on their list and why you liked them. You can also compare your book to others, not represented by them, if it gives a sense of where your book will sit in the market and who its intended audience is.

Strive for simplicity: simple is much more compelling than self-consciously quirky.

A basic structure for a pitch letter

  1. Introduction: Book title; category, genre, subgenre; and word count.
  2. Get the agent’s interest: Clearly describe the hook or premise, and in a short paragraph describe the story and persuade the agent to read on. This is the crucial bit.
  3. If the book is first in a planned series, say so briefly here.
  4. Your bio: a little about your background and your writing experience.
  5. ‘Thank you for your time…’ and end the letter.

The synopsis

The synopsis should also be one page long, and again you are aiming for concise and compelling.

One way to start is with a pitch line. This is one line that hooks the reader and summarises what the book is about. It needs to be strong, as it may be used to describe the book to several different people who need to work on and around it before publication, and then to readers.

Keep the synopsis simple and fairly broad. You should describe the key points of the story, and its themes, but you don’t need to list every character or describe every twist and turn.

Should you tell the ending in the synopsis? Well, it’s not marketing copy, so trying to ‘tease’ the ending isn’t really appropriate, but this depends on the agent and whether they want to approach the story as a reader, and unless they’ve given that information on the website or in an interview you can’t know the answer.

My feeling is it’s best to tell the whole story, including the final twist or who the murderer is, and if the agent doesn’t want to know the ending, they can skip reading the last paragraph and wait until they read the final chapters of the manuscript.

A basic structure for a synopsis

  1. Title
  2. Category, genre, sub-genre.
  3. Pitch line
  4. Broad strokes description of the narrative. Not too much, it needs to be easy to read and create interest in reading more of the manuscript.

If you’re getting ready to submit, you could book a mini consultation with me to polish up your submission materials.

The ‘Don’ts’ of submitting

Authors, we all love you, but some of you really get in your own way. Literary agents have been subjected to a lot of nonsense over the years, and so the following ‘don’ts’ are pretty well-established.

Don’t submit until your manuscript is complete and as close to ready to publish as you can make it.

Don’t ramble or include a lot of irrelevant details.

Don’t praise yourself. And of course your mum loves it, that’s a given.

Don’t concentrate on your themes at the expense of telling the story, unless that’s actually what the book is about – if it’s about addiction or about grief, that’s one thing, but ‘moving and lyrical and ultimately about love’ might be code for ‘pretentious navel-gazing and no plot’.

Don’t make jokes. It’s better to be straightforward, unless you make a living as a comedian and/or the joke is incredibly and genuinely funny. Jokes about literary agents’ lack of response to submissions, your unrecognised genius, or the number of rejections you’ve received are passive aggressive, and jokes about drinking lots of coffee are weak.

Don’t say you’ll ring in a few days (you may follow up in a month to six weeks by email, and please remember that small agencies and sole agents may not get through submissions quickly). Don’t say you look forward to receiving their offer of representation (sounds arrogant) and don’t say you’ve chosen them to represent you (sounds delusional).

Don’t resend to agents who have already rejected the manuscript unless explicitly invited to. If you’ve already started submitting and are getting only form rejections, you should probably rewrite your submission materials and possibly the manuscript as well, but the new package should only go to literary agents you haven’t yet approached.

Don’t try to be ‘memorable’ in any way except by impeccably presenting a fantastic manuscript. Don’t send gifts, don’t suck up, don’t make comments about the agent’s appearance (even if you think they’re compliments), and DO NOT show up at the office to deliver your manuscript by hand and try to get an impromptu meeting with the agent.

I must emphasise this last point, as one who’s been on the receiving end of this move more than once when I was a junior member of staff, since I hear that all these years later, it is still being rolled out as though no one had ever thought of it before.

I assure you it is not original, it is not impressive, it’s disruptive and worst of all it gives you precisely no benefit – your manuscript just goes on the pile. If you’re very annoying about it, all you’ve done is give a terrible first impression, and in order to recover the book will have to be a stone-cold masterpiece because, guess what, there are good odds the junior member of staff you pestered is also the first reader of the submission pile.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you just avoid all these don’ts, you’ll crack the code and get representation. The list of don’ts is longer than the list of do’s because the latter is a simple and short list: write a good book, then introduce it in a way that makes people want to read it. It may not be easy to achieve, but it is simple.

Don’t, as some authors seem to, get distracted by agonising over these don’ts, treating them like booby traps, and assuming you’re receiving form rejections because you’ve inadvertently set one off. If your manuscript is amazing and you introduce it well, you won’t be getting only form rejections – even if you missed one item on the list of instructions for submission.

Do your best

Literary agents aren’t terrifying threshold guardians who will eat you unless you correctly answer their riddles. The submission process is not a puzzle you solve to win representation.

Therefore, do not approach writing your submission materials as an exercise in defence. Your pitch letter and synopsis are positive tools to introduce the book and drum up interest in it. Ultimately, the really important thing, the thing the agent must decide they can sell and want to sell, is the manuscript.

Just be a professional and do your best.

This article was first posted on 23rd May 2021.