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11 Mistakes Writers Make When Approaching Literary Agents

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From Writer’s Relief staff:

Let’s face it: Writing a book requires different skills than writing a query letter. While there are no “rules” about writing queries, here are the top 11 questionable tactics that we at Writer’s Relief commonly see in query letters"

Cheesy Lead: Rhetorical questions—who doesn’t love them? (Answer: Pretty much everybody.) It’s easy to ask a silly question about your story as the first sentence. But it’s better to stick to the facts of your story lest your readership get the impression that the facts alone aren’t exciting enough. Avoid clichés as well—if you can’t be original in a one-page letter, the agent will doubt your writing abilities.

Bobbled Blurbs: When writing your summary, choose your words carefully. Focus on your main character and his or her conflict, and only subtly hint at—if not leave out entirely—your secondaries. For synopsis purposes, plot trumps theme; tell us what happens, not what it means. And don’t ever spoil a good ending!

Groveling: Lack of experience is not a selling point. Show some confidence! People like that.

TMI: It’s good to include information about yourself, but do so cautiously. If your book is about penguin wrestling and you spend your summers in the Antarctic, you’d do well to include that. Leave out the winter you spent in the Caribbean though.

Appearance: It may be true that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but first impressions are everything. If it’s raining when you go to mail out your envelope, tuck it under your coat. Take the extra time to print out separate letters for each query instead of photocopying them. Keep it professional—serious fonts, black text. No one wants to see your name in orange 36-point Jokerman. Sometimes letters will lose their formatting over email, so do yourself a favor and send your materials to a family member or friend first to make sure it’ll look okay in your prospective agent’s inbox.

Vague Flattery: Agents can see right through a generic “I really admire your agency” compliment. Be specific or leave it alone.

Copyright: When submitting to agents, industry standard is to not include the copyright symbol on your work. For more information on copyright, read: "Urban Legend: The Poor Man’s Copyright."

The Multiple-Personality Bio: Be as careful with your bio as you are with your writing. Double-check it to make sure you aren’t mixing tenses and first/third person.

Listing Illegitimate Publishing Credits: Do the extra research to make sure that the publishing credits you’re listing aren’t part of poetry contest scams or anthology scams.

Mentioning Unpublished Manuscripts: Best not to do this; agents will not only wonder why they weren’t picked up, but will also worry that you’ll barrage them with your old, stale manuscripts if they sign your fresh new one.

Cover Art: Unfortunately, writers get very little, if any, say on the cover design for their books at big publishing houses. Instead of Photoshopping your own, leave this one up to the graphic designers.

And here are some common phrases to avoid in a query letter:

This is the first book I’ve ever written! As mentioned above, lack of experience is not a turn-on. You may be a greenhorn, but you don’t want to look like one.

I’ve been writing since I was five. If you’ve written a full manuscript and are looking for a publisher, it’s already assumed that you’ve done it because of your love for the craft.

This would make a great movie. Easy, tiger! Remember that you’re only querying an agent to represent your book. The fame, fortune, and action figure deals will come in their own time.

This book will appeal to readers of all genres. Agents want to see that an author knows the market. Stating that anyone from a 12-year-old boy to an 80-year-old woman will love your book just tells an agent you have no particular market in mind. Better to state one genre your book falls into or don’t state one at all and let the agent decide.

My friends/parents/teachers like my writing. This one is actually okay (if your friends/parents/teachers are all renowned critics).

Oprah will love this book. Let your work speak for itself. You shouldn’t assume something you have no control over. “My book is just like [insert title of best seller]” also doesn’t work. Why would anyone want to read something identical to what they just read?

You’ve seen our list of things to avoid. What should you absolutely always do in a query letter?

Read more at Writer’s Relief!

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