Dear Aspiring Authors,
Brew a pot of coffee. Pull up a chair. Heck, grab a notebook and a pen – it couldn't hurt. Make yourself comfortable. You might be here for a while as you learn how to write a query letter.
This could be one of the most important things you'll ever read along your journey to publication. An exaggeration? You tell me…
A few weeks ago, I emailed about 100 literary agents, asking them a simple question: What is the single biggest mistake writers make when querying you?
Most of the responses began the same way: 'Only one? How about several!'
Over 50 agents found the time to respond, and I have compiled their thoughts for you within this post.
Yes, reading this will take up a bit of your time (20-30 minutes, to give you a fair projection), but…how important is the success of your novel to you? You've (presumably) spent hundreds of hours planning, writing, editing, and perfecting your manuscript. Now, it is time to treat your query with the same respect.
Agents are your gateway to eventual literary success.
Give your manuscript the chance it deserves! – learn how to write a query letter that catches an agent's eye.
As far as I know, this is the most comprehensive list of answers to this question (“What are the biggest mistakes writers make when querying?”), but by no means does this list tell you everything you’ll ever need to know about queries. By reading this post, you will learn every common mistake to avoid, and along the way you will pick up several pointers from various agents of things that will make your query stand out; but don’t quit here! Visit Janet Reid’s Query Shark page. Dip into the query-writing insight of Rachelle Gardner. Google agents and read every bit of advice they are willing to share. (And read the followup post to this one - The Best Query Letters Do What? - in which many of these same agents provide thoughts on the positive things you can do in your query letter.) Study, learn, and practice!
You already know that writing is an art. Now, it’s time to learn that query-writing is an art as well.
Before we go any further, I would like to pause and thank the agents who contributed to this post:
Alice Martell * Amy Boggs * Amy Tipton * Annie Hawkins * Bree Ogden * Brian Defiore * Cameron McClure * Caren Estesen * Daniel Lazar * Danielle Svetcov * Don Maass * Elizabeth Pomada * Farley Chase * Gina Panettieri * Heather Mitchell * Helen Breitwieser * Helen Zimmermann * Janet Kobobel Grant * Jeff Gerecke * Joyce Hart * Kate McKean * Kimberley Cameron * Laney Becker * Liv Blumer * Lucinda Blumenfeld * Lucy Carson * Marietta Zacker * Maura Teitelbaum * Michael Murphy * Michelle Wolfson * Mollie Glick * Pam Ahearn * Rachel Dowen * Richard Curtis * Russell Galen * Sally van Haitsma * Sam Stoloff * Sean McCarthy * Sheree Bykofsky * Sophia Seidner * Stephany Evans * and those of you who requested that you remain anonymous…
Thank you for pitching in and helping each writer who reads this edge closer to their dream…while also (hopefully) making your life ever-so-slightly easier.
I hope your pen is full of ink, Dear Writer. Class begins now…
"Go to my website for a sample of my work…"
"Find my query attached…"
Querying before your manuscript is ready
Note: "Before your manuscript is ready" does not mean "before the first draft is finished." It means querying before you have written the first draft, allowed the manuscript to sit undisturbed for a month, edited it multiple times – during which time you have begun to bleed from the head, due to the number of times you have pounded it against the wall in your pursuit of perfection – and handed it out to people to read, edited it some more, removed about half the manuscript and been tempted to throw the whole thing away, taken another break from it, come back feeling rejuvenated and edited it some more, had some more people read it…and edited it some more. After all this, your manuscript might be ready for querying.
As Donald Maass put it: "Granted, it's difficult for newer writers to judge when their novels are in final form but I can say this: for first time novelists, 99.99% of the time when they begin querying agents they're not really done."
Cameron McClure (of the Donald Maass Agency) added this: "Most writers query too soon – either before the book is really ready to be read by an industry professional, or with a book that is a learning book, or a starter book, where the writer is working through the themes that will come out in later books with more clarity, getting things out of their system, making mistakes that most beginners make, finding their voice."
