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Avoid The Obvious In a Query

I’ve been seeing some query letters lately that state the obvious. It’s unnecessary. For example, you don’t need to waste your time writing any of the following:

I am querying you for possible representation of my novel.
I am writing to you because I would like representation from a literary agent.
Publishing a novel is my goal.

Etc. I’m an agent with a submissions pile. If I get an email to that inbox, I know exactly what it is, exactly what it’s doing there, and the exact intentions of the email’s author: to publish something with the aid of a literary agent. You really don’t need to waste the time or words and state the obvious.

Also, don’t give the agent instructions. For example:

Please read the following sample pages and reply if interested.
Contact me to discuss representation.
If interested, please reply and I will submit a partial or full manuscript.

This may be your first query, but it’s not my first time getting one, by any stretch of the imagination. If I’m interested in your project, I know exactly what to do. Leave tips and pointers out of your query as well and let me do my job. Instead of these inane and obvious phrases, do your query job and make me care about the character and plot, instead. That’s really the heart of the letter, and you can see my tips for doing just that here.

None of these little phrases are an automatic rejection, per se, but they do indicate to me — perhaps unjustly, but they do indicate it nonetheless — a lack of higher order logic or thought put into the query. So make sure you’re not sending that message.

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  1. emy shin’s avatar

    Thank you for this post. I have also seen agents comment that they don’t want to be told something they said on the website/interview/etc. since they know what they said (i.e. I am querying you because you mentioned you are looking for a ghosts story, etc.). Do you feel the same way? How would you advise an author to personalize without falling into the trap of telling the agent what they said?

  2. EricJ’s avatar

    I had only recently gotten back into querying agents (agents, as you know, are a tougher sell for reads than editors, but that was before every editor closed her door), and had been out of the loop for how query letters read in the 10′s, let alone the rise of the E-mail query–
    As such, I’m still thinking in the old-school snail-mail query format, and all the Formal Letter phrases are still in my head: I keep reading other folks’ queries that start off with the plot sell in sentence One–”Billy is having his worst day ever”–and my reaction as reader, imagining the agent’s, is, “Um…would a ‘hello’ or ‘Dear Ms. Kole’ break the ice?”

    I’ve still got a bit of “stage fright” about jumping right into the Sell, and feel I should still show Business Etiquette and say “I have a 50k YA novel, and wonder whether you would be interested, etc.”–But is that just my mistake? Am I damaging my chances and making myself seem too dated/newbie, just for pursuing civilized courtesy?

  3. Mary’s avatar

    Emy — This doesn’t bother me so much, though long quotes from interviews are unnecessary. Personalization walks a fine line, but if you do cite interviews or the blog, I know you’ve at least done your research.

    Eric — A lot of people say “Dear Ms. Kole” and THEN jump into the meat of their pitch. I actually like it that way. Or you can introduce the project. I’m not really a stickler for paragraph order, as long as all the necessary info is there and the query is written well.

  4. Linda K. Wertheimer’s avatar

    Thanks for such practical advice. My face is blushing as I realize that I almost always mention that I’m seeking your representation for my book in a query letter to an agent. I spend the most time on the top part of my query – what I like to think of my hook or lead.

    I always just presumed that a line saying I was seeking your representation is akin to what many of us may write at the end. Thank you for your consideration. I’m happy to use that space in a query for something meatier.

    Again, thanks! Linda

  5. Genn Albin’s avatar

    Someone advised in a blog recently to always restate your ms is complete and available for them to request if interested. I added the necessary closing to my query and it just rubbed me the wrong way…It was just so obvious and it sounded repetitive, so I excised it. This post gives me confidence it was the right choice. Thanks Mary!

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Yes! Like Eric, I always felt it was almost a bit rude to just launch straight into the pitch but I did it anyway because I read that that was best. Once I’d started adding my really personalized bits it was easier somehow: pitch first, then why I chose agent X. Then it didn’t seem so impolite anymore AND I was making an effort to connect with the agent too.

  7. EricJ’s avatar

    Thanks, but even so, I’ll second Amy’s question:
    Choosing an agent to query is an even more personal decision than choosing an editor, as I’ll be happy with almost any editor, but an agent is a more direct and longer-term commitment–I never usually query an agent until I have a clear idea that they have a personal reader’s taste for ghost mysteries, or that they remember the MG stories they read growing up and aren’t just putting “YA” on their list to get another Twilight. For me, an editor with just bare-bones or no bio on their house page ends up at the bottom of my query list, as I simply don’t know where to stand with them–They’re as random to me as I would be to them.
    And as Amy asked, I do want to put on my query that I made some real conscious effort to send a story to one agent who I belied had some personal connection as reader, if even that is a “newbie flag” or slush-pile annoyance, what am I left with? I may be trying to “get out of the slush pile”, but I’m also trying to get that first conversation started, and maybe some interest in the second submission if the first one doesn’t take. We hear a dozen “wrong” ways to write a query, but (apart from a few blogs) we never hear any “right” ways, and when we do, another three agents walk by and proclaim them “wrong” again.
    Getting a query accepted may be “All about the writing”, but some of us in the submission trenches are a little more realistic than idealistic, and it’s too hard to sift through the conflicting information.

