Query Letter Do’s and Don’ts

Don’ts

  • DO NOT query unless you have a complete, polished manuscript.
  • DO NOT send out a mass email, with every agent and your aunt Martha in the subject line.
  • Do not send a query letter that is more than one page.
  • Do not write the query letter from the point of view of the character.
  • Do not be self-critical.
  • Do not, however, say you are the next Stephen King (or whoever). Agents don’t like to work with authors with inflated egos.
  • Do not wait a week and then check to see if it got there. Read the agency’s submission guidelines. If they are a “no response means no” agency, that’s it. If they say they respond to every query, wait the stated time and then another week or two. Then, and only then, may you re-query or send a “nudge.”
  • Do not pitch more than one project.
  • Do not tell the agent your mom, boyfriend, great-aunt Martha, your dog loved your book. They don’t care and it makes you seem like an amateur.
  • Don’t mention subplots.
  • Do not quote your own writing.
  • Don’t include small talk. Get to the point.
  • Don’t use rhetorical questions. (“Would you like to represent the next Nora Roberts? That’s me.” Umm… no.)
  • Do not disparage another author’s work.
  • Do not mention any previous attempts to find an agent.
  • DO NOT send a mean, nasty email if you are rejected.
  • Do not send sample pages if the agency guidelines say not to.
  • DO NOT LIE!!! DO NOT STRETCH THE TRUTH!!!
  • Do not say you wrote “a fiction novel.” A novel is always fiction. It is unnecessary to restate that it is fiction. This, too, will make you seem like an amateur. (If you write a memoir, do not call it a narrative non-fiction novel. It is NOT a novel.)
  • Do not enclose a photo of yourself.
  • Do not compare your novel to a movie or TV show.

Do’s

  • Do personalize your query letter, stating why you chose that particular agent.
  • Do spell the agent’s name right (and make sure the Mr. or Ms. part is right as well!) and make sure that the agent you address the query letter to is also the agent who’s email address you type in.
  • Do be polite and concise. Remember, no more than one page (three paragraphs).
  • Do find good examples of query letters (both online and in writing guides) and copy their format.
  • Do follow standard formatting: Times New Roman, 12 pt., one inch margins, date in the upper let corner, left side justified, right side ragged, single spacing with a double space between paragraphs
  • Do mention your title, genre, word count, and a comparison to another author who’s writing (both topic AND style) is similar to yours.
  • Do put your book title and any other publication credits in all caps.
  • Do give a short author bio.
  • Do include your name, email address, mailing address, and phone number.
  • Do run a spell check before you send it.
  • Do include a SASE if you are using snail mail.
  • Do say if you’ve been referred. (Boy, wouldn’t that be nice?)
  • Polish, polish, polish. A query letter represents YOUR WRITING. Many agents will base their decision whether or not to request pages on JUST your query letter. Polish it as well as you would a manuscript.
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7 thoughts on “Query Letter Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Great advice! Everything makes sense to me. I do have one question about this “do”: “Do mention your title, genre, word count, and a comparison to another author who’s writing (both topic AND style) is similar to yours.” Could you expand on that—mainly that last part about a comparison? I’m uncertain why that would be a good thing. Sounds like it might verge to much on your “don’t” about comparing yourself to a successful writer (eg., Nora Roberts).

    • Sure, Stephanie.

      So what you don’t want to do is say, “I’m the next Nora Roberts.” Or, “Nora Roberts has nothing on me.” What you do want to say is, “My work is in the vein of Nora Roberts’.” Or, you could say, “My work is similar in subject and style to Nora Roberts’.” What you’re trying to do is give the agent a feel for your work, so they know if they might be interested. You don’t want to sound like you’re bragging, like you’re saying, “I’m a guaranteed best-selling author.”

  2. Great comments, Amy. I’ve seen so many writers in my writing group make many of these mistakes. I have to remind them, too, that they can’t include many of the things on your ‘don’t’ list.

    Also, they should not include any bribes: chocolates, candy, etc. Big no no. And do not query a romantic piece to an agent who specializes in Sci Fi, unless your love story is a science fiction fantasy. Research your agents and publishers and target those. Pay special attention to the agent’s guidelines about multiple submissions. Many want you to submit your novel to one agent/publisher at a time. If your agents/publishers do allow multiple submissions, make sure you mention in your query that you are submitting to other agents/publishers.

    • Jenny, you are absolutely right! It never even crossed my mind to tell people not to try to bribe agents, but it is definitely a bad idea! And you’re totally right about checking out what genres an agent represents. No point in wasting your time or theirs by sending your novel to someone who doesn’t represent that kind of fiction.

      I will say that unless the agency guidelines say that they don’t accept multiple submissions, or unless they ask specifically to be notified if it is a multiple submission, you’re safe to leave off the note saying that it IS a multiple submission. Queries are meant to be multiple submissions and it is expected. Partial or full manuscripts are a whole other matter.

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