*ETA – This list is a compilation of my thoughts after reading loads of articles and dozens of draft queries in different venues (including critiques of my own queries).  It is NOT based on any one particular query I may have seen in a particular venue.  🙂

That’s right.  I couldn’t stop at ten, so fifteen it is.

I’ve been thinking nonstop about queries lately, both because of WriteOnCon and because I am at that stage with a couple of my manuscripts. After reading many “how-to” articles and draft queries on countless blogs, forums and writing boards, I’ve come up with my own list of don’ts.  Some of these are common sense and you’ve probably seen them elsewhere.  Some of them are my own.  Keep in mind that querying is personal and subjective.  You may disagree with some of these or be able to point to examples of queries that led to contracts even though they made use of a “don’t” on this list.  That’s fine.  Always trust your gut.  These are the ones that work for me.

  1. DON’T misspell the name of the agent/editor.  Most agents say a misspelled name is not a deal-breaker for them, especially if their names have an unusual spelling.  Still, I say no excuses here.  Check, re-check and check again.  This information is readily available online.  You only have one shot to impress this person, and misspelling his or her name is not the way to do it.
  2. DON’T make any spelling, grammar or punctuation mistakes. Unlike #1, most agents are not as forgiving about careless mistakes.  If you make them in a one-page letter, they’ll assume you’ve made them in your manuscript too.  These people work long, long hours and read thousands of queries every year.  They are looking for a reason to reject you.  Don’t hand it to them on a silver platter.
  3. DON’T mention the fact that you are unpublished (if applicable).  They’ll assume you’re not if you don’t include pub creds in your bio.  If they love your writing, it won’t matter to them.  So why point it out?  Instead, focus on the credentials you do have that relate to your writing (writing associations, critique groups, awards, etc.)
  4. DON’T say “so and so” was the inspiration for this story unless it is a nonfiction biography.  The reason?  They don’t really care that your daughter said this cute thing one day and the rest is history.  They care about the story.  You’re wasting precious real-estate in your query letter to convey something that isn’t important to them.
  5. Likewise, DON’T mention anyone who loved your book unless that person or organization is highly respected and well-known in the industry.  Of course your kids love your book.  So might your second-grade class.  And your mom.  Unfortunately they don’t make publishing decisions, so their opinions don’t count for much (sorry!).  On the other hand, if you’ve written a book of poems for kids and Maya Angelou loves it and is willing to go on record and help promote it, then by all means…
  6. DON’T say how long you’ve been working on the manuscript.  Doing so is almost certain to hurt you either way.  If you admit it’s been ten years, an agent will wonder why it took so darned long and if you will ever be able to write a book again.  If you say it took ten days, they may assume you haven’t taken it as seriously as you should or you are querying prematurely.
  7. DON’T send gifts of any kind with the query letter.  Seriously.  Just don’t.  It’s creepy and it will make you stand out in all the wrong ways.
  8. Don’t say your story will be an instant best-seller or make any other promise that you don’t know for certain you can make good on.  Not only with the agent/editor not believe you, they probably won’t believe anything else you say about your manuscript either.
  9. Don’t say your book is awesome/thrilling/a page-turner.  This is similar to #8, but more nuanced.  Here you’re not making a claim about potential sales, but you’re breaking another cardinal rule of writing – “show, don’t tell.”  Your query needs to show the editor/agent how great your story is.  If you simply tell them it is, they have nothing to base it on but your opinion.  And I hate to say it, but you’re not exactly unbiased are you?
  10. DON’T use the words, “I believe…”  In my previous job, I did tons of persuasive writing, and using the words “I think, I believe, I hope you will find…” is the number one mistake writers make when they are trying to be convincing.  As writers, we are supposed to project confidence.  You want your readers – in this case agents or editors – to trust you.  Make sure they know they are in good hands.  Why should they believe what you say about your story if you’re not even sure yourself?  Luckily, this error is easy to fix.  Before:  “I believe this story is timely because the World Cup will take place in Brazil in 2014, which will spark interest in Brazilian culture.”  After: “This book is timely because the World Cup will take place in Brazil…”  Which one sounds stronger?  I know we’re all trying to be polite and respectful in these query letters, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be sure of yourself when it comes to your story and your writing.
  11. DON’T use a question in your pitch.  I once made this mistake in a query of mine, and when I got a critique from the awesome query-ninja Elana Johnson, she called it “weaksauce.”  When I asked why, she said something to the effect of, “People will either know the answer or not care, or maybe both.”  Example: “Will Prince Fancy Pants slay the dragon and make it back to the castle in time to save the princess before the hourglass runs out?”  Answer: “Yeah probably, but now I know how the story ends so why bother reading the book?”  MANY of the agents and editors commented on their distaste for questions as pitches during WriteOnCon, making me eternally grateful that Elana gave me this advice more than a year ago so I could stop making that rookie mistake.
  12. DON’T send form letters or mass mail.  The “Dear Agent” letter doesn’t work and it’s just plain lazy.  If you can’t come up with a reason why you want to query that specific agent, why would even want to be represented by that person?  Another reason to avoid mass mailing is that you also give everybody the opportunity to mass reject you.  Then what?
  13. DON’T discuss your ideas for marketing tie-ins like plush dolls, toys, etc.  Don’t we all wish our writing would lead to a TV/movie/retail franchise?  It’s not going to happen to most of us.  If you spend your precious space in a query letter going over all of your great ideas for just such a campaign, the agent will be left to wonder how important the writing is to you.  Here’s the other thing: the only stories/characters that turn into a franchise are from books that are bestsellers.  See #8 if you’re starting to think it’s a good idea to back up your marketing plans with the statement that your book will be a bestseller.
  14. DON’T lie or stretch the truth.  Just because you met one of your prospective agents’ clients or colleagues at a conference does not mean that person is a reference.  Don’t say, “I got your name from…” or “I was referred to you by…” unless it was crystal clear that person intended to refer you.  Otherwise, you will burn bridges both with the agent and with the author or colleague (because they will follow-up).  Unless a person actually says the words, “You can use my name,” or s/he makes the introduction for you, it is not a referral.  I once wrote a query where I mentioned that I had worked with one of this agent’s clients on the specific manuscript I was querying (true).  That was how I personalized the query.  I also made it very clear that I was not implying a referral.  Although that query was rejected, it came with a personal response and an invitation to query other projects.
  15. DON’T let all the dos and don’ts of querying paralyze you into never sending out any queries.  This is the most important and probably the most difficult “don’t” on the list.  It’s hard enough trying to decide when a manuscript is “finished,” much less add in the stress of writing the perfect query letter.  At some point, you just have to go for it.  I still get butterflies every time I hit the “Send” button on a query, but I also know the work isn’t doing any good sitting on my hard drive.  Sure, if I don’t send any queries, I’ll never get rejected.  But I’ll never get accepted either…