Talking about the book's sequel, or…
…pitching more than one book at a time
Writing a query that lacks confidence
Writing a query that is overconfident or pompous
Sending a query that has clearly not been proofread
Queries addressed to "Dear Agent" (or anything similar!)
Vague query letters!
Queries with more than one agent listed in the "To" field
Queries that have no clue what the agent represents, or…
…that have no clue what the agent's submission guidelines are
And there you have the basic breakdown. But your pot of coffee is still mostly full. Remember, your query letter is the first (and possibly only) impression you'll ever make on an agent. Don't slam the door on yourself – learn everything you can about writing a good query letter.
Let's take you to the bottom of that pot of coffee…
We'll begin with a video. This was sent to me by one agent who wished to have this portion of her email remain anonymous:
She introduced the video as such: "Here's something that deserves mentioning on your blog. It's making the rounds among NYC editors and agents and details just about every naive misconception a beginning author might have."
Enjoy. And learn.
Jeff Gerecke – who mentioned both writers who send letters to him with a "Dear Agent" salutation and who query him regarding areas he does not represent – told me about a service that generates mass queries to agents. Let's be honest – if you have not taken the time to find out what an agent represents (let alone to find out anything about them and address them directly!), why would they assume you took the time to write a worthwhile novel? As Jeff said in his email, "I do expect writers to submit to lots of agents, but not blindly, so putting my name in the query doesn't seem too much to ask." Sally van Haitsma echoed with similar sentiments: "We assume you are sending out queries to multiple agents, and even encourage authors to do so since this is such a subjective business, but as a first impression it's important to customize queries so they address us by name.”
More specific thoughts on this topic came from Sam Stoloff: "It might be a silly prejudice on my part, but I automatically discount queries that aren't addressed to me personally. If the writer hasn't taken the time to find out a little about me, to make sure that I'd be an appropriate agent for their work, and to put my name at the top of their query as a gesture of professional courtesy, then I am simply less likely to take the query seriously."
Are you starting to get the picture? As Mollie Glick said in regards to the "multiple agents in the subject line" problem: "We like to feel special!"
Sean McCarthy even took this one step further: "I think the biggest mistake that writers make when querying me is not letting me know why I – specifically – would be a great match for their project. I know that it can be time-consuming to customize query letters, but even a simple sentence that references my taste, my background or projects that I've worked on will go a long way towards getting your pitch more attention."
After all, writing your novel was time-consuming, right? Editing your novel was time-consuming. Think twice before you send an anonymous query letter; the extra time is worth it.
Incredibly, this generalized sort of approach some writers take stretches itself even thinner than the basic “Dear Agent” letter.
Bree Ogden's email gave an example of this that was embarrassing even to read (Point 1), and she proceeded to give two more suggestions (Points 2 & 3) that are very important to keep in mind! Her email looked like this:
1. If a writer isn't going to research the right agents for their project, that's really mainly hurting them, but at least don't publicize it to the agent they are querying. For example: When I was a brand new agent, I would get queries that would say, "I am impressed with your sales and recent projects…" It was clear they had no idea who I was. So if you're not going to do your research (which you absolutely should) at least try to make it look like you did.
2. This may be way more of a personal preference, but I do not like getting queries in which the author bio is the first thing on the page. In my opinion it should be last. I need to be hooked by the premise of the book in order to want to continue reading the query. And frankly, author bios can get a bit insipid. Instant query turn-off.
3. Loooooooong queries. There is an art to writing a query letter. And because the letter is an author's key to the publishing world, learn that art. Writing extremely lengthy queries is a no-no and I usually stop midway through because I either lose interest or forget where the author was going. Agents have so much going on….an author needs to grab them with a concise, punchy, hard-boiled query.
One of my favorite agents, Michael Murphy (from one of my favorite agencies, Max & Co.) put it like this:
The answer to your question is an easy one.
