Thursday, March 18, 2010

6 Writing a Query Letter: What Makes Agents Reject

There is probably no topic writers research more thoroughly than the query letter. But often, we don't start that research until after we've piled up the rejections. I wish I had been more aware of query letter do's and don'ts when I started submitting, so I am going to aggregate all the various snippets of Thou-Shall-Not advice I have found into one place.

Here we go. If there's an agent with a particular rant about an item, I'm including the name in parenthesis. If there is no name, it's because too many agents have mentioned it to list just one. Raise your hand if you've sent a query that included any of the following:
  • A rhetorical question instead of a solid hook (Nathan Bransford)
  • A gimmick like a cup, mug, or 12 place settings of Limoges (Janet Reid)
  • Forwarded material that includes the rejection letter from another agent (Intern C.A. Marshall)
  • A link to a YouTube video plugging your manuscript (Jessica Faust)
  • Offers to pay extra commission or pay up front for representation (Jessica Faust)
  • Any mention of how much your children, nieces, husband, mother, teacher, or other readers love your book
  • Credentials that mention you've been writing since pre-school, kindergarten, elementary, middle, or high school
  • Discussions about your dream of writing
  • Comparisons between your writing and that of Neil Gaiman, Stephanie Meyer, J. K. Rowling or...(insert name du jour)
  • Promises that your book will be an instant best-seller, or that it is better than Percy Jackson, Harry Potter, Twilight, Lord of the Rings...(insert book du jour)
  • Any reference to Oprah and her bookclub
  • Assertions that readers of all ages (or any age in particular) or all genres will love your book
  • A minimum (or any mention) of the advance you would like to receive
  • Suggestions for who should star in the film version
  • Irrelevant descriptions of your personal life or how you came up with the book idea
  • References to your "fiction novel"
  • A salutation addressed to "Hey," "Dear Agent," the agent's first name, or any synonym of friend
  • A salutation (in a query to an agent) addressed to "Dear Editor" or "Dear Publisher"
  • A salutation addressed to the wrong name, "Whoever," "Whom it May Concern", or "Insert Name Here"
  • Carbon copies to other agents (especially dead ones) (Laura Bradford)
  • Assurances (aka threats) that you will call, email, write or visit the agent to follow-up (ever)
  • A request for representation of work in a genre the agent doesn't represent
  • A spoiler for the ending of your novel
  • Any attachment (in an email query) unless the agent specifically requested one from you
  • Anything that deviates from the agent's submission guidelines
  • Anything written in less than a professional tone
  • Anything that deviates from What Agents Want
I'm sure there are more things agents hate. Murphy being good at his job, I'm sure I will find out by including one to an agent whose representation I would love to have. (My apologies in advance!)

To complicate things, not every agent has the same preferences in how they like to have a query letter written. Some, like Jessica Regel, prefer "one paragraph about the book and one paragraph about you." Others, like Janet Reid, prefer you to send her "two paragraphs showing me what the book is about and enticing me to read more." Others want the query letter to be a mini-synopsis. In a nutshell, this means you need more than a query letter; you need a hook, a short pitch, a pitchy synopsis, and a longer synopsis to include for those agents who like to see that along with sample pages. Many agents include samples of their preferences or even how-to's on their websites or blogs.

I've decided to think of the process of getting a manuscript published as if it were a work of fiction. I, of course, am the intrepid protagonist and that mythical creature, the agent, is the second gatekeeper. (The first gatekeeper involved the more enjoyable process of actually writing drafts one through eight of the novel.) From this perspective, I can allow myself to make mistakes and fail spectacularly. After all, a journey without nail-biting suspense wouldn't be worth making.

What do you think? Have you come across any query letter don'ts? What mistakes have you made?

Happy querying,


P.S. - Like this? The list of THOU-MUSTs for query letters is listed here.

About the Author

Martina Boone is the author of Compulsion and Persuasion, out now in the romantic Southern Gothic Heirs of Watson Island trilogy from Simon & Schuster, Simon Pulse. Illusion, the final book, will be out in October of 2016. Martina is also the founder of, a three-time Writer's Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers Site, and, a site dedicated to encouraging literacy and reader engagement through a celebration of series literature. She's on the Board of the Literacy Council of Northern Virginia and runs the program to distribute books to underfunded schools and libraries.


  1. These are really great tips Martina. I am really trying to learn more about what agents and publishers want to see in a query letter. I recently learned about this site through the National Writing for Children's Center. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks, Kristi! Query letters are hard beasties to wrangle. Haven't figured mine out yet, which is why I'm frantically researching. Hope you'll keep participating on the site!

  3. Brilliant! This applies to all writers, not just childrens/YA! Thanks so much for sharing.

  4. I love agents. I think they come up with the funniest insights!

    susan meier

  5. I have been frustrated by the conflicting advice from the various agents. Your list has put it all into perspective for me. Thanks.

  6. You're about ten steps ahead of me. Thanks for the insight. I wrote a query draft and sent it to a friend that's a published author. Her response took the wind out of my sails, but a third of her advice is on your list of don'ts. Huh? I like what you have to's more in my line of thinking.

    Giggles ~


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