If you want to be published in a magazine or by a traditional book publisher, the chances are that you’ll have to submit a query letter at some point. At its most basic, a query letter is simply a letter that details your project and your writing credentials to a prospective editor, agent, or publisher. Yet the query letter is a source of great angst for writers because it is often the only piece of information that a gatekeeper will see before either rejecting your work or asking to see more. When one piece of paper controls that much of your destiny, the pressure to get it right is enormous. It’s the first step on your way to getting to submit your work.
Tons of books and online resources exist to help you write the perfect letter. However, in addition to the things that you should do, there are plenty of things you need to avoid, as well. Here are twelve things that you should never put in a query letter unless a fast rejection is your goal.
This is the first contact that an editor or agent has with your work. If it’s riddled with typos and grammatical errors, they aren’t going to take a chance on anything more from you because you’ve already demonstrated that you are not capable of submitting error-free work. Proofread, rewrite, and polish that letter until it’s perfect, and then have someone else (or several someones) read it, too, to make certain that you’re not overlooking something. You want your letter to show you as a competent, careful writer, not as someone who dashes off stuff and submits it without a care. You always want to be improving your writing skills.
Gifts or bribes
Writers will sometimes include items like tickets to shows, homemade items, or even money in an effort to get an agent or editor to look at their work. This strategy will always fail. First, it’s unethical for an editor or agent to accept any sort of gift or bribe. Even if they accepted the gift and swore that it didn’t influence their decision about your work, the perception would be there, should word of the transaction get out. (And publishing is a small world, so word would get out!) A reputable agent or publishing house would not risk their reputation by accepting any sort of “gift.” Second, since they aren’t accepting it, it becomes something for them to deal with, either by returning it to you or throwing it away. See number 9, below, for more about why agents and editors don’t want extra “stuff.”
Anything that reveals your stalker tendencies
It’s recommended that you mention in your letter where you heard about the agent or editor, or any personal contact you may have had, such as a meeting at a conference. What isn’t recommended is that you mention that you know the person has three kids, that they go to such-and-such church, and that you know that their family went to Barbados last year. If you Google the agent or check up on them on Facebook, keep your findings to yourself. Keep any mention of what you know about the agent or editor to the professional realm, only.
Yes, you should give the agent or editor some clue about where your work fits into the marketplace. If it’s similar to a certain successful work, or if it combines elements from two or more successful works, it’s okay to mention that briefly. What’s not okay is to talk about how your book will be the next bestseller, how it will outsell anything by J.K. Rowling, or how it will make millions for you and anyone lucky enough to publish your work. Keep it real, please. If you’re this arrogant and unrealistic in the query letter, the agent or editor is already thinking that working with you will be too much trouble.
“Over the top” language
You want to avoid all “over the top” language, cuteness, rudeness, or crudeness just to get attention. Your book or article may rely on crude humor, bad language, or a unique voice and you want that to show through in your letter. A little of this can be fine if it is truly needed to represent your work and if it is handled well. But when you resort to this type of language and/or style in an effort to shock or get attention, it will fail. If your whole letter is nothing but F-bombs, baby talk, or crude jokes with no purpose, expect to be rejected.
You want your work to be judged on its own merits. That means removing yourself from the equation as much as possible. You don’t want an agent or editor to know how old you are or what you look like until they are so captivated by your work that age and looks don’t matter. Most gatekeepers will disavow that age or looks sway their decision but bias, even if unintentional, can play a role. It’s somewhat true in our visual world that younger, better-looking, TV-worthy authors are in demand. If an editor knows how good (or bad) you would look on TV, on a book jacket, at appearances, or in a book trailer that may sway their decisions. Send only your work and don’t include any mention of your age or a photo that you think would be “perfect” on your book jacket.
Anything not relevant
When you talk about yourself and your credentials in your query letter, only mention credits and accomplishments that are relevant to the work in question. Don’t include the fact that you won your 8th-grade writing contest. Don’t list your work history unless your work is relevant to the book or article. Don’t mention your hobbies, favorite foods, movies, or books, either. Agents and editors do not care that you love Twinkie’s and Pretty Woman. They only care about the project you are pitching.
Bizarre fonts, papers, and formatting
You think you’re making your submission stand out by submitting it in a 14-point calligraphy font on hot pink paper. The agent or editor thinks you’re being annoying and hurting their eyes. Stick to the accepted conventions.
Anything not requested
Agents and editors are drowning in paper. The last thing they need from you is anything that they did not specifically request. This means no complete manuscripts or even chapters, no copies of your self-published book, no resumes, no cute drawings that would make “perfect” cover art, a DVD of your ideal book trailer, and no head shots. You may think you’re saving the agent time by making all of this available to them, but they only see more crap they have to dispose of or send back to you. Only submit what is requested. If an agent or editor wants more, they’ll ask for it.
A query letter should be for one article or book. Don’t submit one letter that covers the three manuscripts you’ve got stuffed in a drawer, or the fifteen articles you’ve got on your hard drive. One letter = one project. Always.
Only query a finished manuscript or a fully fleshed out article/non-fiction book proposal that you are ready to write if given the go-ahead by an editor. No editor wants to read a fantastic query letter only to hear the writer say, “Great. I can have the completed manuscript to you in three months. Maybe four.” You’re not querying a half-baked idea here, or a book of which you’ve only written the first three chapters. You’re not feeling an editor out on whether or not you should continue with the work. You’re querying something which is complete and ready to go, or you need to wait until it is.
Anything personal about you
I’ve already mentioned that you shouldn’t include a photo or mention anything irrelevant in your query letter, but you should refrain from mentioning any other personal information, as well. You may think you’re “bonding” with the agent if you tell him or her that you have three dogs or that you volunteer at a hospice. You may think you’re gaining a sympathy vote if you mention your spouse’s recent death and lack of life insurance, or if you mention that you are disabled. Agents and editors aren’t cold, unfeeling people, but the bottom line is that they do not need to know these things about you. Mentioning things like hobbies or pets only takes up valuable space in a letter that needs to be as brief as possible. Worse, mentioning things like disabilities or tragedies brings up the bias argument again and a gatekeeper will likely steer clear to avoid the perception that their decision was somehow influenced by your tragedy. Talk only about your project and leave out anything personal.
A query letter is a professional introduction of your work to an agent or editor. As such, it needs to be kept professional in both tone and appearance. It is not a place to showcase your “creativity” or lifestyle choices. It’s not a place to expound upon your literary greatness or to discuss all the things that you and the agent have in common. Since it shouldn’t be longer than one page, typed, single spaced, and in 12-point font, you have limited real estate with which to work. Make every sentence count and don’t waste them on things that are not relevant or which may actually hurt your chances.
(Photo courtesy of Andy)