The single biggest mistake writers make when querying me is sending manuscripts for areas I do not represent. On my website, in all my interviews, and I believe in most websites that list areas of interest for each agent, it is quite clearly stated that I do not represent YA, prescription (How To) nonfiction, nor genre fiction (SF, fantasy, romance, thrillers). Yet almost half the queries I receive are for these very categories.
I am dumbfounded by this. If I were applying for a job as a dental hygienist, I don't think I'd apply to Jiffy Lube. Writers need to do a bit of research before spewing their query letters to every Tom, Dick, & Harry calling themselves a literary agent.
Normally, I reply with a simple note that I do not represent their kind of work. However, as these queries pile up, I am considering just hitting DELETE. Their lack of effort is wasting my time and their own.
Sorry to come off as a miserly bastard, but in this one area I feel like a miserly bastard.
In other words: If you are going to approach an agent – as Amy Tipton said – quite simply, "Do your homework!"
Furthermore, send the query to the agents! Don't post it on your website and send them the link. Gina Panettieri said, "Don't try to cut corners by simply referring agents to your website rather than writing a well-prepared query. It's great to let us know about your website and we can check it out to get more info about you and your book, but we'll only do that IF you've intrigued us with your knock-out query!" On this subject, Alice Martell put it like this: "If you're asking someone to do something for you that they do not have to do, but you really want them to, you should make it as easy as possible for them."
Remember, agents do not have to read your query! In fact, most of them are not especially looking to add new clients. Don’t act like you’re doing them a favor by allowing them a shot at your work – put the query right there where they can read it, and give yourself a chance!
Several of the most in-depth insights came from Helen Zimmermann, who emailed a copy of the "What Not To Do In A Query" section of the lecture she gives at writers' conferences.
Here are some of the most useful tidbits from her email [organized by headings, followed by examples of the mistakes made under each heading]:
My passion for writing, though encouraged since I was young, has had to wait for my patience levels to grow. I love writing and currently have twenty-six titles underway.
I have two manuscripts, "Max and Lady", a non-fiction about my two Cairn terriers, and "Famous Personalities with Sports Backgrounds", about John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, and 98 others, I can send samples.
Brian DeFiore expounded on this theme with this important bit of insight: "The goal of a query is to get an agent to ask to see ONE manuscript/proposal that will convince him of your talent. After he's drawn in, he will want to hear about what else you're working on. Not before."
Dear Ms. Zimmermann,
I am seeking representation for my recently completely 90,000 word women's fiction novel, The Wilde Side.
I’m Carl Brooke and I been writing for a writing for a while now.
There’s nothing worse than the loss of your first love and that feeling stays with you forever. No matter what that person has done to you, it doesn’t change.
This 102,000 page novel centers on two teenaged girls…
A million dollar idea that can't be passed up has now landed in your hands.
I am sure you get hundreds of submissions, but I assure you that you won’t have read anything like this before, it will really be worth your time.
Accompanying thoughts on this area came from Lucy Carson, who put it like this: "The biggest mistake that writers make when querying is to confuse a confident self-pitch with outright arrogance. When a writer names his/her creative influences, it should never be suggested that this writer is *comparing* their work to the named influence. For example, don't ever say, ‘I'm the next Margaret Atwood.’ But a strong statement along similar lines might be, ‘Like Margaret Atwood, my work explores issues of gender and sexuality.’ There's a compelling way to present yourself without crossing over into red-flag narcissism."
Another example of sour-tasting overconfidence was provided by Pam Ahearn: "This will be a bestseller and make you very rich." Let's start with getting the agent to read 5 pages before you start thinking about the fortune you’re going to help them make!
I'm a twenty year old philosophy major at Vassar College who's recently invested in a box in case this whole writer-philosopher business doesn't pan out right away.
