Do’s and Don’ts Checklist of Query Letter Writing

Agents review thousands of queries each year searching for talented writers and material to present to publishers. Yet agents say they reject 99% of the pitches they receive because the writers fail to:

  • Show the agent that they are capable of quality writing
  • Create excitement for their topics or stories
  • Be succinct – providing the information in as few as words as possible
  • Convey that they are professional authors who understand what an agent wants

To help you achieve the 1% status, here is a checklist of query letter “do’s and don’ts” compiled from professional agents’ requests.

  • Do get to the point. Agents are busy people. They only have a limited amount of time to consider your project. If you ramble on about non-consequential things, such as “I spent two months crafting this letter hoping to get it just right after spending six years writing my manuscript. If I do not find an agent soon, I think I will just give up and go back to washing dishes at the local diner…”, you will alienate the agent. If you cannot write a tight, pertinent pitch, how will you write a succinct book?
  • Do follow the correct format and keep the letter to only one page. The format of your letter demonstrates you are a professional author who understands what is required. A pitch that is longer than one page (or two at the very most) stands a good chance of never being read.
  • Do not compare your work to known authors. Positioning your book alongside other published works in style, subject, or readership is acceptable but do not compare the quality of your writing to established authors. Stating “I am the next J.K. Rowling” will make you appear conceited, not confident. Your writing will speak for itself. There is already one J.K. Rowling, and there is only one you, so resist comparing yourself and your writing to other authors.
  • Do not send your letter certified mail. Doing so may annoy the agent.
  • Do mention that you have queried multiple agents. It is professional and demonstrates you understand how the business works.
  • Do not discuss money, contracts or film deals. Doing so makes you appear amateurish and aggressive. Your job at this point is to capture the agent’s interest for your work. Payment, royalties, subsidiary rights and other contract details are negotiated once a publisher makes an offer to purchase your book.
  • Do not introduce yourself by starting the letter with “My name is…”. Your name is included in your contact information and with your signature.
  • Do not use the term “novel” for a nonfiction book. Novels are exclusively fiction.
  • Do not state that you are writing a query or seeking representation. If an agent is reading your letter, he knows it is a query and that you are seeking representation.
  • Do include information about a previously published book if it sold well. Agents say it is easier to place a debut book than it is a book by an author who has a mixed sales track-record. A previously published book is only an advantage if it sold extremely well. If it did, then mention it, but keep the focus of the query on your new project.
  • Do not mention that your family and friends love your book. The agent does not care what non-writers think about your book. Your work should speak for itself.
  • Do not submit a query letter if you have not finished crafting the manuscript or book proposal. An agent cannot evaluate a project if the manuscript or proposal is not complete and available to review. An agent wants to be able to shop the book or dea to a publisher immediately and will not wait for you to finish the required material.
  • Do not demand that the agent read your work or threaten to take it elsewhere. Threats and demands immediately identify you as an amateur and someone who will be difficult to work with. Stating in a query letter that if the agent does not take you on as a client that she will be missing out on the next bestseller does not encourage an agent to consider you as a client, instead it demonstrates how unprofessional the author is and leads to the agent dismissing the pitch completely.
  • Do not submit a query that does not fit the agent’s requirements for genre, word count, or format. Do not waste your time, or the agent’s, attempting to convince her to represent your book if she does not represent that genre simply because you think it is a great book. It may be, but agents specialize in specific titles and have cultivated resources and expertise in selling those particular titles.
  • Do not pitch multiple submissions to an agent. Simultaneous submissions, querying more than one agent at the same time, are acceptable, but multiple submissions, pitching more than one project to the same agent at the same time, is considered unprofessional.