Article updated 2/8/18
Here are the most common mistakes we at Writer’s Relief see in the query letters that are sent to our Review Board. Don’t make these amateur errors when you’re submitting your work! Some of these may surprise you.
Top Query Letter Mistakes:
Cheesy lead. Don’t be cute. Skip the rhetorical questions. The “What if you were stuck on a sailboat in a hurricane with a mysterious killer” teasers get old fast. Better to lead with the facts; otherwise your reader may feel as if you’re trying to manipulate him or her to create more sensation than pure fact warrants.
Bobbled blurbs. The biggest problems we see with blurbs are 1) too many characters and secondary characters when only the main character should be the emotional hook, 2) a description that’s more thematic than plot-driven (i.e., this book is about peace and love), 3) the author attempts to tell the whole story, including the ending, when he or she should use the blurb as a teaser instead.
Appearance. The letter is poorly formatted (all caps, colored and silly fonts, goofy pictures in the signature line) or loses its formatting once it’s emailed. TIP: Do yourself a favor and test your e-query to make sure it keeps its formatting by sending it to a bunch of your family members and friends to see what it looks like in their inboxes. Then you can send it to agents.
Mentioning prior manuscripts (and/or certain self-published books). If you’ve written three unpublished book manuscripts in the past, best not to mention them. Otherwise the agent in question may be intimidated by your prior projects, thinking, “If I take on his/her current project, the writer will probably pester me to represent all those previous books that, for whatever reason, didn’t sell.” The same goes for self-published manuscripts, which agents will look at the same way as unpublished manuscripts UNLESS you have significant accolades for your self-published book.
The multiple personality bio. Often writers will inadvertently begin their bios in first person, but wind up in third. Be on the lookout for pronouns gone wild! Also, some bios will begin in present tense, but then end in past. And, as always, it helps to have a strong bio! Read more about bios: Building Publication Credits and No Publishing Credits? Get Publishing Credentials: How To Build Up Your Writing Bio Super Fast.
Groveling. It may seem like it makes sense to acknowledge your own humility by pointing out a lack of experience, but resist this urge. Confidence wins hearts.
TMI. While it’s always good to convey your own unique personality in your bio, be careful not to include too much information. If your novel is about sailors, it may help to include your background in the Coast Guard. Be personable and interesting, but do so with care.
Listing publishing credits that aren’t really publishing credits. Be careful that the publishing credentials you’re listing are not part of poetry contest scams or anthology scams. Including bad credits suggests you don’t know the market (and therefore don’t know good writing).
Copyright. Industry standard is to not include the copyright symbol on your work. (For more information on copyright, read: Urban Legend: The Poor Man’s Copyright).
Cover art. If you include cover art, you show a) that you don’t know how the industry works (since writers get almost no say over their covers), and b) that you might just be the kind of high-maintenance writer who wants complete control.
If you flatter, mean it. Agents can often see straight through the “I greatly admire your agency” bit; they know a generic form letter compliment when they see one. If you’re going to take the approach of flattery, be specific in your praise.
Some common phrases that authors should not use in query letters:
This is the first book I’ve ever written! If this is true, you don’t need to say it; better to position yourself as a person who knows the biz (which means you must be a person who knows it!).
I’ve been writing since I was five. Writers who feel compelled to explain that “I’ve been writing since I was X years old” or that “It is my greatest wish to get published” inadvertently declare to agents, “I am a newbie.” It’s presumed that you’ve been writing since you were X years old and now want to get a book published. That’s what every writer wants.
This would make a great movie. Almost everyone thinks his or her book could be a great movie. You want your query letter to ask your agent to do one thing and one thing only: represent and sell your BOOK—not a screenplay, not a series of action figures, not your foreign rights. Let the agent in question decide if your book is screenworthy or not.
This book will appeal to readers of all genres. Literary agents want to work with writers who understand that each genre appeals to a very specific demographic. When you say, “This appeals to everyone,” an agent will read, “This appeals to no one in particular.”
