One Paragraph or Less

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Apr 26 2011

When you’re writing a query, we often stress the importance of keeping it brief. Of course authors always want to know how short, because authors always want rules (and who can blame them). And while there’s no rule to how short, I try to encourage writers to stick to a paragraph or short paragraph or two. Why? Because you don’t want to lose your reader to glazed-over eyes.

Even the most exciting book can be made boring with too much description. I loved The Hunger Games, for example, really can’t say enough about how great this book is. That being said, no one wants a play-by-play of every moment of the book. That’s not going to get anyone to read it. If I want others to read this book, and I do, I need to tell them succinctly why they need to read it. What it’s about in a few short sentences. I need to keep to the back cover version of the story.

If you really want to hook an agent, and later, as a published author, if you really want readers to want to read your books, you need to learn how to tighten your descriptions. You need that elevator pitch so that when you meet a potentially new reader on the ride up to your office you can get them to buy your book because they think it sounds fabulous and exciting, not like some author who either doesn’t know how to describe her book or who rambles on and on and on. And keep in mind, if you ramble on and on and on, it will appear your book does too.


18 responses to “One Paragraph or Less”

  1. Avatar Rebecca Kiel says:

    When I was unable to tighten the description of my book, I knew the story was in trouble. Instantly, I knew what rewriting needed to be done. I think your elevator pitch is good information even before querying agents.

  2. Avatar MissFifi says:

    This is my true struggle because I tend to want to give lots of details. I worry if I am leaving out something vital, then reel it back in. Hence, a query letter is a great challenge.
    Noah Lukeman and another agent, whose name I cannot recall, have said you should be able to pitch the story in four lines or less. A hell of a feat, but it is something I hope to be able to do one day.

  3. Avatar Erika Marks says:

    Such good advice. Even now, while I await the release of my novel, I am STILL honing my pitch, realizing that the real work to entice a reader lies ahead. It's been great to "practice" on family. But of course, they HAVE to be patient, I suppose–and strangers don't.

    It can be daunting to think you have only a few seconds/words to really sell your book to a potential reader, but then we remember the dastardly speedy world of commercials and the lure of the remote when boredom sets in…

  4. Avatar Lorenda says:

    I agree Rebecca. If you can't get the "gist" of your story on paper in two paragraphs, there's a high probability your plot isn't working. I actually write my query before I even start a book, or at least a short synopsis.

  5. Avatar lbdiamond says:

    Great tip. I try to get my query down to one paragraph.

  6. Stil going by the old "3-5 complete sentences equals a paragraph" rule? Just curious if that's still around. I have a fairly good grasp on grammar even if I can't recite the "rules" any more.

    As for the shortness of a query, it's sound advice to keep it short. Advice I'm apparently struggling to follow. Thanks for the post!

  7. Avatar Maddie says:

    Advice like this is so helpful. Thanks for the reminder as I work, again, on my query letter.

  8. I have short queries, but I always worry I'm leaving too much out and that an agent or reader would think I didnt tell enough. Maybe that's not the case.

  9. Avatar Rochelle says:

    How about query letters that are too short? Is that just as bad?

  10. Avatar Laila Knight says:

    I try to keep it brief, but there's always that nagging concern in the back of my mind that I'm leaving something out or that the agent is going to think I'm writing a different genre. So far I haven't gotten a rejection letter saying, "your query sucks, try again." Thanks for the tip.

  11. Maybe if I tell myself I have to twitter the query, and thus scare myself to death with the spectre of putting it in only 140 characters…. then writing only a paragraph won't look so bad.

  12. Avatar J.S. Schley says:

    One of the most useful exercises I did for my query was to force myself to whittle the whole thing down to one sentence, then to one paragraph. I was so happy with the one paragraph that it took effort to blow it back up and play with the other 100 words I could get away with in a query.

  13. Whenever I got stuck while writing my novel's various drafts, I worked on the pitch for the query letter. One, I knew the pitch would need an untold number of revisions, and two, it helped me remember what the story was really about.

    Now I'm to the query phase of my project. Thanks for the good advice.

  14. Avatar Kim Kasch says:

    Loved the Hunger Games too – can't wait for the movie. Even enjoyed Catching Fire and Mocking Jay!

  15. Avatar Jen S says:

    If it's not too much to ask – how would you write a query letter for "The Hunger Games," if you were the author and seeking an agent? Seeing query letters critiqued online is awesome, but I frequently wish I knew more about the book behind them, or more about the query letters for books I've read. So I you could share how you'd query for THG, I'd be eternally grateful.

  16. I gave a lecture on science fiction and fantasy literature yesterday, and student questions prompted me to realize something odd: sometimes summarizing other books in a few sentences can help you learn how to do it with your own. They would ask what a particular book was about, and knowing I had limited time for each answer, I had to quickly figure out what details were most important, and what other details were really cool but not necessary for getting an idea of the story, and discard the latter. I think for some people this might be a useful exercise. If nothing else, it gives you more opportunity to practice crafting these small paragraphs, and one can hope that ability to be succinct and shed the less important stuff carries over to your own books. (Of which there are likely fewer, so you can't get the same amount of practice with them anyway.)

  17. Avatar S. F. Roney says:

    You put it perfectly! Brevity is key.

  18. I found a great way to tighten a query is to practice writing reviews of books you've read. If you can shorten someone elses work into a paragraph, doing the same to your own will come easier.