  8. Mary’s avatar

    Eric — Per my reply to Emy, above, personalization is good. She was asking more about quoting. But yes, do personalize the query if you have something concrete to say. Don’t think something vague like “I chose you because of your love for YA” counts. As for the right way to write a query, the link I cited in the post is an example. I also did a query contest in January 2009 where I went through some reader-submitted queries with lots of examples and teaching moments.

    I’m almost sorry every time I post about queries, because so many people get frustrated with them. But they’re really much less important than the writing sample which follows them. No need to have a panic attack trying to synthesize all the information…there are better ways to bend your brain.

  9. Mary’s avatar

    Siski — As for launching right into the pitch, there’s nothing rude about it. The query letter comes to an agent with a request for consideration. It’s a very specific type of business correspondence, it’s not chit chat. You do want to personalize if you can and have a friendly tone, if possible, but I have never been reading slush and felt scandalized when a writer launched into a pitch. That’s the point.

  10. Tamara Paulin’s avatar

    This might be a ridiculous question, but why don’t more agents take queries via a web-based form? A web-based form is pretty easy to set up and would deliver everything in the format you want. The database could even purge inappropriate submissions (ahem, 300k novels).

    Name of protagonist: ___________

    Word count: _______

    Genre: (select from dropdown menu)

    I am: (check all that apply)
    __ Eagerly awaiting your reply
    __ Wearing out my refresh key checking email every 5 minutes
    __ Considering resubmitting because I just found a typo
    __ Hand-delivering a physical copy to your office, on rainbow paper
    __ Outside your office window, being arrested

  11. Karen’s avatar

    I always say I’m requesting representation. I follow with my reasons why (ie: I like the agents blog, the books she represents, etc) Now I’m puzzled as to how to word the query.

    For instance, I’ll say “I am querying you for possible representation of my novel because of your wonderful blog, and your amazing authors.” If we don’t say anything about representation, the query sounds akward.

  12. Mary’s avatar

    Tamara — I hate forms. I want to see what writers come up with. I like your check box ideas, though!

    Karen — You can say whatever you want…the advice on my blog doesn’t impede your free will, but you will agree with me that it is implied that you are “requesting representation.” You are emailing a literary agent with a book idea. Both parties are well aware what that bit of correspondence is about.

  13. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Nice post. This would be a great topic for you to talk about at a conference. Thanks Mary.

  14. Mary’s avatar

    Naomi — Guess what I’m doing in Indianapolis this weekend! :)

  15. L.E.’s avatar

    Some agents–a handful that I’ve seen–ask that the querier put whether he/she would like lifetime representation or just rep for one book. Is this information that I heard outdated or do you have a suggestion on this?

  16. Mary’s avatar

    L.E. — That’s up to the agent. Some agents like to rep people on a project-by-project basis. That’s not really my way of doing business. I’m looking for a long-term partnership with my clients, and would prefer that people who query me are of a similar mind. The “book-by-book” model of agenting is getting to be a bit outdated at this point, also.

  17. Bane’s avatar

    Okay, so maybe we shouldn’t tell you that publishing is our goal, but what about worldwide domination? Or is that a show-don’t-tell sort of thing ;)

  18. Naomi Canale’s avatar

    Haha…That’s awesome! Have fun this weekend :)

  19. Franziska Green’s avatar

    ‘The advice on my blog doesn’t impede your free will’? I’d bet that the majority of writers who read your blog feel compelled to improve their writing. ‘Mary made me do it!’ is what they’ll scream when they get their first publishing contract. He he.

  20. Mary’s avatar

    Siski — I just hope I’m the one brokering that contract. :)

  21. Katrina S. Forest’s avatar

    Wow, I just read this and thought, “Cool! My query doesn’t have any statements of the obvious.” Then I went back and read my query. And actually, it does. Not a bad one, but it’s there.

    Much thankage for the post.

  22. Janie Bill’s avatar

    Clear points. It all revolves around man’s need for closure. We have to wind down verbal conversations as well. My answering machine simply says the phone number instead of instructing callers to leave a message after the beep. Some callers get confused.

    Is it annoying if a query ends with something like – Please see the following X and Y pursuant to your submission guidelines or do you prefer, ending with the bio? Plus, isn’t it alright to give instructions on contact information, such as phone numbers in the last line?

    Thanks, as always, Janie

  23. Claire Dawn’s avatar

    I was just on an agent website and someone said in a post comment: My novel is such and such. Please contact me if you’d like to know more.

    I was so shocked my mouth actually fell open. And I couldn’t help thinking, Maybe she wanted to know more before, but I don’t know if she’d want to know now.

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