What Not to Say

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Plenty of blogs tell you how to approach an agent, what to say and how to say it. Today I’m going to highlight my top ten things not to say when seeking to impress an agent. Here, in part, is what not to say to a potential agent:

1. I’ve only been writing for a couple of months and I’ve already got two books completely ready to publish.

2. I can’t spell worth a lick but, hey, that’s what editors are for, right?dreamstime_xs_40199404

3. I’m writing fiction. Romance mostly, but I have written a thriller and I dabbled in Amish. Fortunately, fiction is not my only interest, I have two nonfiction books as well— one on parenting and the other on finance. Oh, yes. I have three picture books I wrote for my grandchildren and am working on a middle grade series.

4. No, I don’t read in my genre at all. I don’t want to inadvertently steal anyone’s ideas.

5. My mother has read and loved all my manuscripts and she can’t wait until they are published so she can give them to her friends.

6. My novel weighs in at about 210,000 words but everyone tells me it so compelling they can’t put it down. After all, Harry Potter was bigger than any book of its genre at the time.

7. I’d love to show you my book but would you mind first signing this non-disclosure document drawn up by my lawyer?

8. I’m not much of a reader. My time is limited and I’d much rather write than read anyway.

9. I’ve discovered things in the Bible that no one has yet uncovered. Theological credentials? No, but I’ve spent my life digging into the Bible.

10. God gave me this book, nearly word for word.

Yes. I’ve heard all of the above and numerous variations of them over the years. I had planned to offer these What-Not-to-Say comments and then explain why they are so cringeworthy to an agent but I decided to let you do the work. Pick one or two (or more) and explain to our readers why they should never ever say them.


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82 Responses

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  1. Carol Ashby says:

    Thanks for the list, Wendy. It’s always good to know what not to do. I’ll take a stab at explaining numbers 2, 3, and 5.
    2. Everyone knows spellcheckers are for fixing spelling. Editors are for fixing punctuation, run-on sentences, and subject-verb disagreements.
    3. Isn’t this one fine? I figure my future success as a brilliant novelist will give a bounce to the sales of my engineering monograph anytime someone searches on me at Amazon. That’s one reason why I decided not to use a pen name. I’m sure the bounce will work both directions.
    5. My mother’s enthusiasm is totally relevant since she is an acquisitions editor for a major publisher. But if that’s the case, then maybe I don’t need an agent.

    • Carol says:

      I’m being facetious on number 5. My mother went to the Lord many years before I started writing historical romance novels. She can’t praise the fiction I write, but my father-in-law says he likes it. Since it’s outside all his favorite genres, is that more meaningful? Anyway, I really do need an agent.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Actually, we can’t rely on spell checkers– you’ve seen hilarious examples of their mistakes. If you cannot spell– and a number of bestselling authors are dyslexic– get an editor to go over your manuscript. Editors definitely do spelling errors as well but the trouble with #2 was that this writer was blithely brushing off the need for quality in a submission.

      Thanks, Carol.

      • Exactly! I read a story submission that used “faun” for “fawn.” Big difference!

      • Carol says:

        I never trust spell checkers or grammar checkers to know what is truly correct. The grammar recommendations are frequently wrong. Voice-to-text translators are even worse in voicemail applications, but what about the trainable V-to-T computer apps for the blind or physically impaired? Anyone here have experience enough to recommend one?

        Regarding the faun issue, is a baby faun a fawn, a kid, or a calf?

  2. #5 takes on #2. Yes, my mother thinks everything I write is wonderful and should be published. And she catches my spelling errors. Doing my homework at the kitchen table, I’d ask Mom how to spell a word, and Dad would yell from the living room, “Are you going to take your mother to college with you? Use the dictionary!” I gave my parents a word processor, and Mom had to deliberately misspell a word to see how spellcheck worked. Anybody want to borrow my mother?

