Query Letter Red Flags (Part 3)

typewriterIn honor of the Pitch Wars writing contest gearing up this year, I thought I’d revisit my Query Letter Red Flags series (you can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here). As someone who routinely reads through a submission pile, I see a lot of similar querying mistakes. While none of these issues will make me outright reject a manuscript, they’re red flags that will make me more hesitant about the submission. Here are a few:

  1. Explaining the lesson your character/reader will learn

I see this a lot in children’s fiction, but it can happen in adult queries too. I know it’s tempting for writers to explain the themes of their work and discuss why they feel it’s important. But this can be a red flag for a manuscript that focus more on the lesson the reader is supposed to learn than the story itself. Readers don’t want to be preached to; they want a good story. When I’m reading your query, I want to see evidence of a compelling hook and strong story structure. And if your story does have an important thematic lesson, that’s something I can discover for myself when I read it.

  1. Using vague phrases

I see a lot of pitches that use vague phrases that make it difficult to understand what the story is about. Examples: “everything changes” or “it all goes wrong” or “nothing will ever be the same.” These are okay in certain contexts, but often they’re just too vague to tell me anything meaningful about the story.

For example, when describing what will happen if the villain succeeds, saying that they’ll “change the world as we know it” is too vague. What will change? What’s at stake for the protagonist? Be as specific as you can.

  1. Quoting your manuscript

I sometimes see queries that pull direct quotes from the manuscript. Frankly, I think this is a waste of space in a query, even if the quote is a good one. It’s hard to judge lines out of context, and they don’t really tell me what I need to know about a story. This ties in with the vagueness issue, and it’s also a sign that you don’t really know how to pitch your manuscript. I think writers are tempted to do this because we see it in book marketing all the time—quotes are used in advertisements or on the back of book jackets. But your query is not an advertisement; it’s a professional business letter. Focus on crafting a strong pitch, and leave the great quotes in the manuscript itself.

  1. Having a lengthy author bio

It’s certainly a good thing to have a lot of writing credits. But excessively lengthy bios are both time-consuming to wade through and usually a sign that the writer is padding their query with things that aren’t really relevant. I don’t need to know that you were valedictorian or that your work appeared in a tiny publication that wasn’t widely read, for instance. If you have relevant writing credits, by all means include them. But if you don’t, I’d rather you not include an author bio at all than include one with lots of padding. If your bio just says, “I have such-and-such day job and live in such-and-such state,” that’s perfectly okay. A lack of writing credits won’t hurt you; an obnoxious bio might.

What do you think? Have you made any of these errors in your query? What are some other querying mistakes? Let me know in the comments!

Interested in professional editorial services for your query letter, manuscript, or other submission materials? Check out my Services page for more information about what I offer.

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.

Related Links:

Getting Attention with Your Query Letter

5 Things to Know Before Getting an Agent

Agent Red Flags

What I Wish I’d Known While Querying


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