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As many book authors know, it’s easier to get a query letter wrong than it is to get it right. There are many individual elements to manage in a query letter—and all those variables must work together like a well-oiled machine.
But Writer’s Relief has some good news. Many query letter mistakes are actually pretty simple to fix—once you know how to spot them. Our query letter writing experts will take you through some common query letter deal-breakers and show you how to revise your query to be more effective.
13 Query Letter Mistakes And The Fixes That Work
Nonstandard formatting. Many word processing programs offer writers options for beautiful typesetting and unusual formatting layouts. Professional writers know to ignore them. Oversized margins and unusual line spacing may look beautiful and unique on your screen or your letterhead, but literary agents prefer standard fonts, spacing, and sizing.
The quick query fix: KISS! Keep it simple, sweetheart. Single-spaced lines, standard fonts like Times New Roman or Calibri, typical margins, and left-justified paragraphs make it easy for literary agents to read your query letter.
PRO TIP: Cutting and pasting text from one program to another can “encode” invisible formatting instructions into your text. Strip invisible formatting instructions from your text by first cutting and pasting it into a program like Notepad (free on most PCs). Always test emails for formatting issues by sending them to yourself and to others to make sure they appear in other people’s inboxes the way that you see them on your screen.
Starting with “Dear (insert wrong gender here).” Nothing says “I didn’t do my publishing industry research” like messing up a literary agent’s gender.
The quick query fix: Try “Dear first name last name” instead. No “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” is needed.
Too many typos. You may think your query letter is clean and error-free—but a book publishing professional might judge otherwise.
The quick query fix: Professional proofreaders have a level of expertise that often eclipses the common knowledge of many very good writers. If you can, hire a professional proofreader to look over your query. Otherwise, ask multiple writers and grammar geeks to proofread your letter.
An overzealous or “clever” opening line. Many literary agents are pressed for time, so they simply want to know the basic facts of the book in the first line of a query letter. Unfortunately, many new writers make the mistake of trying to razzle and dazzle with prose pyrotechnics in their first line. Here are a few of the most common first line gambits that rarely work in query letters:
- A seemingly profound quote from a character in the book
- A snippet of dialogue or excerpt from the book that the writer feels is especially poignant
- A hypothetical question: What if you were trapped on a desert island with nothing to eat but Spam?
- A promise that the literary agent should “get ready for the next best seller”
Although clever first lines might seem like the perfect attention-grabbing hook, many literary agents just find them annoying: They want writers to get to the point.
The quick query fix: Stick with publishing industry standards in the first line of your query letter. State the facts about the book you are offering: genre, word count, and title. If your book summarizes especially well, you can also consider adding a short log line or descriptive phrase.
Click here for a detailed tutorial about how to write a fabulous opening line for your query letter (with examples).
Telling instead of showing. The old Intro to Creative Writing 101 advice applies to query letters too—especially when it comes to describing the book that is being pitched. Many writers will attempt to “explain” their book rather than let it speak for itself. In other words, they will include descriptions of the book that are primarily thematic and philosophical.
Often, these thematic descriptions tend to be didactic, unemotional, and overwritten. Example: The story is an exploration of how a family learns to cope with the stresses of modern life, exploring the nature of contemporary relationships and romances with an emphasis on feelings of isolation due to an increased reliance on technology.
This is boring, and explanations like this do little to rouse a reader’s emotional curiosity. After all, it’s usually a story that makes a person’s heart beat a little faster—not an explanation of a story.
The quick query fix: In a best-case scenario, the summary of your actual story will give smart literary agents a dramatized, emotional window into your themes and concerns. In other words, “showing” through your book summary rather than “telling” your perspective allows readers to deeply feel the resonance and relevance of your topic on an emotional level—rather than instructing agents to make an intellectual mental note of your book’s themes.
Puzzling book comparisons. Sometimes writers will compare their books to others: My book is a cross between Big Seller and This Other Title. But book comparisons can be dangerous. Here’s why:
- Are the comparable books fitting—really fitting? And which elements of the book are actually being compared?
- Are the comparable books you’ve chosen too popular (everyone’s doing it) or too obscure (not selling well enough to drum up interest)?
- Does a “cross between” comparison leave agents with a perfect, clear idea of which elements are actually being crossed? Or does the comparison leave people scratching their heads and thinking, I can’t picture that?
The quick query fix: When in doubt, leave it out. Literary agents are good at their jobs for a reason: If a spot-on comparison exists for your book, agents will figure it out for themselves from your book summary.