  3. The less-than-polite response to #10: Oh, so you think you’re Moses. Or St. Paul. Or, God must have had a rotten writing day!

    The more polite response: God occasionally uses miracles to accomplish His purposes, e.g., the feeding of the five thousand with a little boy’s lunch. More often, though, He uses bakers and fishermen, caterers and event planners to bring about the same result. When He blesses authors to create books, He rarely dictates books word for word. Instead, He uses agents,critique partners, editors, other authors, publicists, etc., to help share His stories. Just as different parts of the body of Christ function together, different members of His writing team help make them the best works possible–and get them into the hands of readers.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Love your answer, Rachael. The nice one. (Actually I love the snarky one as well.) I may just borrow it but I will give proper attribution.

  4. Melinda Ickes says:

    Part of the reason to never say #3 to an agent: In building a successful career (i.e. a devoted readership), you need brand recognition. You need to know your genre inside and out, write your genre well, and present a consistent/compelling brand in that genre to your intended audience. While you really might have great ideas for novels in many different genres, breaking into publishing isn’t the time to be ‘all over the map’ in that regard. An agent is going to have a really hard time trying to help you find your place in the market if you don’t even know what kind of product you can/want to offer.

    Thanks for sharing this list, Janet!

    • Melinda Ickes says:

      Number #11: Never call them the wrong name. 🙁 Sorry, Wendy!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Spot on, Melinda. Exactly.

    • Catherine says:

      Thanks for these tips! As a new writer, I have tried my hand at many different genres. I read several, so in order to understand good writing and bad across genres, I wanted to try writing in them too. My career aligns with one, but my passion aligns with another. So I get the tendency to be a split-personality writer. But I also get that in order to market yourself, you have to pick the strongest among them to start with. Once you’ve had success with that one, then if you want to branch out, you’ll have better luck. Pick a starting point and use the other stuff for practice.

  5. Oops.

  6. Great list! Thanks, Wendy!!

    I’m going to the ACFW conference for the first time this year, so I’ll make sure not to say these things. But I think, especially after reading the great advice on this blog for several years now, they’re already on my radar.

    The biggest problem with these items is that they mean the person did not prepare at all. If they had read blogs and researched their market, attended a conference or two, etc. they shouldn’t make these mistakes. Preparation and a friendly teachable spirit and, of course, an incredible book are the factors to bring before an agent.

    Do you agree, Wendy? I’m currently going through a detailed prep for the conference, so any insight is appreciated!!

  7. * An answer to #1 – “There are those in other areas of endeavour who, without education, can produce amazingly. They call them idiot savants.”
    * An answer to #6 – “While I am impressed with your word count, deforestation is a major problem, and I will not be a party to it.”
    * An answer to #10 – “If God dictated the book, it is He who should be querying.”
    – A couple of suggestions, for things not to say:
    * “This is a sole submission to you and other selected agents.”
    * “I have rebooted the novel.”
    * “I take my inspiration from Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Janis Joplin, and have created a cutting-edge genre which is ripped from the pages of today’s viral Youtube videos.”

    • Love these, Andrew! Especially your #6. 🙂 . . . Of course, that new genre could be an, um, interesting one too. Maybe.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Oh, Andrew, you’ve got your witty snark on this morning. Fun! Good answers.

      • Thanks, Wendy…I do have to admit to culpability in ‘helping’ to create the top ten…I began writing in a genre that’s obsolete, and made the mistake of saying that I don’t read in the descendant of that genre (or, perhaps, its current form) so as to keep the lineage, so to speak, clear. Dumb, dumb, DUMB!

    • Melinda Ickes says:

      Andrew, I must confess: your reply to number 10 made me chuckle so much that I shared the comment with another writer in my critique group this evening. She got a kick out of it, also! Probably will share it down the line. I’ll make sure to give credit where it is due!

