Four Types of Terrible Query Letters

The query letter is what is used to submit a piece of work to an agent in the book industry, and is one of the most difficult things a writer encounters (after writing the darn thing itself). However there are a lot of common mistakes that are easy to avoid, and knowing the right steps to take can do so much to increase a writer’s chances of getting their work under the eyes of an agent or editor.

The Overeager

Dear Agent,

Romeo and Juliet is the phenomenal, majestic tale of two unimaginable, star-crossed lovers in the mystical land of Verona where hills roll and the sun shines kindly on the rooftops who simply cannot resist the overwhelming temptation of their gorgeous lover…

The Overeager is most likely a first-time writer who doesn’t know enough about the actual business of writing/publishing and is extremely excited about finishing their first novel. They probably use language that doesn’t efficiently convey their story to the agent, but instead masks it with superfluous description and unnecessary information.

They might also include information that is irrelevant to the agent reading the query. This might be anything from meaningless anecdotes about the writers personal experience with the craft, to naming “qualifications” that have nothing to do with their skill or the piece they have written. After reading that, no agent will assume the actual story is even good and it will be an instant rejection.

The Redactor

Dear Agent,

This is the synopsis of my novel, including what happens in the beginning and in the middle (but nothing else). Thank you for your kind consideration.

The Redactor likes to leave out information everywhere. They don’t give the entire synopsis of the story, perhaps thinking the end should be concealed to avoid “spoiling” the agent. They also likely forget to include information such as their name, relevant qualifications, and the genre and wordcount of the story they’re submitting.

All of that information is probably on the agents website and submission guidelines, but they either didn’t take the time to read them or don’t care. Either way, they’re getting an instant rejection.

The Paranoid

Dear Agent,

This is the synopsis of my novel, including everything that happens and all the relevant information you requested from me in your submission guidelines. However, I have to inform you that this work is copyrighted and I have a lawyer who will pursue action if you in any way steal my ideas or my writing.

The Paranoid is always worried that someone is going to steal their stuff. They might even paste in a little © for good measure. Nevermind the fact that no agent anywhere is going to steal anyone’s ideas (really they have enough on their plate without having to add plagiarism), and copyright doesn’t work like that anyways. The Paranoid is bound and determined to protect their intellectual property, and their over-obsession will end in an instant rejection.

The Too Relaxed

Hey Agent,

This is my novel, yo. It’s pretty much about this guy Romeo and his girl Juliet and they’re starcrossed and then everyone dies.

I’m a pretty new writer, but I got my school on in writing and literature so I’m pretty qualified. Hope you like it, buddy! Chat soon!

The Too Relaxed probably isn’t this mellow about their query letter, but you get the point. A query is a business letter that will be read by a professional. The Too Relaxed acts like this is not the case, like they and the agent are old pals, and this will not appeal to someone who wants to deal with a mature professional who can handle themselves in the industry. No agent wants to work with someone who is going to be a handful.

Always remember, behave like a professional or you know what’s going to happen: instant rejection.

So what’s right?

Writing an effective query letter is going to be hard, but it’s going to be a whole lot easier if you can keep a few basic rules in mind.

1. Keep the synopsis of your story clear and concise. Give exactly what’s going to happen, as well as overarching themes, etc. Deliver it in an interesting and gripping way, of course, but make sure not to use unnecessary language in order to make it “sparkle”.

2. Give all the information the agent asks for in their submission guidelines. This often includes word count, genre, and what writers/books you or your story might be similar to from a marketing standpoint. You should also make sure to include any relevant qualifications, such as previously published work, jobs based in writing, or any education in writing (even if you don’t study writing, in places like the US you can take courses in other subjects while at university). It makes you look skilled, but more importantly it makes you look dedicated.

3. Be professional. Personal anecdotes about how god imparted this story to you in your sleep are not going to fly with an agent. Neither are informalities. The agent is not your friend, they are a professional with whom you want to enter into a business relationship. Make it sound like it.

4. Follow proper query format, which follows a basic design:

First paragraph: the hook; a one or two sentence tagline for your book that will draw the agent in and make them want to find out more.

Second paragraph: the synopsis; five or six sentences that briefly describes the plot, setting, characters, and point of your book.

Third paragraph: the writer’s bio; a couple sentences, depending on your experience, that describe your professional resume as a writer.

Finally: thank the agent for their time and consideration, and sign off. If they want any extra information from you (like a full synopsis, first chapters, etc) this will be attached to the query letter and doesn’t need to be referenced in the letter itself (because they asked for it in the first place, they don’t have to be reminded it’s there).

Every writer struggles with perfecting their query letter, and unfortunately it can be the biggest roadblock in getting to publication. But if you can get it right, you unlock so many doors for yourself on your way toward publication.

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4 Responses

  1. Stella says:

    So helpful! Although I think there’s probably also the under confident. The “I know you’re uber busy and I’m sorry for wasting your time but here is my story it’s not that good but maybe you’ll like it.” Hoping to garner some pity, which will not get you published!

  2. Deanie says:

    Thank you for answering my question! Much appreciated 🙂

  3. Demeter says:

    Good post!

  4. Sushi says:

    I really liked that you posted this. I may not be planning on doing this, but just in case if I ever do now I get what I should do it. Thanks again! This was very helpful.

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