Now for a bonus round.  If you haven’t heard of the Query Shark (Janet Reid from FinePrint Literary), get thyself over to her site at once.  These two titles came from her and gave me a laugh (even though they’re based on actual queries!)

“Don’t quote rejection letters in a query.” Uhh.. okay?  *scratches head in bewilderment*

“Don’t query if you’re dead.”  I will surely try not to.  If I’m dead, I might have bigger problems than the fact that I’m unpublished.

And here’s an article worth reading from the title alone…

25 Reasons Your Query Letter SucksWrite It Sideways

Finally, some query resources you can’t afford to overlook:

Agent Query

Query Shark – The Shark does bite, but only if you deserve it.

Query Tracker

Writing a Query Letter – Posts from the aforementioned Elana Johnson, who is also the author of an e-book on the subject called From the Query to the Call.  I own it, and I can tell you it’s very helpful.

And a couple of my own posts on the subject:

How to Write a Winning Query – notes from Elena Mechlin’s (Pippin Properties) conference talk

A Good Query Letter is Like a Skirt – from Andrea Brown’s talk at Big Sur in the Rockies

And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go compulsively check my inbox every five minutes check my email to see if I have any responses yet…

Agree or disagree with my don’ts?  Any other resources you want to share?  Let us know in the comments.

Categories: Agents, Authors, Publishing, Queries, Writing · Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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11 Comments

  1. #4 – that was me. My apologies to Emma Walton Hamilton! I hadn’t done a lot of reasearch on queries yet and didn’t mean to waste time. Hopefully it prevents someone else from making the same mistake!

    • Cathy, let me be clear that my list was not based on anybody’s particular query. I’ve been reading dozens and dozens of them at the same time as I’ve written my own. This list is a compilation of my “lessons learned” along the way.

      I have made almost every single one of these mistakes at one point or another, btw. 🙂

    • P.S. You should consider yourself very brave for putting your query out there for a critique. We all have to learn and we learn from each other. I got great advice from Emma that made my query a lot better. I am no expert, believe me. I’m just sharing what I’ve learned along the way. 🙂

  2. Stacy S. Jensen

    I’m glad you didn’t stop at 10. I think going with your gut is important. And, it is difficult to find the magic bullet for a query that works. It’s easier to find the things that don’t and avoid them.

  3. Great list of query don’ts and resources here. Thanks for sharing!

  4. #10 is one I have not heard before and it is very good advice! This is a great list and I’m going to bookmark it as a reference for when I sit down to write my query letter. 🙂

    • I have never seen anybody include a version of my #10 in a list either, but it is huge to me. People forget that a query letter is, in fact, persuasive writing. It’s a huge pet-peeve of mine because I used to have people reporting to me, turning in drafts, that would have this weak language in it all the time. I see it everywhere – on websites, in corporate marketing material. 99% of the time, the beginning words can be cut and the sentence will be stronger as a result.

      *there – rant over* 🙂

  5. Great list ~ agree with everything you’ve said.

    BTW: I’ve used #10 before in a similar list, based on my experience in court:
    http://nrhatch.wordpress.com/2010/09/15/7-tips-selling-your-story/

  6. Great post – lots of very helpful tips! Thanks 🙂

  7. Great post, Julie, I shall be bookmarking this! I am almost at first query letter stage, so devouring as much advice as I can. #10 was also new and helpful for me.

    I am not sure about #13, though. I agree that discussing plans for the movie contract may be presumptuous, but I think offering some indication that we have been thinking about marketing strategies and possibilities is actually a plus.

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