Earlier this year, I shared several query letter red flags. Recently, I’ve noticed a few other things in my submissions pile that I haven’t covered yet, so I thought I would add a few more tips to my original list.
Why are certain mistakes “red flags”? Well, editors and agents read thousands of queries and pitches, and we see many of the same mistakes over and over again. Often, these mistakes indicate that the book is probably not working. 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. 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 (more):
- Including extra materials
You’d be surprised how often authors send me extraneous materials when querying. Some things I’ve received along with queries: author photos, artwork (for a non-illustrated book), detailed timelines and character sheets, outlines, and more. When I worked at a literary journal where we accepted physical submissions, we even got printed copies of the author’s previous book, pamphlets, and poetry chapbooks. None of this is necessary. Include only what the agent/editor requests in their guidelines, and nothing more. At best, it will be ignored, and you’ll have wasted your time sending it; at worst, it will make your submission look unprofessional.
- Pitching to the agent/editor on social media
This isn’t so much a querying guideline as an etiquette one, but I still see it frequently enough that I think it’s worth mentioning: don’t try to pitch your book directly to an agent or editor on social media. It’s intrusive. Even during a pitch contest, don’t tag an agent/editor directly. It’s not that we don’t want to interact with writers, of course; it’s that having authors pitch to us on social media prevents us from interacting, because eventually we’d be overwhelmed with pitches. Not to mention the fact that it’s really difficult to pitch your book in 140 characters, and a query letter will represent your story better anyway.
- Using excessive punctuation
I see a lot of queries with an exclamation point at the end of every single sentence (or every other sentence). I also see a few overusing punctuation in other ways, like using lots of semicolons or dashes. Be sure to double-check your query, just like you double-check your manuscript, to make sure that you’re not accidentally undermining your writing with distracting punctuation choices.
- Including blurbs from family/friends
Most writers know, I think, not to include blurbs like “My mom really loves it!” or “My cat thinks it’s great!” But I still see writers trying to get around this by including lines like, “The protagonist’s sense of humor has been a big hit with readers of the early drafts” or “I’ve had great feedback from my critique group…” The problem here is that the opinion of your friends/early readers/critique partners doesn’t mean anything to the agent/editor. We don’t know who you’re referring to, or what their taste in books is like, or whether “my early reader” is code for “Mom.” Unless you can get a blurb from an industry professional—“J.K. Rowling thinks it’s awesome!”—then you don’t need it in your query. Now, if your critique partner happens to be an author I’ve worked with, by all means include their recommendation. But if the opinion isn’t coming from a professional, then it isn’t helping you.
- Including your copyright
This is one I see all the time—and I’ve talked about it before. You don’t need to include any kind of copyright notice in your query, your manuscript, or anywhere else. You don’t even need to register your copyright yet—your publisher will do that for you eventually. For more about this, see this article from the SFWA.
- Using subjective language
I still see a lot of queries using subjective words/phrases to describe their books: “heartstopping action,” “thrilling conclusion,” “poignant exploration of love and loss,” etc. I understand why authors are tempted to write about their books this way—we see this kind of marketing language in back cover copy for published books all the time. But don’t confuse a query letter with cover copy. Your job in a query letter isn’t to tell a reader how much they’re going to love your book; it’s to tell the agent/editor what it’s about and why it’s a good fit for them in a way that’s enticing and succinct. Avoid using subjective language, and stick to the facts. Saying that your protagonist is “impatient and headstrong” is fine, but saying that “her endearingly quirky personality will appeal to readers of all ages” is too subjective.
I know there are many other mistakes that I see—in fact, I may do a Part 3 in the future—but avoiding these errors will help you make a better impression on the agent or editor reading your submission.
What do you think? Have you made any of these errors in your query? 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.