Query Letter Basics: The Don’ts

Welcome back! If you’ve read the post on the dos of querying, you might be wondering what not to do. Remember: the goal of a query letter is to get an agent to read your manuscript. If you follow the advice from the previous post, you’ve already improved your chances. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t do the opposite of anything listed in The Dos posts, but here are some other things you should avoid:

Etiquette

I’m sure it seems obvious, but there are several ways that your query can come off as rude or inappropriate if you aren’t careful in the language you use. A query letter is a business email and should be treated as such. Until you form a relationship with a literary agent (and after as well, though the dynamic will likely change), he or she is a business associate who you should treat respectfully so as not to turn him or her off from reading your query and/or manuscript.

Be Polite

We’ve already spoken about addressing agents by their full names, so the implication of that is also: don’t be too familiar with an agent in your initial query. Don’t send an email to “Dear Dave” instead of “Dear Mr. Smith.”

In addition, don’t write in a way that makes you seem cocky or arrogant. Don’t write “you’ll be sorry if you let this manuscript go” or anything else that might sound like a threat. You query correspondence is a polite request for the agent’s time to read your manuscript and potentially provide you with feedback, if not representation. Respect that.

Also, please don’t write anything insincere or saccharine. It may seem like a good idea to add something like: “I have a special connection with you and want you to be the one to represent my manuscript. That being said, I hope you understand that this is not an exclusive submission.”…but it likely will not come off how you expected it would.

Be Patient

It can be frustrating and stressful when you don’t hear back promptly from an agent who you have queried. Generally, these things do take quite a bit of time though. If an agent does not specify anywhere how long it will be before you hear back, wait. Be patient. You might be tempted to email the next week and ask if they’ve seen your query…don’t.

If an agent says he or she will respond in four weeks, give it that long before you send a follow-up. If they don’t specify, wait longer. Usually six to eight weeks (closer to eight) is a reasonable amount of time to wait to hear back from an agent after sending a query. Of course, this depends on the agency, but being patient will become a part of your routine once you have started querying.

Format

Similar to the concerns about formatting that we discussed in The Dos post, there are specific things you should avoid when you format your query letter. These formatting concerns relate to both the readability of the document and the querying guidelines.

Readability

As we’ve said more than once, agents are strapped for time. Making your query as easy and quick to read as possible increases your chances of getting it read and potentially getting your manuscript represented.

A quick way to make your query more readable is to put it in the body of your email. Don’t simply attach your query letter in a Word doc (or other file format) attachment and leave the body of the email blank. Some agencies may like queries in file attachments, but be sure to also write something in the body of the email to indicate what you are attaching.

In addition to formatting your email and attachment, avoid strange or difficult-to-read fonts. You may feel that Papyrus does the best to describe your aesthetic (whatever that means to you), but a simple Serif or Sans Serif font will do just fine.

Make it Easy on Both of You…

When you contact an agent, don’t query more than one project at a time. Not only is it against general guidelines to do so, but it is likely that all of your future queries will be ignored if you don’t follow this most basic of rules. Query one project. Wait to hear back. Ask if the agent is interested in your other manuscripts. Be patient.

About the Manuscript

Finally, there are some guidelines of what not to do when discussing your manuscript in your query letter. The first and perhaps most common mistake that you must avoid: Don’t ask an agent if you can query a manuscript. Just query it. If the agent is taking open submissions, sending a “Can I send you this?” email is the quickest way to the recycle bin. Obey the submission guidelines and just query.

Be Ready

When you send your query, do not send an unfinished manuscriptIf you’re writing fiction, agent will want to see a completed manuscript if they are interested in the project. They don’t want to wait for you to finish. Of course, this is different for proposals of nonfiction books, but that query process is different in many ways.

Along the same vein, don’t send an untitled manuscript. If you are querying agents, your manuscript should at least have a working title. It will likely change down the road anyway, so choose something you like “enough” and use that title. Don’t say that the manuscript has no title.

Doing both of these things shows that you are prepared for the querying process and that an agent would be able to come in and work with you to improve your manuscript, not write what’s unwritten.

Be Humble

When describing your manuscript, don’t compare it to a blockbuster published book. Don’t say that your mystery novel is “the next Girl on the Train” or that your young adult novel is “the next Hunger Games.” Comparing your manuscript to books that have reached wild acclaim does you no favors.

In addition, don’t say that your manuscript’s audience is “everyone” or that it’s for “audiences of all ages.” Neither of those things are true and they both make it very difficult for an agent to understand how your manuscript would be placed at a publishing house. Have a clear idea of who your book is for and tailor it to that audience.

Finally, don’t make promises or assumptions that you really can’t guarantee. It’s the hallmark of an inexperienced author to write in a query, “This book is going to sell 50,000 copies!” Although your optimism is good for yourself, you can never really know how the market will respond to your manuscript. You don’t want to say something like that to an agent—you want your writing to be so good that the agent thinks that to him- or herself.


And so you know what not to do!

As I mentioned in the last post, there are a series of great resources for you to use as your work on your query letter, including Query Shark, a site where Janet Reid, an NYC literary agent, shows aspiring authors how to improve their query letters, and Query Tracker which you can use to organize your queries and responses.

Thanks for sticking around for The Don’ts, and as always, if you have any questions, please post below or send me a Tweet!

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