I am submitting this query letter towards presenting my idea for a book I have written in draft, for consideration for your Agency to represent me in seeking publication of my work. The work is completed and ready for pre-reading and editing.
Another agent (who wished to remain anonymous) added to this thought with the following: "The biggest mistake is to start out in a self-deprecating way, such as, ‘I know how hard it is to break into publishing and I don't want to waste your time, but if you'd take pity on poor little me it would be the best thing that ever happened to me.’
That author has already wasted my time by not getting straight to the point. It also smacks of insecurity and latent passive-aggressivity. Not somebody I want anything to do with."
And, of course…
Don’t send query with too formal or too informal of a salutation. You are asking an agent to stake their income and reputation on you – why on earth some people don’t see the need to address someone by name is beyond me. Take the time to get the name right. And the GENDER!
Here are a few examples of common mistakes:
Dear Lieutenant Zimmermann:
Helen Zimmermann Literary Agency
Yes. People seriously address letters like this. As one agent (who asked to remain anonymous) said: "Don't be cutesy or 'clever.' "
In fact, that agent had a number of excellent tidbits that expounded upon the issues already mentioned, and that also presented some new things to think about:
Put something about your query in the subject line other than "query." When you get 50 a day, you are more likely to look at those that give you some indication in the subject line as to what they are about.
Do not make grammatical or spelling errors.
Don't be vague. Provide as much information as possible including information about yourself and any and all background you may have writing or that is relevant to the proposed book.
But, don't go on and on…please.
Don't pretend that you are writing specifically to that agent because blah blah blah unless it is really true and actually relevant.
Don't tell us which celebrities should play what characters in the movie version of your book.
Don't tell us you are working on a sequel!
If you are going to submit your novel which is really your memoir in disguise (the "memnovel" or "menovel") be honest about it.
Don't submit a query for your self-indulgent, no-one-gives-a-shit memoir unless you can write like Philip Roth, you are a celebrity, or you have an exceptional story to tell. Having a mental illness, recovering from an addiction, having a dysfunctional family, living a mildly interesting life are not exceptional.
This was one of my favorite emails. I'm sure she requested that I keep her contribution anonymous because of the brutally honest tone of her response; but…come on, Dear Writer: If you received 50 letters a day that made the same mistakes over and over, you'd be feeling brutally honest also!
Think about that – 50 query letters a day! Now, think about what you have to do to stand out from among the flood pouring into their inbox. That's why you're reading this. And if you're still reading this, and if the coffee pot is becoming ever-emptier, congratulations! You're on the right path.
This same agent added a second email, which was just as useful:
A couple more and for beyond the query stage:
Do not put copyright year and your name on your manuscript. It's goofy.
Be careful about the tone of your query. The tone alone can lead to a quick delete. If you come across as entitled, or overly pleased with yourself for instance. If you tell us with too much confidence the kind of stuff we're supposed to be telling you, that's annoying.
Get a backbone and learn how to deal with constructive criticism. Would you rather agents sugar-coat everything and not tell you the truth?
And if you get to the stage where an agent actually reads your entire manuscript (and spends hours doing so) and sends you a thoughtful rejection with some helpful feedback, the least you can do is write back to thank them.
Speaking of anonymous contributions that were extremely useful, here is one that I have often seen agents complain about, but that only one mentioned:
Leading with a question, like: "Have you ever wondered what it would be like…"
This might not be "the biggest mistake" most writers make, but it's usually an automatic delete! If it's the first approach that pops into your head, it's probably the first approach that pops into the heads of most writers. Don't blend in with everyone else; stand out from the pack!
Rachel Dowen – in addition to mentioning those writers who send queries without researching what an agent represents, and who furthermore send queries that are unedited (and really, how much time does it take to make sure your query is free from errors! – as she said, "I understand a lot of people think of email as a more informal type of communication, but an email query is a vital business communication and should not be treated lightly") – also talked about standing out from the crowd of emails waiting in her inbox: Because agents get so many queries and can only read a few projects out of the hundreds we are forced to choose between every week, it's important that your story distinguish itself from other offerings in the market. If you describe your book in vague and general terms, we won't have a reason to request it. If you're thinking 'this sounds like a successful formula' when you present your plot and characters, stop and rethink how you can present it as less formulaic.
