As we dive into a new year, you might be setting writing goals for yourself, with query letters at the top of your to-do list. While the writing sample is the most important part of the query, a good first impression can make a difference. I value a well-written query letter in which I’m treated with respect and it’s obvious the writer understands the craft. Here are ten mistakes I’ve seen over the past year that are easily avoided:
1. Generic greeting
When I receive an email that opens with “Dear Literary Agent,” I know the writer hasn’t done their homework. (I’m always super tempted to respond “Dear Writer.”) For one thing, I’m not a literary agent, I’m an editor at a small press—so now I’m not even sure if this writer even wanted to submit their work to me. For another, my name is clearly stated in our submission guidelines, so obviously the writer hasn’t even looked at them. If they can’t be bothered to follow simple instructions, that’s a red flag. I appreciate it when a writer specifies why they are querying me, even if it’s because they simply looked at our website and think that their book might fit in with the titles we’ve published.
Sometimes, the name of who you are querying is unavailable. Then, and only then, is it acceptable to have a generic greeting.
Do not tell an agent or an editor that your book will sell more copies than Harry Potter, that it’s going to make a fantastic Netflix series, that no other book like it exists on the market, or that they’d be lucky to work with you. Do not make demands. You’d be surprised how many emails like this I receive. This is a reason I will auto-reject a query, no matter how good the writing sample is. I want to work with someone to publish their project, not for them.
4. Complimenting your own book
This is related to the above, but it’s a subtler type of arrogance. I don’t auto-reject writers who do this, because I read it as simply a failed attempt to sell their manuscript, usually by attaching complimentary adjectives to it. For example: “My book is a charming story about…” “Readers will love this unique, heart-warming novel…” “I read it to my kindergarten class and they loved it…” The main problem here: this is telling instead of showing. Instead, show me your book is good through the plot description and the writing sample.
3. Apologetic tone
This is the opposite problem to the above. Some writers will apologize because “I don’t really know what I’m doing.” Here’s the thing: you are the first and foremost expert on your story. No one else. You are the only one who can tell the recipient what it’s about—so tell them! You also don’t need to apologize for not having any publishing credits. Lots of debut authors don’t; don’t worry about it. And don’t apologize for taking up the recipient’s time and comment on how busy they must be. Editors and agents are aware they’re busy, so no need to waste valuable space in which you could be talking about your book.
5. Incorrect formatting
There are many resources out there, including this one, on how to format a query letter. First of all, it should look like a letter (with a greeting and everything!). I’ve received queries that only included the headings “bio: ___, genre: ___, title: ___, chapter sample: ___”. This shows you haven’t done your research.
6. Not understanding the market
I don’t mean you have to know how to sell a book. That’s the publisher’s job. But you at least need to know what kind of book you are writing and where it might go on a book shelf. If I receive a query for a Young Adult novel that is 10,000 words, it’s an auto-reject. 10,000 words is a short story, not a novel. Young Adult books typically run between 60,000 and 90,000 words. If you want to get published, know your genre, age category, and word count expectations (you can always go a little under or over, but, generally speaking, know what agents are looking for).
7. Not following submission guidelines
Writers often send many queries out before they get an acceptance, so I understand that this is time consuming. But you’re not doing yourself any favours by sending a generic query out to a massive email list. Take the time to read each agent’s/publisher’s submission guidelines before you hit send. A particularly big mistake is attaching files when the submission guidelines specify not too.
8. Querying a first draft
You’ve typed “The End” on your manuscript. Ahhh. So satisfying. On to the query trenches!
Or… maybe not. While you should give yourself a pat on the back (writing a novel is no small feat!), think twice before pressing send. Editors and literary agents don’t want to see your first draft. And, trust me, we will know it’s a first draft. Step away from it for a while, get alpha and beta readers, rewrite it, edit it, and then, when you think it’s ready for professional eyes, start querying.
9. Contacting the recipient to see if they’ve read your query yet
Agents and editors have inboxes full of queries that they have to go through in addition to taking care of their current clients. Waiting is hard, but be patient. Many submission guidelines will tell you approximately how long your wait will be. Some agents and editors don’t reply at all if the answer is no, and they usually state as much on their submissions page. The ONLY time it is acceptable to do this is if their guidelines specify to give them a nudge if you haven’t heard back after a certain period of time.
10. Asking for feedback on a rejection
This is requesting a free service—that the editor or agent take the time to professionally critique your query or sample pages for nothing in return. There are many other ways you can get critiques and learn to improve your writing, such as through beta readers, peer reviews, free resources, blogs, books, courses, editors for hire, and more. While I would love to help every writer who queries us, if I did, I wouldn’t have time to edit any books. While I am an editor because I’m passionate about working with and encouraging writers (that’s also why I write blog posts like this one), I also deserve to be paid for my work, just like any other professional. The only time I might make an exception to this is if, and only if, I have some sort of relationship with the person querying me.