8 Ways Not to Fuck Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The good news here is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The good news is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid fucking up the query letter:

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, make a phone call. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

Average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work and process and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. WTF?

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills if you can’t proofread your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills if you can’t proofread your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.



Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a fucked up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.

So…Who’s the Asshole?

angry-computer-guySomebody I know recently brought to my attention an email. I have to change the name and specific content to protect the innocent, but here’s an approximation.

The email was sent from an author to an editor, and it proceeded thusly.


Dear Editor,

You are a dick. I sent you my manuscript more than a year ago and I haven’t heard back from you yet. I’m gonna self publish my Work of Utter Genius and become a millionaire. Remember, my work is copyrighted. If your plan is to steal it and self-publish the stuff for profit, I own your ass. Go soak your head in a bucket of wombat urine. 

Love and Kisses,


All of my friends who are agents and editors are sharing this around, saying “Dude, what a dick Author is. Let’s none of us ever do business with Author. Screw that guy.”

And they’re right. That kind of abuse and unprofessional behavior (I’m paraphrasing, but the original wasn’t much better) is unacceptable in any craft or trade. Dude broke the rules of basic courtesy, and the rules of observing chain of command (editors outrank authors). He even broke the basic rule of knowing how to talk to people in a position to do you favors.

So yeah, he’s an asshole.

But on the other hand…

A year without contact is a long time. A looooooong time to an author who’s waiting to hear whether or not an editor is interested in publishing the written distillation of his heart, hopes and dreams. I can understand being frustrated, even angry, even though I can’t condone how he chose to express it.

This goes double for the agents and editors who (a) ask you not to send in simultaneous submissions and (b) have a policy of only responding on acceptance. Those guys are being serious assholes. I mean, really. What reasonable human says “Please don’t ask anybody else to the prom until you hear back from me, but I won’t answer at all if I’m gonna say no and maybe wait half a year before I say yes” ?!?!?!?

But that’s what a lot of agents and editors are saying.

So they’re kind of being assholes, too.

But do you know who’s the biggest asshole here?

Us. People. Human beings.

You. And me.

Once upon a time, agents and editors could respond quickly enough to not be assholes. The publishing industry made enough money across the board that agencies weren’t understaffed, and publishers had robust catalogs.

Then we discovered self-publishing and ebooks. And we started reading less and Netflixing more. We forgot much of our love affair with the written word, and started downloading the books we did read. Publishing suffered. Publishers had to cut catalogs. Agencies had to cut staff.

So now we’re in this situation where agents need months to respond to the massive deluge (over 100 per week, according to folks I know) of manuscript submissions they get. That means they can’t respond to your novel query in anything resembling a reasonable frame of time. It means the best way to get your novel read quickly is to meet an agent via pitch sessions, at a bar, or through social engineering. It means they have no choice but to act like assholes sometimes because the resources aren’t there to give them any other option.

It’s not anybody’s particular fault, but we’re in an untenable situation.

  • Agents don’t have the resources to respond to every submitter with anything resembling reasonable courtesy
  • Authors have to wait unreasonable times, which makes them whiny

What’s worse is we can’t do anything about it….other than remember with compassion what it’s like for the other side.