I get a lot of query letter questions when I speak at conferences and other writing events, and FAQs have become one of my favorite blog topics—they stand a good chance of being useful! Here is the first round of questions about what should and shouldn’t show up in a query. More to come in future posts.
Do contest wins or awards really make a difference in a query letter?
The short answer is maybe—so go ahead and mention them! How much weight a contest win (or second place, finalist status, honorable mention) carries depends on the agent. Perhaps he or she has judged some contests where she was impressed with the quality of the submissions—or not. We all carry our past experiences into the way we perceive things now. In any case, I can’t think of any reason an agent would dis you because of an award (no past experience is that bad, hopefully!) so there’s no reason not to include it. The other determining factor is the contest itself—is it a prestigious national award, like the Golden Heart for romance or the Writers of the Future contest for SF/F? Having one of those on your belt will carry serious weight, while a less famous contest may not. Somewhere in the middle are the contests sponsored by chapters of major organizations, like RWA, and open to the general public. My advice is always to start your query with a knock-out: if you’ve got a prestigious conference win, put it in your first paragraph, not in your bio at the end, where the agent could miss it. For smaller contest wins, do include them in the latter part of your query, but start off with your dynamite hook/pitch paragraph.
How about membership in writers’ organizations? Should I mention that?
Once again the verdict is: won’t hurt, might help. Belonging to widely respected organizations like RWA, MWA, SCBWI, SFWA, etc. shows you are invested in your craft and your writing career. So does membership in a less known organization; it just won’t pack quite the same punch.