  8. David Todd says:

    #3: I understand why this is cringe worthy. Alas, some people, like me, suffer from Genre Focus Disorder (GFD). They find they must “go with the flow”, i.e. the flow of words, wherever the spirit moves them. If that means non-fiction, fiction, professional essays, so be it. Sales will be poor as a result, but it’s a long tail game.

    I suspect GFD works itself out in most writers as they grow in craft and art and professionalism. I’m hopeful my case isn’t fatal. I just published the 5th (and last) short story in a series. Five in one series, even though only short story length, indicates there’s hope for me, and perhaps my GFD has run its course. Now, I just need to figure out which of four books to turn into a series.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s okay to experiment when you are trying out your voice and developing your writing style– on fact it’s good. Eventually, however, if you want a career with any heft, a writer needs to settle and claim one genre or one category as their own.

    • carla day says:

      David, I hear you! My adventurous mind wonders off across genres and I have to reign my uncontrollable thought process . GFD, I love a label for my ailment! I have completed my novel and I can’t decide which genre it belongs to. ha! Like you say i’m still growing lets hope it isn’t – out if control!

  9. I loved this post, as well as some of the answers in the comments. I’ll take on #4 and #9. 🙂

    #4—When someone says this, what they’re also saying is that they don’t know the genre structure—what readers expect in a Romance, or Sci-Fi, or Historical story. If a writer doesn’t know what the normal flow and essential aspects of the genre are, they won’t write it well. An agent can see that, and won’t select that story.

    #9—This statement is um, prideful, at the least, implying that this person knows more than the average bear about the Bible. To me personally, it would also be worrisome. If they’re discovering things in the Bible that no one over 2000 years has discovered? I’d be a bit worried bout how their world beliefs would translate into their stories. . .

    Thanks for encouraging us to think through these, Wendy. 🙂

    • Point taken on #4, but I wonder if genres are not becoming formulaic, in meeting expectations…that, in a sense, all mysteries have become cozy mysteries.
      * Using SF as an example – John Wyndham (best-known for the masterful “Day Of The Triffids”) wrote SF, but he was very much in mainstream fiction as far as his plotlines and character development were concerned. SF was an element, and placement in the genre, but the stories were still human, in the line going back to the Bard.
      * Or am I overthinking this?

      • I would definitely agree that we need to not write to a formula, but I believe certain genres are known for certain aspects. For example a romance is expected to have a happily ever after ending and the hero and heroine getting together. If it doesn’t have those, then . . . well, it’s women’s fiction. 🙂 SF is usually expected to take place in a different world, or at least a different paradigm, or it will be considered something like contemporary or dystopian.

        That said, I think you can write completely unique stories within the “genre expectations” and not be writing to formula.

      • Yes, I see that…you’re right, of course.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Perfect answer to #4. We need to know what our genre or our category looks like– what the reader expects. We also need to know what the hot books in our genre are–what’s the competition and how do I compare.

      And yes on your #9 answer. You’d be surprised how many of these we get and the thing they’ve “discovered” is always way outside the realm of orthodox Christianity. It’s the stuff on which a cult could be built if the writer had even a shred of charisma.

  10. Not much of a reader? My professor husband has students every semester who want a degree in Computer Science but admit freely and unashamedly to him that they don’t like math. What? Math is as fundamental to computers as reading is to writing, and if they don’t understand that, then there’s very little to be said. They are blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes.

    • Meghan, I’ll have to respectfully disagree…I have a PhD in structural engineering, and taught the higher math related to cable structures, elasticity, and plates/shell structures…and I never liked math.It was a tool, and I could use it effectively.
      * To jump into another realm, that applies to a lot of the most successful snipers. They are not gun nuts, or dedicated competition marksmen, nor natural hunters. Their skill is learned, sometimes with difficulty, and it’s something they employ in the furtherance of a larger goal. Jack Coughlin explains this at more length in his autobiography, “Shooter”.

      • Andrew, perhaps “like” is the wrong word. His students don’t know math and don’t care to. I’m super-impressed with the levels of math that you taught. You obviously know it well.

