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How much do writing credits matter? What should I include?

When it comes to query letters, I get these questions a lot from newer writers. So, I decided to do a blog post about writing credits for anyone else out there who is wondering the same thing.

As I always state when giving advice: I strive to give the best I possibly can, but I’m just one person. Other authors have had different experiences than mine, and accordingly, will have different advice. Like with many things, it’s best to do some research, read multiple blogs, and figure out what’s ideal for you, your query, and your novel.

That being said, here’s my advice on what to include for your writing credits and how to do it.

Short Stories and Other Published Fiction

Short stories, traditional small presses, or other print media may be the strongest writing credit you can list in your query, especially if it’s in the same genre as the novel you are pitching. This tells an agent you are already writing in the genre you love and are good/original enough to get paid and/or printed for it. Also, it shows you’re not just in this for one book. You love what you do and have already written other stories of similar ilk to your novel.

How to include it in your query: “My short fiction has been published at [insert magazines/journals/etc. here]” or “My debut novel was published by [insert small press here.]”

What doesn’t count: publications without a rejection rate (i.e. – they publish everything they receive), like your high school newspaper.

Self-Published Fiction

There seems to be some misunderstanding on the internet that self-publishing a novel will lead to an agent and a traditional publishing deal. Typically, this is not the case.

Self-published books matter when they have significant sales to back them up. By significant, I mean thousands within a set time period. Now, if you’ve won an award for a self-published work, then that has some merit too. Since anyone can self-publish, an award can signal to an agent that your writing is probably worthy of attention.

How to include it in your query: “My self-published novel TITLE sold 10,000 copies in three months’ time” or “My self-published novel TITLE won the XX award for best YA debut.”

What doesn’t count: Self-published works with little to no sales.

Education, Occupation, and Other Related Experience

There are a few ways to draw credentials from your education, occupation, and other experience. First, and most obvious, is any writing or publishing experience.

Include in your query if you:

  • Have a degree or other post-secondary education in writing or publishing
  • Have worked in a field related to writing or publishing (i.e. – a magazine, newspaper, book publisher, library, etc.)
  • Get paid to write/edit/copy edit for your day job

Now, education and experience outside of writing and publishing can be relevant to your book if the topic you’re writing about is directly related. For example: if you’re writing a legal thriller and you’re an attorney, then mention your profession in the query. It tells the agent you understand the terminology and topic you’re writing about, even if it’s been fictionalized.

Teaching is another relevant credential if you’re writing about the same age group you teach. Charity work can count as well. If you spend your nights volunteering at a soup kitchen and your book is set there, include that. A basic rule of thumb is: if you’ve spent a significant amount of time dealing with the topic of your book, whether through your occupation, education, or hobby, it’s probably worth mentioning.

How to include it in your query: “I have taught 10-12-year-olds for fifteen years, and in return, they have taught me a lot about what they want to see in books” or “After working for ten years as a medical tech, I decided to combine my love of writing and my occupation in my medical mystery” or “In 2008, I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from [insert academic institution here.]”

What doesn’t count: There’s a fine line here and it’s up to you to decide if your experience is relevant. If you’ve only taught a certain age of students for three months, do you really know that age group well? Overall, don’t stretch your education or experience into a credential. It can be painfully obvious.

What if I have no writing credits? Am I doomed?

Don’t fret if you have no writing credits or relevant experience to list. Here’s the bottom line: a good story is a good story. No number of credentials can force an agent to fall in love with your book. Just write what you love and the story will shine.

However, don’t go out of your way to emphasize your lack of experience. You want to sound confident in your query and downplaying your experience can have the opposite effect. When you get to the end of your query letter, simply sum up with a single line listing the title, word count, age category and genre.

What to include: “TITLE is a YA sci-fi novel complete at 75,000 words.” That’s it. After this line, you can thank the agent for considering you and end with your name and/or signature. Nothing else is needed.

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