How to avoid query letter mistakes

The biggest hurdle standing between you and a publishing deal is the query letter. Over the years, many authors have asked me the same question: Why aren’t literary agents responding to me? More often than not, I don’t even need to glance at their manuscript to tell them why agents haven’t yet jumped at the chance to work with them — the issues start with the query letter itself.

A well-written query letter can get you in the door, but one that falls flat can delay your chances at publishing success. Here are some quick tips for diagnosing what might have gone wrong and how to improve your pitch.

Why a query letter isn’t working:

1. You’re pitching to the wrong agent.

Have you sent your query letter to an agent that doesn’t handle your genre? Big mistake. This not only wastes your time in the long run, but also signals to the agent that you haven’t researched why he or she would be a good fit. Many agents indicate on their website or in professional listings what specific genres they handle, whether it’s young adult, adult fantasy, mystery, romance, etc.

A bit of etiquette can go a long way. Showing you’ve researched also makes the agent feel like a person — not just part of a mass mailing — and highlights you as someone who would be good to work with.

2. Your pitch isn’t sharp enough.

Sometimes a query letter simply is not clear. It might be confusing what genre it’s in, or it might be too long and meandering.

A perfect query letter should be concise, should hook the agent’s interest with the most enticing points about your manuscript’s central story, and should have three to four clear paragraphs:

  • Paragraph One: state the name of your manuscript, the genre and the number of words;
  • Paragraphs Two to Three: say what your story is about and the main struggle facing your protagonist;
  • Final Paragraph: supply any other information that is appropriate.

The shorter and sharper your query letter — while still conveying what makes your manuscript special — the better. If you’re struggling to pinpoint exactly what makes your novel stand out, perhaps it’s time to readdress bigger story issues.

3. You’ve marked yourself an amateur.

Obviously you want to take the time to craft a letter free of mechanical errors or bad writing. But there are other mistakes that can signal to a literary agent that you’re not worth their time. For instance, resist the urge to share things like, “My writing group loved this book,” or asserting that everyone who’s read a draft raved about it. It can mark you as naïve.

Also avoid putting in personal information that has no bearing on the book or why it matters. Don’t waste precious space sharing general autobiographical information, such as how you were a teacher for years and then decided to become a writer. The only time you’d want to communicate that is if that detail directly informs your story — for instance, if you used to be a crime reporter and your novel is about a journalist covering a grisly murder trial.

What questions do you have about query letters? Reach out in the comments below.

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