    • Meghan that is like someone who wants to become a nurse but doesn’t want to take science classes…..

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s an immediate turnoff to an agent, Meghan. It’s like saying I want to be a renowned chef but personally I only eat PopTarts and drink coke.

  11. #4–never say this … but can I confess to writing a line in my latest WIP and feeling it was too perfect to come from me? So I re-read that last book just to ensure I didn’t steal a line. Glory hallelujah, I don’t think I stole anything! And I rub my sore eyes from reading too much, and to give my eyes a rest, I ground myself from reading any novels this week. 🙂 (and my daughter reminds me that Margaret Mitchell lost her good vision from reading too much … she knows everything about everyone) 🙂

    • Shelli, I can relate to the tendency to over read. I often fall asleep with my Kindle in hand. 🙂 Blessings as you rest.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Too funny. But if you can remember a line verbatim from a book you’ve read you have a much better memory than me.

      Plagiarism is rarely accidental. And, the truth is, if you worry about accidentally plagiarizing, you are sensitive enough that I’m guessing it will never happen.

  12. Kari Trumbo says:

    I’ll take #1 and #7. An individual who’s only been writing a few months who has more than one completed manuscript “ready to publish” doesn’t yet realize the work it takes to flesh out a novel to make it presentable. I’ll even use myself as an example, when I wrote my second novel over a year ago and decided the flow of this one was good enough to work on. Before I did more research into what that would entail. After about five edits, I thought I was done…I couldn’t have been more wrong. Writing, if it is anything, is a learning and humbling experience.
    Number seven shows not only a lack of respect but they couldn’t have possibly screamed it louder that they’ve never read an agency blog or done a bit of reading about the business behind writing. An agent is not going to take your idea, period.
    Thank you for the opportunity to contribute, Wendy.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Yes on #1. I always think about Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of 10,000 hours to mastery.

      And on #7, you are right. It shows a lack of understanding but it also shows a person who is probably high maintenance and over-values his “genius.”

  13. Wendy, thank you for making us smile while reminding us what not to say to an agent or editor. #8 jumped out for me since I’ve found I learn as much about wordsmithing from reading other novels as I do from writing craft books and blogs. Reading educates us on what works and what doesn’t work. When I find a book I love, I study it. And when a book isn’t engaging, I ask myself why and then endeavor not to repeat the same ‘sins’.
    Blessings from a lifelong learner ~ Wendy Mac

  14. I heard someone say #4 and #8 at a conference this week. In her defense, she’s just starting out and everything probably about writing seems intimidating at that point. She was also worried about joining a critique group for the same reason. Eventually you get over that and realize that writing is not just natural talent–we all have a lot of learning to do. But saying those words (I don’t read because…) screams I’M NOT READY.

    • And I should learn not to reply to blog posts from my phone. Ugh. I could have done a better job of self-editing that sentence.

      • But the ‘word predictor’ on phones can be kind of fun…I had to use Barbara’s phone to write my blog, and comment on others, for a couple of months, and had to tease through her usual vocabulary for accounting. Now she has to chase down obscure references to Shakespeare, and 14th-century Samurai.

      • Wendy Lawton says:

        We ignore those things, Karen. We are all replying fast to blogs and we focus on the content not every jot and tittle. I try not to even look back on my comments because my editor’s eye will cringe at my mistakes.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I’m so glad there were wise writers who are so much further down the path who could help her see the problem with that thinking. That’s why conferences are so good. (And it was so good to see you in Portland.)

  15. I find it hard to believe that anyone could be so ignorant and egotistical as to say some of those things. Writers read. Even kids in preschool learn to follow directions. Writing is a profession and, like any other, requires training. And I don’t think God has dictated anything for quite a few years.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Oh, Janet, you’d be surprised.