Ineffective book summaries. This is probably the number one reason that many writers’ query letters don’t work—after all, the book (or product) is ultimately a literary agent’s primary concern. Unless your book’s summary (aka book blurb) is intriguing and memorable, literary agents may find it easy to say “no thanks” to your query letter.
Here are the most common mistakes that our query letter experts see in our clients’ first draft book summaries:
- Mentioning too many named characters who are not truly integral to the main story
- Not evoking a sense of atmosphere
- Skimping on details that make for stand-out characterization
- Not showcasing precise, clear conflict with plenty of forward momentum
- Trying to pack in too many subplots
- Telling the ending
- Crafting verbose, winding, overwritten prose (long sentences and piled-on imagery) rather than crafting precise, succinct sentences that are easy to read (for busy, possibly distracted agents)
The quick query fix: Know what your book does best and focus on that in your query letter summary. Ask yourself: What elements of my story are most likely to stir readers’ interest (what compels empathy in the face of antagonism)? That’s the meat of your book summary. The rest is just sizzle.
Learn more about how to write a better book summary for your query letter by reading these articles:
- How To Decide Which Plot Points Should Go In Your Query Letter Summary (And Which Shouldn’t)
- Author Checklist: 17 Simple Steps To The Best Book Summary In Your Query Letter | Writer’s Relief
- Give Your How-To Or Self-Help Book Blurb A Personal Touch
- Query Letter POV: Point Of View Shifts In Novel Blurbs
- 5 Strategies For A More Evocative Query Letter Blurb
- How To Write A Killer Book Blurb For Your Query Letter: What Literary Agents Want To See
An underwhelming author bio. Some writers choke when it comes time to create the author bio in a query letter. The result? Bios that are either too spare (The author lives and writes in TOWN with his two dogs) or too groveling/bragging (The author might not have any publishing experience, but people who have read this story love it so much it’s sure to be the next big thing).
The quick query fix: A perfect author bio is a powerhouse of multitasking: it establishes credibility and professionalism, suggests the author is poised to break out, hints at a foundational audience that could be grown via exposure, and shows off the author’s all-important personality—which is a big deal in an age of social media. With that in mind, your author bio will ideally contain the following elements:
- A few publishing credits (anything from local blogs to commercial magazines to literary journals)
- Professional writing group affiliations (writers you studied with, conferences you attended, etc.)
- Educational background
- Current day job/writing situation
- Your activity level on social media (number of friends and followers) and the address of your author website
- A tidbit or two about your personal life
If your author bio seems a little light in some of those categories, don’t panic. Literary agents know that every writer must start somewhere. Here are a few quick tips for new writer query letter bios:
- Write your bio in a casual, first person voice—it’s warmer and friendlier that way.
- Don’t point out a lack of experience/credits. Just stick to the simple facts.
- If you don’t have publishing credits, focus on learning and education instead.
- If you don’t use social media, don’t point that out. But if you are laying a foundation for a thriving readership (even if you don’t have many followers or friends yet), you can mention your promising early efforts!
- Keep personal life details positive: If life has dealt you challenges, what have you learned from them?
6 Elements Of A Query Letter That Rub Agents The Wrong Way
Although few literary agents could easily turn down a fabulous book due to a minor query letter faux pas, avoiding breaches in etiquette or courtesy will help keep you in an agent’s good graces. Here are a few query letter pet peeves that some literary agents report:
Complaining. As a general rule, avoid any negativity in your query letter. Leave out anything that seems suspiciously bitter or pessimistic.
Self-aggrandizing. You know what it’s like to get stuck talking to that person at a party who goes on and on about how great they are—even when it seems like there’s no actual evidence to back that up? That’s how agents feel when writers are overly verbose about how they intend to be the next big-name best seller.
Pointing to non-pro opinions. The editor that you paid to help polish your book is an employee: His or her opinion is not totally subjective. That said, if your creative writing teacher happens to be a super-important person in the literary world, then by all means include a quote!
TMI. A query letter shouldn’t include everything about you or your book. It should include just enough to tempt a literary agent to want to learn more. If your book manuscript has a complicated history, no need to go into deep details. Mention that you’d be happy to share more upon request.
Have your people call my people. Literary agents want to hear from you, not your personal assistant. Be sure you’re reaching out personally (unless health or other issues prevent you from one-on-one communication).