My friends/parents/teachers like my writing. We often read how new writers get a favorable response to their writing from close ones. But unless your mom or dad is a renowned literary critic, leave off any amateur praise.
Oprah will love this book. If the story is solid and the writing is strong, there’s no reason an author should feel obligated to proclaim that a book is the next Harry Potter. Don’t promise what you have no control over. Your work should speak for itself.
Writer’s Relief works closely with clients to prepare powerful query letters and target them to the best-suited agents. And through effective research and pinpoint targeting, we can help build your bio and get your submissions to the literary agents and editors who will be most likely to enjoy your work!
Writing your own query letter may seem daunting, but the experts at Writer’s Relief can help! For our Full Service clients, our professional letter writing team creates effective query letters that are skillfully crafted to entice literary agents and build interest in their books. If you’re a DIY-type, you’ll find an easy-to-follow, step-by-step blueprint for writing a successful query letter using proven marketing techniques in our book, The Ultimate Query Letter Tool Kit by Writer’s Relief.
Great checklist. Great job!
I think you’ve covered some useful points in this article about query letters and I appreciate the access to it. Keep up the good work.
November 28. 2009 10:58
Wouldn’t it be better if there were a universal "query form" where writers could simply fill in the blanks? This would place writers on an equal playing field to be rightfully judged on the content of their work, and not their ability to please individual agents.
It’s sad, in an unsettling way, to read agents’ snarky Twitter comments regarding queries they’ve received (often made to young, beginning writers), and frightening in a different regard to realize that the reading public benefits only from the choices recommended by this biased group whose recommendations are based on initial query fodder.
The joy in writing is fading as writers are no longer allowed to just write, but must also excel in research, editing, querying, promoting, bookkeeping, electronic media, publicity, etc.
Would it be a mistake to say how old you are? I mean, would it be a mistake if you’re only 13 years old? Would that be the thing that turns a literary agent away… or closes the deal?
Rosa, You should always be honest with literary agents. To work with a literary agent, you’ll need to sign a contract, and since you’re not eighteen, you’ll need a parent or guardian for that.
how exactly do you send in the proposal letter and sample chapters via e-mail?
do you write in into the body or attach it?
please help me here. i’m publishing for the first time.
Dear Perly, Every literary agent will have his or her own guidelines that you’ll need to follow. Read all guidelines and follow them as needed. Good luck!
yeah, i agree with pearly. if i send it directly to the publisher and not through the agent, where do i write my proposal? in the body or as an attachment?
Dear Damian, Just like literary agencies, each publishing house will have its own guidelines. Every publisher is different, so read the individual guidelines. And good luck to you as well!
Ha, ha, especially like this – The letter looks bad, smells..:)
Imagine people, that will create such letter
I’ve written a book review for a magazine and would like to interview the author for an appropriate local alternative weekly. Who would I approach first, the paper’s editor, or the author (for whom I do have an email address)?
ThomJ, We’re not freelancers here; our clients are creative writers as opposed to journalists. So while we can’t claim expertise, it would seem that querying the editor would be the first step since you’re pitching to a very specific magazine.
How should publication credits be listed? How many or what type should be listed. I have not been published in any magazines or anywhere except on blogs or websites. Should I mention these articles or posts on websites (other than those on my own page) and should I include links to my own websites or blogs?
Jcc, great question! If you have more than ten or so publications, it’s probably best to cut out a few and only pick the best ones. How you list them doesn’t matter too much; you can list them in alphabetical order, or “best ones” first—just be sure to have some assort of order. You generally don’t want to include “links,” but you should put the name of the website (examplelitmag.com) and say that your work/writing was published in or through them.
You can include a link to your own website/blog, but make sure it is relevant. If you write articles, but only have a casual blog, you may not want editors to feel like they’ve been lured into your site. Either way, put the link to your site at the bottom of your letter, under your signature.
Like N Oglethorpe I do dislike those agents who sneer about query letters. But it seems we aspiring writers can’t afford to ignore the agents’rules. A brilliant post. Many thanks.
Happy to say I went direct to a publisher and look forward to the release of my first novel next year.