7 missteps that trip your query letter (and how to prevent them)

A query letter has one goal: to sell your manuscript. It's the letter of interest you send literary agents to hopefully get them on board with your book -- so on board that they'll sign you as a client and begin pitching your book to publishers, posthaste.

There are seven mistakes I see time and again with query letters to literary agents, missteps that will prevent your great work from reaching its audience. Let's chat through them so we make sure your query letter isn't one of the uh-ohs.

You can see why the letter is such an important piece of writing, since it represents your larger project and acts as the gatekeeper for that work. An agent is unlikely to read a sample of your book if the query letter isn't gripping.

For a long time, the query process mystified me. I simply did not understand how writers found literary agents; it seemed to me the equivalent of meeting a Hollywood director at a gas station and then becoming the next studio star. A magical fluke. So if you're like old-me and scratching your head over the process, here's how it generally goes:

  1. Finish writing your book. (Like, finish finish. For real. All the way. Use an editor.)
  2. Think about the published books similar to yours. Research online to find the agents who represent that work. Often, agents are thanked on the Acknowledgements page, so take a gander there, if you have the books on hand.
  3. Write a query letter tailored to each specific agent you're sending to, making sure you're hitting all their requests (they might have word count rules for queries, only accept within a certain time period, only want author-illustrators, etc.). This is so, mega important. Yes, it takes more time to do this. Yes, you have to anyway.
  4. Some agents specify in their submission guidelines that they want you to go ahead and include pages of your manuscript with your query letter. Make sure to only include the number of pages they request, formatted how they indicate. If an agent who doesn't ask for a sample up front replies to your query requesting a sample, be ready to hand it over. (This is why it's crucial your manuscript is already done!)
  5. Agents typically say in their guidelines how long their turnaround is. Many agents will email you a form letter in that time period to say they're passing on your work, while you'll never hear from others at all. For the latter group, they might note in their guidelines that you can reach out to them after their projected turnaround has passed without word. Do not reach out with a "Did you get my letter?" before that turnaround has passed.
  6. If an agent is interested in your manuscript and wants the full piece or is ready to represent you, the conversation will start here!

It can be a tedious process with crossing timeframes, so I hope you're keeping track of your submissions. I really enjoy helping writers with their query letters because:

  1. It's super exciting that they've finished writing their book and are ready to find someone to embrace it.
  2. I'm able to halt some true disasters from making their way to agents' inboxes.

A query letter is typically five parts:

I. Salutation: Dear NAME
II. Personalized opener: I'm writing to you because [agent-specific information goes here] as I seek representation for my [word count] book, [BOOK TITLE]. Include info about your genre and intended audience.
III. Brief synopsis: 100-200 words to hook the reader
IV. Brief bio: includes work you've published, if any. Otherwise, include related school courses, writing retreats, residencies, awards and the like.
V. Thank you and goodbye

There are seven mistakes I see time and again with query letters, missteps that will prevent your great work from reaching its audience. Let's chat through them below so we make sure your query letter isn't one of the uh-ohs.

1. Starting with "To whom it may concern"

Yuck. Can you believe we ever thought it was OK to start letters like this to fellow human beings? The time it takes to learn your intended agent's name is some of the most valuable time you'll spend while crafting your query letter -- truly. Even though your letter is likely arriving by email, it's still a letter, after all. It's to someone and from someone.

2. Not explicitly saying why you're writing

I know you're sending a query letter. You know you're sending a query letter. But remember that your recipient is going to receive lots of emails today, and much of it will be spam, meeting confirmations, PTA reminders, coupons, etc. Let them know that you're seeking representation, and do your homework about who they are and the type of work they represent. Be explicit:

"I'm writing to you because of your interest in paranormal psychology as I seek representation for my 150,000-word novel CLAIRE VOYANCE."

3. Not making the connection between you and them

An agent will say on her website the type of work in which she is interested in representing at the moment. That could be as general as literary fiction or as specific as LGBTQ young-adult short fiction. You will already have mentioned why you're writing to them (see #2 above), but show that you know their work:

"The story is thematically similar to PAIR OF NORMANS, Sy Yence's latest book about mystics, which you represented."

This helps give the agent context for the type of work you do, who in their author list you're similar to and how you feel your work compares. We all want to think our work is totally unique and there's nothing else like it, but I bet you can find a comparison. (Can't find a comparison in their author list? You're probably looking at an agent who won't be interested in the type of work you're pitching.)

4. Droning on and on (and on) in the synopsis

Listen, it is hard to write a synopsis of your book. Boiling your beautiful storyline and gorgeous prose down to 150-ish words will feel like you're leaving out all the good bits. This is where the agent learns if you can edit yourself. Too long of a synopsis, and she will assume your book hasn't been edited, either.

Ask yourself these questions while writing this synopsis paragraph:

  1. What does my protagonist want in this story?
  2. What's keeping him from reaching that goal?
  3. Why should the reader care about this story?

5. Forgetting your credentials

Out of everyone who could have written this book (and remember, most stories have already been told and you're just giving the world your take), why are you the one to do it? Did you grow up with parents who chased the supernatural? Did they send you to telekinesis camp every summer? Do you speak at annual paranormal conventions? Do you have 40,000 Twitter followers who hang on your every word about mental powers?

Or maybe your credentials aren't as pointed as all that. Maybe you had a weird, inexplicable experience as a kid and have read only the science fiction greats ever since. Maybe you went to a writing retreat last year and had the chance to pick the brain of one of those writers. Maybe you majored in Creative Writing and have been studying your chosen genre for 10 years.

6. Leaving out your book's stats

The agent wants to be able to skim your letter and tick off everything in her list: genre, word count, audience, etc. Be sure to include it all.

7. Not including your contact information

Friend. How is this agent supposed to get in touch with you? As part of your email signature, you should already have your phone number, email address and a link to your website (if you have one). If you don't yet have this info in your automated email signature, add it now so you don't have to think twice.

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