    • I’ll admit to that level of arrogance and egotism; I didn’t read in my genre, and was idiotically proud of it. It came from the way I wrote “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart”; there was a story I found I wanted to tell, and I wanted to tell it ‘my way’.
      * I think the error came from my not having approached writing as a business, but as something ‘given’ by The Muse. That’s not necessarily the wrong approach, but I was writing at the same time I was trying to build background in understanding the business – the latter, haphazardly and selectively.
      * That said, I’m still happy with the book, and it did get published, but my lack of understanding – and perhaps a willful disregard of the rules – crippled its potential.
      * “Emerald Isle” was in something of the same boat, but I worked it over quite a bit – and may still do more – to help it fit its intended genre. And yes, now I do read contemporary romance.

  16. #9 and #10 make me cringe. The Holy Spirit has protected God’s Word from the oral tradition to the translated versions we read today. He has used teams of scholars in the translation process and the development of scholarly resources to help with the task of exegesis. To claim there is something in Scripture that no one has ever discovered sends off red flags of false teaching, taking Scripture out of context, and twisting Scripture to support personal agendas.

    It’s important to invite God into our writing process, but to claim He inspired every word we write is blasphemous. God does not make typos. I have yet to read a perfect book, other than the Bible.

    Handling the Word of God is a huge responsibility that requires a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit and an openness to Him using His people to help in the editing process.

    We cannot interpret Scripture in a vaccum. And we cannot communicate His story, through fiction or nonfiction, without a strong team of people who prayerfully seek Him as they help us make each book the best it can be.

    Like the church, writing requires community.

    Unfortunately, I have heard people use both #9 and #10. When I read the work, there were errors in interpretation of Scripture and a low quality of craftsmanship. That may be a coincidence, but I doubt it.

    I pray we all encourage one another to deepen our personal relationships with God and others, pursuing Him above all else. I also pray we hone our craft with excellence, devoted to pleasing Him and bringing glory to Him above all else.

    The task of sharing His story through the creative skills He gives us is a privilege we should not take lightly.

    I invite God into my writing process and have set up teams for accountability regarding my writing and what I’m teaching, because I know I need it.

    When we begin to think we don’t need help, we are in a scary spot!

    Thanks for sharing this list, Wendy. These phrases are funny, but also a bit frightening when we realize these comments are used more than we want to believe.

  17. Jessica Berg says:

    I certainly cringed at #2! As a high school English teacher, I hear this all the time from my students. The funniest one I ever had was a student talking about a public bench, however, the poor lad didn’t quite push the “l” key all the way down:)

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      My daughter teaches at the college level and last semester she had a student take her to task for correcting spelling. The student insisted that spelling has become a creative expression. It needs to be judged artistically not legalistically.

      • Oh, that’s just two humerus. Good spelling is the hallmark of a well-armed writer. (Let the groans commence.)

      • Jessica Berg says:

        Creative student, that’s for sure. I blame texting an all its evil lower cases and abbreviations and letters standing in for words;)

      • Shelli Littleton says:

        That is something. A world with no rules … not pretty. I guess they don’t want their feelings hurt. 🙂 I can go with the idea that writing can be a creative expression … like the way your write your name … put the little heart over the i 🙂 … but spelling? I don’t think so. 🙂

      • Laughing, Andrew!

        On another note, what that student said sounds like a great excuse for lazy.

  18. Lori says:

    Believe it or not, I know people who can claim #9 or #10. I know one or two people who have claimed both. Yikes! A little egotistical to say the least. I’m glad I don’t hang around them any more.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Scary, huh? And I do believe in Divine inspiration in our work– it’s not that. It’s in the boldness and insistence of the claim. The subtext is, “if you don’t take this you are rejecting God’s own work.”

  19. Jen Cvelbar says:

    I’m cringing at each of these but more so at #8. Good writers are good readers. Period. If you don’t read it’s difficult (or perhaps impossible) to grasp the way words can and should flow together or how a story can and should be told. I can’t imagine being devoted to writing and not reading too.

