How to Write a Query Letter: 8 Mistakes to Avoid When Querying

publishing querying
How to write a query letter

Querying literary agents is a necessary step for writers who want their books published by a traditional publisher. However, the process can be competitive, and a successful query letter needs to stand out in order to get noticed— and land that coveted book deal!

But what exactly is a query letter, anyway? How do you write one? And what pitfalls should you avoid when trying to get an agent? Keep reading to learn about the most common mistakes writers make when querying literary agents and what you can do to avoid making them.

What is a query letter?

Put simply, a query letter is a one-page letter that you send to an agent to convince them to represent your work. A good query letter typically includes the story premise, a brief synopsis, and the book's genre, as well as word count.  Much like a book proposal, a good query will get the agent or editor excited about your story. Unlike a proposal, however, you'll need to write your book before sending out queries.

Common mistakes in query letters (and how to avoid them!)

Here are some of the most common mistakes writers make when querying literary agents. If this is your first novel, be sure to check your query for each of these before sending out your letter!

Not researching agents thoroughly

One of the most common mistakes writers make when querying literary agents is not thoroughly researching each agent. Agents specialize in different genres and have different preferences, so it's important to find an agent who is a good fit for your work.

To get ideas on agents that might be a good fit for your novel, read books that are similar to the novel you are writing and read the author’s acknowledgments page. Almost all writers thank their agents in their acknowledgments, and this is a great starting point for querying literary agents for your own novel.

Another great way to research literary agents is to go to https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com/. Here you can search for agents looking for new writers in the genre in which you write.

There are also many podcasts for writers that interview authors, agents, editors, and others in the publishing industry. Listening to podcasts for and about writers is another great way to learn more about the publishing world and what literary agents are looking for.

To organize your agent wish list, create a spreadsheet of agents who might be a good match for you. Add to your list the agent’s name, agency, and what genres the agent is looking for. You can also use this spreadsheet to keep track of your submissions and responses.

Not following submission guidelines

Another common mistake writers make in the querying process is not following the literary agent's submission guidelines. Literary agencies and publishers have their own preferences for submissions and manuscripts, and failing to follow these guidelines can result in an automatic rejection. Always take the time to carefully read and follow the instructions provided by the agent or publisher.

To learn more about an agent’s requirements, go to either their website or read their agent bio on their agency website. Next, look through the list of books and authors this agent currently represents. Is your book a good fit for this specific agent?

Finally, double-check your query letter and manuscript to ensure they meet the agent's specifications. Consider having a friend or critique partner review your submission to catch any errors.

Failing to hook the reader

Agents and publishers receive a high volume of submissions and need to quickly determine which ones are worth pursuing. As a writer, you need to make your query letter stand out from the slush pile.

Use a strong opening sentence that will leave the agent wanting more. Give an overview of your novel without giving away all the details, and be sure your overview demonstrates how your novel is different from every other novel that lands on the agent’s desk.

When going about the querying process for the first time, writers aren’t always sure what to include in a query letter. One common method for formatting your query letter is the “the hook, the book, and the cook” format. In this method, you include a hook for your story, a paragraph or two that tells about the book without telling everything about the book, followed up with a brief bio of relevant information about yourself as a writer and why you are the right person to write this book.

Submitting a poorly written query

Typos, grammatical errors, and unclear writing are all things to avoid in your query letter. These errors can signal to agents that the writer is not serious about their craft— after all, this is a business letter. Think of it like this: Your query should be the very best thing you’ve ever written on one page! Don’t lose your shot at success by failing to proofread your letter before sending it!

Overemphasizing personal details

While it's important to include some personal details in your query letter, it's a mistake to overemphasize them. Agents and publishers are interested in your writing and your book, not your personal life.

Instead, focus on what makes you the perfect person to write this novel. For example, if the protagonist in your book is dealing with school bullies and you’re a school counselor, that’s a great detail to include.

Next, include any publishing credentials or education that give the agent a sense of your experience as a writer. If you’ve had any short stories published, won any writing awards, or are a member of any relevant writer’s organizations, include that information. Finally, include a personal detail, such as hobbies or personal experience that might help make the agent understand who you are as a person and look forward to working with you.

Not personalizing your query

Nothing turns an agent off faster than a query letter that begins with a generic greeting like “Dear Sir/Madam,” or “To Whom it May Concern.” You should always personalize your query letter— and triple-check how their name is spelled!

More importantly, agents want to know why a writer has chosen to query them specifically. Including information about any connection you have to this agent is a great way to establish this. Did you hear this agent speak at a conference or do a one-on-one critique? Did you hear the agent interview on a popular writer’s podcast? What made you want them to be in charge of your novel’s future?

If you don’t have a personal connection with the agent in some way, don’t make one up. Just be sure to include a sentence or two explaining why you think they are the perfect agent to represent your book.

Being aggressive or arrogant

Finally, some writers make the mistake of being overly aggressive in their query letters. This can come across as pushy or entitled and is likely to turn off agents. If you write a query letter that says something along the lines of, “I have written the next Harry Potter series, and it will be the death of your career if you don’t jump on board while you have the chance.” Similarly, saying, “My book is bound to be a New York Times bestseller and will earn millions.” Phrases like these are an immediate turn-off, so don’t make the mistake of being overly aggressive, grandiose, or pushy.

Along those same lines, be polite and respectful in your letter. Thank the agent for their time, and don't send any nasty follow-up emails if you don't get the response you were hoping for!

Mass emailing agents

It’s common practice to send out your query letter as a simultaneous submission. This simply means that you’re sending your letter to more than one agent at one time. When sending simultaneous submissions, be sure to send each agent their own individual query so that you can include a personal connection on why you are querying them. If an agent sees fifty other agents listed on the email, you can expect your email to be sent straight to the trash.

Make a list of twenty-five or more agents suitable for your novel. Start with sending your query to no more than five agents and then wait to get responses. You might get a form rejection letter from a few, but you also might get some personalized feedback that you can use to tweak your novel and make it even better. Then, if you have to move on to another batch of five more agents, your manuscript will be even better due to the feedback from the agents you queried. There’s nothing worse than querying every agent on your list at once, only to receive the same feedback from multiple agents and receiving no requests for the full manuscript.

Send your query in small batches, be patient, and wait for feedback from agents. With all the hard work you’ve put in on your query, you might find the perfect agent in the first batch. While you’re waiting to hear back from agents, get busy on your next novel!

Ready to write the perfect query letter?

By now, you should be eager to get your knockout query letter into your dream agent’s inbox. Take the time to research agents and review submission guidelines. Carefully write your query, focusing on what makes your book unique. Make a list of ideal agents and query them in small batches. Wait for feedback and consider any suggestions. It won’t be long before you find the right agent for your book!


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