Longer than one page. You may be convinced that your plot is so amazing, or your every publication credit is so engaging, that there’s no way you could possibly contain all that vital information in just one page. We can’t stress this enough: Your query letter should fit on one page, even if you’re submitting via email or submission manager. A three-hour movie can be condensed into a two-minute preview that captures the essence of the film—so your book and bio can be condensed into a one page query letter.
Special Considerations For Indie Authors: 7 Things Literary Agents Love To See From Self-Published Writers
If you’re querying to seek agent representation so that your self-published book could benefit from traditional publishing, then be sure to highlight the strengths of your self-publishing efforts! Include:
- Review quotes from professional reviewers, book bloggers, or other authors
- Number of 4/5 star reviews on Goodreads or Amazon
- Percentage of 4/5 star reviews on Goodreads or Amazon
- Sales figures (especially if you sold more than five thousand books in one year)
- Number of followers on social media
- Organizations in which you participate
- Any special media coverage
As for what literary agents don’t like to see from self-published authors: Few literary agents are going to get excited about representing a book that has not garnered meaningful interest—unless the story is truly an undiscovered gem.
If you self-published but did not sell a meaningful number of books or you did not put a strong effort into marketing, you may have a more difficult time convincing literary agents that your book is a worthy investment. After all, literary agents want to partner with a writer who will enthusiastically and actively promote—and get results from that promotion.
If your book did not sell well due to a known lack of promotional effort, you may want to briefly offer a reason for your choice not to market (perhaps a significant life issue cropped up that prevented you from marketing, or perhaps you never intended to market prior to seeking agent representation).
When All Else Fails, Rewrite Your Query (And Possibly Your Book)
If you’ve made a substantial effort to find representation for your book (by querying at least one hundred literary agents) and nobody’s jumped on your offering, it may be time to consider a do-over.
When is it acceptable to resubmit a book to a literary agent?
There are a number of good reasons for resubmitting a manuscript with a new query letter:
- The publishing market has become more favorable to your book genre since you last queried.
- Your book has been nominated for a fabulous award or received an important new accolade that points to your project’s potential for success.
- You have significantly revised your book.
- You have improved your professional writing bio and revised your book.
- You have rewritten your query letter to be a more accurate representation of your work. NOTE: We are definitely NOT suggesting a “throw a whole bunch of queries at the wall and see what sticks” approach to query letter writing. However, if you felt your first try at a query letter was perhaps a bit hasty, then you may be in a good position to resubmit a letter that’s more accurate/polished/professional.
How long should you wait before revising your letter and resubmitting to an agent?
The answer to this question depends on your unique situation. Trust your instincts. It may not make sense to resubmit a project to a literary agent only a few short weeks after that same book was turned down. A few months might be too tight a time frame as well—but your decision depends on your particular circumstances and your correspondence with the agent in question.
If a literary agent suggested book revisions in a rejection letter, then you probably should not wait overly long to resubmit the project to the agent who offered you the critique.
Should you mention that a book is being resubmitted in your query letter to an agent?
If you had a personal conversation (in print or on the phone) with an agent about your project, then you may want to point out that your project is a resubmission. Include key text from your original query letter in order to jog the agent’s memory. Or, include a copy of the first query you sent and the agent’s reply.
Otherwise, we recommend starting your query letter resubmissions with a fresh, clean slate. We see no compelling reason a writer should indicate “this book has already been around the block but has garnered no interest.”
With some luck and ingenuity, your rewritten query letter will nab your book lots more interest from literary agents—and maybe even a book deal!
Want To Read More About How To Write A Query Letter Just For Your Genre?
Check out our series of query letter blog posts that speak to the specific idiosyncrasies of individual book genres!
- Query Letter Genre Essentials: Pitching Sci-Fi And Fantasy Novels | Writer’s Relief
- Query Letter Genre Essentials: Pitching A Romance Novel | Writer’s Relief
- How To Pitch A Beach Read To Literary Agents | Writer’s Relief
- What You Need To Know For Writing (And Pitching) A Novel-In-Stories | Writer’s Relief
- True Story: How To Write A Query Letter For A Memoir
- How To Write A Query Letter For A Biography, History, Or Popular Science Book | Writer’s Relief
- Query Letter Genre Essentials: Pitching A Collection Of Short Stories | Writer’s Relief
- How To Publish A Poetry Book, Chapbook, Or Collection Of Poems
Writer, Can You Help? Have you ever rewritten a query letter? Share your experience in our comments section!