  20. #9 – I have edited manuscripts written by people who claimed this and every one of them was scary. When I hear a writer claim to have a whole new take on the Bible, I immediately assume it will be unbiblical. We don’t want to give that impression when talking to agents.

    #10 – My philosophy is, if we’re going to attach God’s name to something, we better be right. As Christians we can assume that God inspires our ideas (most of them anyway), but saying “God wrote this through me” sounds arrogant. It is also very likely that WE inspired the idea and God is saying, “Wait, what? I recall telling you something very different.”

    Wendy, I think you left one out: “God appeared to me in a dream and told me you were supposed to be my agent. I believe that you will suffer His wrath if you turn me down, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to you. So please, for the sake of your soul, let’s sign the contract right now.” I’m probably paraphrasing, but . . . well . . . we really shouldn’t say such things. It kind of puts the agent in an awkward position.

    Thank you for this list,

  21. Linda Jewell says:

    I’m uncomfortable critiquing someone’s writing when they tell me they’ve received it word for word from God. Especially when the writer’s mind is closed to any suggestions for corrections despite obvious errors in the craft of writing or misstatement of facts. Yes, God inspires us and He works in ways too marvelous for me to comprehend. However, I also believe God knows good grammar and how to spell. If God is directing you to write something, great. However, keep that bit of information about His inspiration between you and God and be humble enough to receive the gift of constructive suggestions for improvement from others He is also working through such as your critique group, teacher, or publisher.

  22. Wanda Rosseland says:

    Oh how I wish I could write the perfect query letter incorporating all of these don’ts, Wendy.

    Dear Mrs. Agent, or do you prefer Mis?,

    You are so lucky to be getting this letter, because I have written the best book, even tho it’s a mystery and I do not read crime novels. Any novels as far as that goes, they just don’t get it. but God gave me every word of this book and it is good!

    You might think it is a little long, however I figure God knows what he’s doing and wasn’t about to change one word. I’m not into all that editing stuff anyway. Seems to me it’s way overated. It only took me three months to write this book, if you count my vacation time, and there isn’t on mistake in it. You will love it!

    Actually, this book is a spin off of a children’s book I wrote for my darling neice. She is four years old and I ilustrated it with watercolors of the sun, moon, stars, a house and a funny white dog. (Yes, I am an artist also. I’ve written a book of my own personal recipes as well, and a guide book for the gulf coast area of Floriday, where I live. I’ll send them to you.

    My mother read Who Killed Walter Shwopp? and she loved I! She told me she always knew I would be a famous writer some day. Isn’t it grate that God would not let you know Walter Shwopp is a dog until the very end! He is so clever!!

    Please send the contract to my lawyer when you get it ready. He is looking forward to recieving it cause he wants to learn more about this book busness. In fact he wants to get into it. Hey! Maybe you could work together! Wouldn’t that be cool!! I’ll tell him.

    Well, I gotta go. Am working on my next book, it’s about what Jesus really said in the Bible–not what everyone says he did. (There’s a bit of a difference in case you didn’t know and this one will be right. God’s telling me.)

    Nearly forgot. I’ve got the cover done for Walter too so the publisher doesn’t have to worry about it. It’s a dandy! Here’s my phone number too, so you can call. Thanks so much.

    Freida Hilgenstein

  23. Wanda Rosseland says:

    P.S. I love the picture you used and that’s no joke!

  24. Kimberly Rae says:

    These made me smile! My sympathies to you, though, for having to keep a straight face when you hear them!!!

  25. Rosa says:

    I am looking for a agent, currently writing a children’s book.

  26. TLSeacliff says:

    What a great list! You are absolutely correct. Perception is everything and the author must at the least give the appearance of authenticity.

  27. I had the pleasure of meeting you and sitting in on a class you presented at a conference. Later, I sat at the same table with you for a meal and personally heard someone use a couple of those examples as they pitched to you. Thank you for the reminder!