As for further thoughts on vagueness, Michelle Wolfson had this to say: I think the biggest mistake people make is not telling me what their book is about. They give an overview of the book in flowery writing that really doesn't say much, or they talk about the genre or the main characters etc., but they never tell me what the book is actually about and there's no way for me to judge whether or not I'm going to be interested in the story. Tell me who the main character is, what conflict s/he faces and what's at stake. You'd be surprised how many people don't do this.
You see that? Story! Characters! Not "This book is going to sell, like, a million copies." Not "This is the plot." Make the agent want to read your story!
[learn more about landing an agent and getting published]
Amy Boggs put it beautifully in her reply:
The biggest mistake that queriers make is not following our submission guidelines, but that's a boring one because presumably anyone clever enough to check out blog posts about querying would be clever enough to know to look at an agent's website before querying.
So the biggest mistake folks who follow guidelines make is talking too much about things that aren't their story. Sometimes queriers do this by talking more about themselves than about their story (note: I represent fiction only; things are different in the non-fiction realm). Others have long, disconnected lists that really ought to be cut or woven together with the description of the story (a list of settings/countries, a bullet-point list of characters, a list of themes summed up into abstract nouns ("It's about Truth, Justice, Freedom, Reasonably-Priced Love!")). Some just end up running down the events that occur rather than telling me what the plot arc at the heart of the story is. The bulk of a query should consist of 1) the main character, 2) what happens to complicate their life, 3) what goals they now have in response to that complication, and 4) the main obstacle between them and their goal. That is the cake of the query; everything else is just frosting and sprinkles.
Pause, Dear Writer. Go back. Read Amy’s thoughts again. You want to know what to put in a query? That’s what you should put in a query…
One of the worst ways in which a writer can end up giving “cutesy sprinkles” instead of giving “cake” was presented by Richard Curtis:
As in The DaVinci Code Meets Genesis.
As in Crime and Punishment Meets The Shining.
As in Buffy Meets Dracula.
Send me a Meets and you're deleted.
Now, you might wonder how to make your query stand out without being cute or clever (or, as Marietta Zacker said, "free of gimmicks"). How about this: Good writing. Pretty simple, really.
Any good writer knows the importance of "showing" rather than "telling" in their writing, but how about extending that to a query letter?
Here are Daniel Lazar's thoughts on querying: I think the best query letters are specific and evocative – not loaded down with too much boring detail, but just enough detail (little touches of description or turns of phrase) that show the letter is crafted by a real writer. For example, instead of saying "Joe Smith, the hero of my novel, is a quirky kid," you could say "Joe Smith, the hero of my novel, likes ketchup on his Frosted Flakes and never wears matching socks." Ok – I'm not much of a writer, admittedly, but the point is "quirky" was just a nebulous description in the first example; but in the second example, you can instantly get a visual on this kid in just one line – and that's the kind of query letter that makes me think the book will be as evocative as the letter.
In fact, Heather Mitchell said that it all comes down to the writing. And after all, that makes sense – no? "It all comes down to the writing. An agent's first peek at the quality of the writing comes from the query letter. You would be amazed at the number of authors who write long, drawn out, messy queries. A query letter should be a tease – a taste for more to come. Don't give it all away on the first date, and please, show up clean and polished."
Here are some excellent, less-obvious mistakes contributed by Liv Blumer:
1. Don't whine.
2. Cut to the chase, i.e. don't spend a paragraph of your letter telling me how busy I am, cut directly to the description of your book.
3. If you are writing about yourself, be sure that your story has a strong thread of universality. Readers care more about how your story applies to them than they do about you.
