Previously, I’ve shared my tips for writing a query letter. Today, I’d like to discuss what not to do in a query. As I read through the submission pile, I often see many of the same mistakes repeated over and over again. While I won’t necessarily stop reading because of one mistake, too many red flags means I likely won’t request more of your pages. Editors and agents read thousands of queries and pitches, and we see many of the same mistakes all the time. Often, these red flags indicate that the book is probably not working. So, what problems in your query will prevent an agent or editor from reading your manuscript? What are the red flags agents/editors notice? Here are a few:
- Comparing yourself to a popular/famous author
I see a lot of writers comparing themselves to famous authors or comparing their books to bestselling titles. Don’t pitch yourself as the next Rowling or the next Harry Potter. We hear this a lot, and it often isn’t true. Such comparisons may suggest that you have unrealistic expectations for your publishing career, or that you’re not familiar enough with the market to make a more apt comparison.
- Grammar mistakes or unconventional formatting
Always, always proofread your query letter, and write multiple drafts of your query. Writing query letters is hard, and you probably won’t write a good one on your first try (I know I didn’t). After you’ve perfected your draft, proofread and polish it. A single typo isn’t a dealbreaker, but carelessness in a query indicates similar carelessness in a manuscript. Additionally, make sure that your formatting is consistent and standard. A query letter is not the place to be experimental—it rarely works.
- Mentioning how long it took you to write the book
For one thing, this is unnecessary information that doesn’t really belong in a query. For another, it likely isn’t the good indication you think it is. If you tell me you wrote this 100,000 word novel in only three weeks, I’m going to wonder how you could possibly have revised and polished your manuscript sufficiently in that time. If you tell me you spent ten years carefully crafting and revising your manuscript, that certainly shows dedication—but it also makes me worry that you might not be able to meet tight publishing deadlines. Either way, it’s a red flag.
- Saying that your book still needs editing
Your manuscript should be absolutely, one hundred percent completed and polished before you query. Why? Because even polished manuscripts require editing. Telling me that your manuscript needs editing is telling me that I’m going to have to put in a lot of extra work in order to get your book ready for publication. Make sure that your book is the best it can be before you query.
- Querying an unfinished book
On a similar note, don’t query until your book is finished. Editors and agents are unlikely to sign something that’s unfinished—for one thing, it still needs to be revised. For another, why send us a pitch for something we can’t read? Additionally, this rarely works out well for the writer. What if, after finishing the book, you end up needing to completely revise your first chapters? What if an agent responds right away and wants to see the full manuscript? (This happened to me more than once when I queried. Fortunately, I had the full MS ready.) I know it’s tempting to want the publishing process to happen faster, but concentrate on writing and revising the best book that you can before you query.
- Including sample pages other than chapter one
I see a lot of things like, “I’ve attached chapter five instead of chapter one since that’s where the story really gets started.” Why wouldn’t your story start at the beginning? If your first chapter won’t hook an agent/editor, it won’t hook a reader either. Make your first chapter—your first page—as engaging as every other chapter in the book. [For more about writing engaging first pages, see this post.]
- Lacking personalization
Don’t write “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern” in your query. Do not mass-email your query to multiple people at once. Personalize it for every editor/agent you send it to. Show us that you did your research, and let us know why you’d be a good fit for us. Use the editor or agent’s name, and spell it correctly!
- Pitching multiple projects in one query
Because editors and agents read so many queries, we need each one to kept brief. We simply can’t read three pages describing various projects. Writing a concise query letter is hard enough without making it harder on yourself by trying to pitch several projects at once. Focus on one and query that. Later, if the editor or agent is interested, then you can mention other projects.
I know there are many other mistakes that I see, but these are some of the most frequent. Writing query letters is tough, but by avoiding these mistakes, you’re automatically making a good impression on the agent or editor reading your query.
What do you think? What are the mistakes and red flags I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!
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This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to literary agents, publishing houses, and more, check out other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts.