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Query Dos and Don'ts

I did this list years ago for a talk and have since modified or added to it as things have come along.  Thought it might be useful to post here:


-The query letter is basically an introduction to the writer; the synopsis is the introduction to the story.

-The query should tell the agent/editor something about you, perhaps by what authority you write about the things you do. For example, if you’re writing medical suspense, perhaps you or someone close to you is a doctor or nurse.  This would be important to note because it goes to your credibility. 

-It should be written by the writer (not your secretary, mother, best friend, fictional protagonist, etc.).

-This is an agent/editor’s first introduction to your work.  Do not rush it through the door without careful proofreading.  Standard mistakes often seen: typos, mistaking the agent/editor’s name or sex (a Mr. instead of a Ms.), mixing up letters and envelopes so that one agent/editor receives a letter meant for another.  Do what research you can to target the right person at each agency or publishing house.

-Check an agency's website for submission guidelines and then follow them!

-For hardcopy submissions, always include a self-addressed stamped envelope (stamped, no meter strips) for the response even if you don’t want the material returned.  In case the SASE gets separated from the query, your address and manuscript title should be included in your cover letter.  Your name and the title should appear on each page of a manuscript or synopsis. 

-This may seem obvious, but make sure you've put enough postage on your submission that it actually gets to its destination.  When I took hardcopy submissions, I received at least four a week with postage due.  The agency won't pay your postage.  Also, if you want delivery confirmation, pay for it.  Don't call or e-mail the agent to ask whether your query is among the 200-300 they received that month.

-Arrogance is a turn off.  Do not suppose that your first novel will break all sales records and become a blockbuster movie.  While this does happen on occasion, it is rare and an agent/editor does not want to take on someone they suspect will have unrealistic expectations and thus be difficult to work with.

-Do not use an unreadable font because you think it is interesting and different.  Do not use neon paper or stationary with busy backgrounds.  Everyone in the field has troublesome eyesight due to squinting at so much small type.  The more work the professional has to do, the greater the chance that your work will be put aside.

-Synopses may be single-spaced, but manuscripts should be unbound, double-spaced, 12 point type and printed on only one side of a page.  The manuscript title and author’s last name should appear at the top of each page.  All pages should be numbered.  (Note: be sure that the length of your manuscript is appropriate for the genre in which you’re writing.)

-Allow humor to show through, but don’t try to get too cutesy with your queries.  [You may laugh, but I know editors who have received plastic fish (plural) and other oddities from aspiring writers who thought that this would be a unique way to approach editors.]

-Do not put down other writers of your genre.  Remember that the agents you’re approaching should love the genre in which you write and will only be offended by disparaging comments about your peers.  By the same token, you should not put down other professionals who have declined your work or include previous rejection letters, no matter how complimentary they were.

-It’s not a good idea to query on many books at one time.  While you may want to let an agent/editor know that you’ve got more than one novel in you, it’s best to choose one book on which to focus.  While many successful writers were first published several manuscripts down the line, it will not give the best impression. 

-Do not send a letter encouraging an agent or editor to go visit a website to read your submission.  We have too many queries awaiting our attention to go looking for work.

-Don’t try to rush the agent/editor along with a line like “I look forward to your speedy response.”  Rejection takes much less time than a careful read.

Query Etiquette

-Do mention if it's a simultaneous submission.   At the query letter stage this is expected, but at the partial or full manuscript stage, the status should definitely be disclosed.  It's good manners and can hurt your chances with an agent if we find out later what we should have known up front.  In addition, if you sign with an agent, do the other agents looking at your work the courtesy of letting them know right away so they don't spend their limited time reading something that's no longer available.

-If an agent or editor spends significant time commenting on your work, give him or her the courtesy of a first look at the revision should you decide to revise. 


In Closing

-All this aside, remember that an agent is looking for good material.  One of the most exciting things about our job is finding new talent.  The above aren't meant to be discouraging but simply to give you the best chance of standing out in the right way.


simple counter


( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 17th, 2008 01:19 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting this (and all the other stuff you've posted about queries and submissions). I will probably be putting it all to good use in the not-so-distant future... :)
Jun. 26th, 2010 03:57 am (UTC)
I know someone like you!
Jun. 17th, 2008 01:22 pm (UTC)
Ah, the dread pink plastic fish! I wonder whatever happened to mine....

(yes, folks, thequery letter really was rolled up inside of a hollow pink plastic fish. No, we were not impressed. Except in a really bad way.)
Jun. 17th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
You have any more don'ts to add?
Jun. 17th, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC)
I think you covered most of them, except of course the ones we're too sane to think of (stop and parse that a moment, willya?) that someone will come up with tomorrow...

The most basic, helpful advice I can give people is that your submission is your resume. Sure, you can use pink paper and purple script and it will stand out from all the others... but not in a good way. Really. Editors don't want twee. They want professionals who know that the only thing that's important is that the story works. Flash and twee doesn't do that. Good writing well-presented, does. End of argument.

Jun. 18th, 2008 01:06 pm (UTC)
Scented paper is probably also a bad idea for places that take paper subs.
Jun. 17th, 2008 02:17 pm (UTC)
Good to see this again. If you don't mind, I'd like to link it at my LJ. Lots of hopefuls there.
Jun. 17th, 2008 02:26 pm (UTC)
Go for it!
Jun. 17th, 2008 03:08 pm (UTC)
Nice post :)

Check an agency's website for submission guidelines and then follow them!

Sadly enough too many aspiring writers won't read submission guidelines if they jump at them... ;)

wait a minute, "hollow, pink plastic fish"? Oh dear...

Jun. 17th, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
Here via kradical.

Thanks for the info. Very helpful for a flailing newbie writer (such as myself.) :)
Jun. 17th, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)
Thank you! This information is always so helpful!!!
Jun. 17th, 2008 04:40 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this.

Pink plastic fish? What's next? Flamingoes in the yard?
*shakes her head and giggles*
Jun. 17th, 2008 05:13 pm (UTC)
Here via otterdance's LJ. Thanks for the very helpful info!

The plastic fish is an amusing idea. ;)
Jun. 17th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)
Thank you for your post! Very awesome! I have a couple F-listers who would be interested in this information, so I will share the link to this post with them. :)
Jun. 17th, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC)
I've always wondered what to add about yourself if you have no writing credits yet. I always struggle with this part. Any suggestions?
Jun. 17th, 2008 07:31 pm (UTC)
You might mention if you're part of a writers group or organization, any interesting travel or experience you have pertaining to your subject or simply say that this is your first novel. While writing credits might get an agent or editor to read a little farther when they might be inclined to stop, they don't get an author repped or a work offered for. Only the quality of the work itself will do that.
Jun. 17th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the informationg. I've wondered about mentioning writing groups that one belongs to in a query. :)
Jun. 17th, 2008 07:47 pm (UTC)
(Here via kradical.) Excellent list; I've been struggling with a query letter, and this is very helpful. Thanks for posting it!
Jun. 17th, 2008 08:34 pm (UTC)
I'm in the query process now, and am disturbed by the "disclose simultaneous submission at the partial stage", since I, er, didn't do this.

I was planning to do so when I had more than one full requested but I didn't realize I should also be doing it at this stage. The partial is now with three agents. I'm assuming I shouldn't email and tell them now? Or should I?

And what about the first one who requested it, at which point it wasn't simultanous? Do I email that one?

Egad. No wonder my hair's going gray. :)
Jun. 17th, 2008 08:53 pm (UTC)
If no one requested a single (otherwise known as an exclusive) submission, which would be pretty unusual at the partial stage, I don't think you have to go back and tell everyone now, but in the future it's a good thing to do.
Jun. 24th, 2008 04:36 pm (UTC)
follow-up to sim sub question
Do you mind one more question about this for clarification? Am I reading this correctly that if I have an agent considering a partial, and I am querying other agents, I should let them know someone is currently considering the partial? Or would I do this ONLY at the stage another agent requests a partial or full.

So sorry to beat a dead horse -- newbie writer anxious not to offend, OR waste busy agent's time!
Jun. 18th, 2008 01:49 am (UTC)
God, I agree with all of this. I spent a year and a half reading an agent's slush pile and I used to cringe at some of the things authors thought it appropriate to include in their query letters.

My only addition would be not to claim you've published a novel before when it was self-published without disclosing that fact. I used to see that fairly often and it always left a bad taste in my mouth. It didn't help that the MSs were always terrible too and when I wondered how on earth the person could have been published a search on googles always led me to one of several PODs.
Jun. 19th, 2008 11:05 am (UTC)
I'm not sure how I arrived here (I don't blog on live journal) but this is nicely done.
Jun. 22nd, 2008 06:38 pm (UTC)
Jessica at Bookends thinks writers shouldn't disclose this information: "I would not, however, tell agents that other agents have requested the full. It’s not necessary and can backfire. Some might just wait around to see if an offer comes through, and others might just get annoyed because, remember, we all want to believe we are the first and only on your list. Let us live that fantasy."

What's a poor writer supposed to do?
Jun. 24th, 2008 05:25 pm (UTC)
I think you can let an agent know he or she is at the top of your list and have full disclosure all at the same time.
Jun. 25th, 2008 07:00 pm (UTC)
Thank you! That's very helpful.
( 26 comments — Leave a comment )

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