4. Recognize that not everyone who writes should be published. Many people should write for themselves only.
5. If you are not a seasoned writer, be economical with your prose.
6. Do not nag or pester. It's a dead giveaway that you will be a difficult client.
7. If you are incarcerated, tell me what you are in for.
8. Don't tell me you know someone close to me, if you don't. I get too many letters that begin with "I am writing at the suggestion of X", and I've never heard of "X".
9. Don't send more than a letter. If you can't "pitch" it effectively in a letter, I probably can't either.
10. And don't tell me what you plan to do to support your book once you have a contract. Start now with the blog, the public speaking, the networking. Publishers want to see that you are already expert in your subject. I can't judge the effectiveness of what you plan to do, only of what you have done.
Of course, not everyone has the same ideas when it comes to query letter mistakes.
Russell Galen provided the following:
Here is one that particularly galls me: "I found you on _____.com."
I'm repelled by the idea of being sought and found on some kind of database. Here's what I want to hear instead:
"I admire your client ____. I did some digging to find out who his or her agent was. This led me to your web site. Based on what you say there, I thought you might be interested in my manuscript. Let me tell you about it…."
Here's another one that might be a mistake to some, and that might not be a mistake to others – this one from Danielle Svetcov:
A big red flag is sharing the mss word-count in the first two lines of the query. I don't care how long the book is; what I immediately want to know is if the writer knows how to tell a story and hold me to my chair. Generalizations about the length, and even subject-matter, author's qualifications, setting, etc. tend to kill drama, at least for me.
At the same time, Laney Becker included "Failing to include approximate word count" as one of the biggest mistakes writers make when approaching her.
This is why it is so important to take the time to research each agent. Find out what they represent. Find out what they like. Find out what they say about query letters! Send a query their way, and tomorrow start working on a new agent. Get to know this new agent. Find out their likes and dislikes. Send a query letter to them. And so on.
The good news is: If you're avoiding most of the mistakes listed above, you're probably avoiding the following mistakes.
If you're not avoiding the following mistakes…may God have mercy on your soul.
Kate McKean listed "Responding to rejections with rude emails or begging for a second chance" as one of the biggest mistakes writers make, and Stephany Evans followed this same path:
There really isn't one "biggest." So I'll just give you one: replying to a rejection with a request for more input – "Why is this not right for you?" "Aside from the fact that you aren't interested, was this a good letter?" "How can I improve my pitch?" "Can you recommend someone else?" Most agents are too busy to engage in a conversation like this with an author they are passing on. There are only so many minutes in the hour and we've got dozens of emails to reply to, all sorts of work to do for our clients, meetings and lunches to attend, as well as reading (which mostly is done out of the office, at home, while traveling, on our weekends and 'vacations').
Don't get yourself blacklisted! There are always other doors, as long as you don't close them all yourself.
Sheree Bykofsky contributed the following:
The biggest mistake is using bad grammar in the first sentence. Well, the biggest mistake actually would be walking into the agent's office with a query letter that uses bad grammar in the first sentence. That's my final answer.
Please grasp this: You never call an agent, and you never, NEVER go into an agent's office. Ever.
And finally (I hope I don't have to tell you this, but…), you never do this either (courtesy of Helen Breitwieser) –
A guy once Googled me and used my younger sister's name and my high school in a query letter, as in, "imagine your sister (insert name here) was found dead in the trunk of a car in the parking lot of (insert high school here)" then he wrote, "now that I have your attention." Bad idea.
The coffee pot is empty. Your butt hurts from sitting so long. And now, you know all the bad ideas.
Dear Writer, avoid these bad ideas. Write a query letter that will stand out from the slush pile, and that will provide you with open doors. The road is long and the footing is slippery, but the checkpoints are worth the work.
Keep doing what you're doing, and soon you'll be sharing drinks with your agent and laughing at the mistakes other writers are making.
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