If you’re in the process of getting your book traditionally published, odds are you’ve been looking for an agent to help you get your manuscript out to the world—and if you’ve done any research on the matter, you’ll know that a solid query letter is key to landing a good literary agent.
After reading several sample query letters in my online writing groups, I’ve noticed a few errors that come up regularly—but all are simple problems that you can easily remedy in your query. Make sure you include these three things in your letter, and you’ll be on the right track:
1. You must have perfect grammar, spelling, punctuation, and mechanics.
While they may seem trivial, any number of these errors could cause an agent to lose interest in you and your manuscript. If you can’t write a clean letter, how can they expect you to write a full-length novel?
You can’t always rely on squiggly red and green lines to find these issues for you, so you’ll have to do some editing yourself—or hire a professional editor like myself to take a look. If you’re on your own, try reading your message out loud to catch any syntax mistakes, or even give it to a grammar-savvy friend before sending it in. The more eyes you have proofreading your letter, the better!
2. You must convey the utmost professionalism.
When I worked as an editor for a local newspaper, I found myself rolling my eyes at some of the emails I received from people asking me favors—the worst were those who waited until the last minute to ask for something, declaring that constituted as an “emergency” and demanding that I prioritized their email over anyone else’s. These messages made it clear to me that the sender didn’t care about me or my time.
Even though asking for representation from an agent isn’t quite the same as asking the editor of a newspaper for a favor, the same concept applies: you need to be respectful toward the person on the receiving end. And that means being professional.
Write formally and respectfully so you don’t sound like you’re talking down to the agent or assuming that they have all the time in the world for you and your book. Remember: the publishing world is a small one, and word gets around. Even if you aren’t selected by an agent for representation this time around, thank them for their consideration and show that you are a professional so you don’t hurt your chances down the line—with them or any of their colleagues.
3. You must have an agent-first attitude.
I always recommend that writers start any query—whether it’s a cover letter for a job, or one to an agent or publisher—by talking about the person they’re writing to, not themselves.
If you notice a lot of personal pronouns throughout your letter, that could be a red flag. Instead of telling your potential agent what you think about your book, and what you were trying to do, you should tell them why they (and potentially millions of other people) will be interested in reading your book.
Do some research and see what the agent is looking for—have they recently tweeted out a manuscript wishlist, or do they have a list of genres that they represent on their website? Explain how your manuscript fits into this niche and why it will appeal to readers in that vertical. (If you find that your manuscript doesn’t line up with the agent’s area of interest, skip querying them and move on—sending them a message anyway will likely earn you an eye roll and a quick delete.)
Remember: your query letter is not about you; it’s about your book and what it can do for the agent. That’s what is going to convince them to want to represent you and your work!
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