Writing a query letter to pitch an agent, editor, or mentor is one of the most nerve wracking steps to becoming a published writer. And a query letter is so short! Ask most writers if they’d rather write a query or a whole entire new novel, and you can bet lots will say the latter. And no matter how long a writer sweats over those three short paragraphs, there are a few inadvertent mistakes that can stop her reading in her tracks. If your query hasn’t been getting the traction you want, take a good hard look and see if you’ve done any of the following:
You’re too casual.
All agents, editors, and mentors want you to sound like a human. And these days it’s easier than ever to look up publishing pros on Twitter and learn everything from their dog’s name to their favorite flavor of ice cream. But a query letter is first and foremost a business letter. Sending a solid query that is professional, well-written, and compliant with any peculiar parts of an agent’s submission guidelines shows that you take your writing—and yourself—seriously. It’s the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent, editor, or mentor that you’re someone who will be easy and professional to work with.
You didn’t follow directions.
Query directions can be maddeningly specific: attachment! No attachment! Five pages pasted in! But agents ask for those specs for a reason, and whatever that reason is, you gotta follow it. At a time when agents are more swamped than ever—overflowing slush inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over every last clause in the contract—agents are, frankly, too busy to bother with queries that don’t follow their rules. (Remember, every minute an agent spends reading submissions is a minute she can’t use to sell books—i.e., to make money.) More than that, getting the specifics right is a strong indication that you can be trusted to figure things out on your own. An author who is a self-starter and a fast learner is always a welcome addition to an agent’s stable of talent.
Your comp titles are outdated, huge bestsellers, or missing entirely.
“Comp” titles are books that are similar to yours (i.e., the COMPetiton, or those that are COMParable). Well-selected comp titles help your agent begin to envision the potential market for your novel, which is a huge help to them—they may even start envisioning which editors might want it! But comp titles only work if they’re culturally relevant in the current marketplace and truly comparable to your book. If you say your book is like The Catcher in the Rye, that’s all well and good—it very well may be—but to an agent, that can read like a major red flag that you haven’t read a YA book in decades. Similarly, saying your book is like Harry Potter or Twilight is more or less meaningless; you’d be better off picking more niche fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content (as opposed to the bestseller potential) of your book. Don’t have comps? Poke around Amazon and read through a few books in the category to see who’s doing a similar thing, then add them to your third paragraph: “my book is a YA high fantasy that will be enjoyed by readers of X title and Y title.”
You have a wonky word count.
How long is your book? Know what’s expected for your genre (check out this post for YA and MG guidelines), and know that word counts over a certain amount (around 90,000 words) will raise eyebrows. Also, always round your word count to the nearest thousand words: word counts calculated in word processors aren’t precise, and a rounded off word count is more professional.
You waste time.
“I’m querying you because…” “Have you ever wondered if…” “My novel is about…” “What would you do if…” Axe it! Get to the meat of your plot and characters, and avoid rhetorical questions like the plague. You want your query as lean as possible.
You’re too vague—especially about your ending.
You shouldn’t give EVERYTHING away, of course, but avoid using vague, nonspecific language whenever you can. “Her powers will be tested” is much weaker than “She’ll have to draw every ounce of her fire magic to save her brother.” And never end with any variation on “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!”
You include too many characters.
Queries don’t have a ton of space. Even if your book has a wonderful ensemble cast, not every character is an A-lister. It’s fine to call characters “her best friend” or “his parents” and allow the reader to digest the information without getting bogged down in a sea of proper names.
You don’t end with a call to action—or say thanks.
This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s good form (and polite!) nonetheless. All you need is a quick “thank you for your time and consideration. May I send you the manuscript?” Boom. Done.
Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.