Nathan Bransford makes it simple: the format of your query letter should be boring and straightforward, and the description of your work is the part you need to “sweat.” (By the way, I stole copied borrowed the blog title emphasis style from Nathan.)
He also links to two other very good recent blogs on query letters. Holly Root at the Waxman Agency also emphasizes the importance of good writing over all else, while Michael at Dystel & Goderich downplays the formatting details while playing up the importance of reflecting your work in the query.
For my own part, I was never too obsessed with formatting issues like font or paragraph style. Considering that I work as an editor in an organization with very strict formatting standards, and regularly kick writers in the face for daring to give me something in Courier New rather than Arial, I can’t decide whether it’s ironic that I’m more relaxed about format than the typical writer (as described by agents) or it’s expected that familiarity with ferocious format issues makes me less skittish in their presence.
But, I have to confess that I aaggoonniizzeed over how to accurately and adequately describe The Ligan of the Disomus in my queries. Asking for suggestions from the handful of first-readers didn’t help much (thanks, tho, guys!) and neither did digging through photocopies of the original short story version that had been marked up by workshop partners. “Melville + film noir + X-Files” was the best I got from them, and that just makes you think of an alien sea beast being hunted by Sam Spade.
Actually, come to think of it … symbolically that’s not as far off the mark as I, in my moment of self-deprecatory sarcasm, would have liked it to be.* It’s … an unusual book.
Given the advice from Nathan, Holly, and Michael, I’m glad that the description is the part of the query I decided to obsess over, even if I’m still apprehensive about how well I captured the story and setting.
*Confession: the train of thought presented here in regard to the workshop’s description of Ligan actually happened months ago, at the beginning of the query process. Like a good writer, after rolling my eyes at myself, I tucked it away for later.