How Not to Query an Agent

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

You know how you have a bad feeling before you even open an email? Last week I felt obligated to click on an emailed query even though I suspected reading the missive would be a waste of my time. It was. Why? Because the email was a query catastrophe. Read on, and I’ll explain how not to query an agent.

1. Misspell the word “query”

Yup, the email’s subject line contained one word: querry. And, yes, the writer was telling me in one word that I was unlikely to ask to see the project. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot!

The fix: Easy. Pay attention to the little red squiggly line under the word that indicates it is misspelled. As a matter of fact, pay attention to every squiggly red line in your email–and in your proposal and manuscript. Do a spellcheck.

2. Misspell the name of the agent

Okay, “Kobobel” is tricky. But take the time to get the agent’s name right. I do credit the person for actually addressing the email to me rather than: 1) sending one email to a long list of agents so we can see everyone you’re mass emailing; 2) refer to the agent as “To whom it may concern.”

The fix: If you’re having to look up the agent’s email address, take the time to personalize your communication. We agents do know it’s likely you’re sending your missive to more than one agent, but we like to think you had a reason for adding our names to a list rather than contacting every agent whose name you can find.

3. Don’t figure out what to call the thing you’re writing

The individual who sent me the email referred to her work as a “fiction novel.” This designation does not suggest the person can write a compelling thingamajig. If you don’t know what to call it, you probably can’t write it.

The fix: Know the categories and genres that books fit into. The industry has specific classifications for different types of writing. Learn not only how to classify your book but also what attributes a manuscript should have to fit into the category.

4. Be relaxed about when to hyphenate words

The book’s protagonist is described as being “a young woman in her mid to late twenties.” For the sake of tight writing, the composer of the email should have deleted “young” since her age would have told me the same thing. “Mid” begs for a hyphen.

The fix: Go over your query again and again, making sure you are showcasing how to write tight. If grammar isn’t your strong suit, ask a grammarian snob to have a look at your email before hitting “send.”

5. Toss semi-colons in periodically because they look impressive

Three semi-colons are used where commas are called for. The semi-colons seem to have been tossed in randomly, making it clear the writer has no idea what function semi-colons serve in a sentence.

The fix: See #4.

6. Use words incorrectly

At one point, the writer states that “the manual” is available in full. Uh, that would be “manuscript.”

The fix: Proofread your query. I think the email’s originator knows the different between a manual and a manuscript, but she didn’t take the time to carefully read every word in her communique. This error suggests the manuscript will be riddled with words that aren’t quite used correctly.

7. Ignore errors you know you tend to make

Using the word “who’s” when you intend “whose” does not a good impression make. We all have our foibles when it comes to grammar. I have to pay attention to “your” and “you’re.” I have a firm grasp on the difference between the two, but when I’m tapping out words on my 100th email of the day, carelessness can set in.

The fix: Never view yourself as having arrived when it comes to grammar. Make yourself a life-long grammar learner. Pay special attention to your weaknesses and shore up as needed.

8. Don’t re-read your query before sending

“She should be the happy…” clearly has an extra word popped into it. The writer likely had changed her mind regarding how she wanted to express her thought, resulting in the sentence starting out in one direction but then shifting to another.

The fix: See #6.

9. Ignore rules about typical word counts

This particular novel, the writer tells me, “stands at 142,289 words, there is a planned a sequel.” Not only is the word count too steep for a contemporary novel (or any novel, really), but having a sequel in mind also suggests the concept cannot bear the weight of the first novel let alone a followup novel. And the writer hasn’t bothered to learn what a typical word count is for her chosen genre. (And, yes, I see the one place in the query that called for a semi-colon but received a comma instead. And the extra “a” in the sentence.)

The fix: A quick Internet search is likely to provide the answer to what a standard length is for your genre, especially in novels. Or even looking at how many pages that books like yours tend to run will give you a ballpark idea.

The final takeaway

That, folks, is how not to query an agent. As you can see, I did indeed read the entire “querry.” I felt like I was watching a train wreck and just couldn’t take my eyes off it. Each sentence was riddled with missteps. And that makes me sad. Anyone who has invested so much time, creativity, and effort into writing a massive novel has earned the chance to have an agent ask to see the material. But this writer sabotaged herself.

Here’s the saddest part: Her first paragraph is error-free and actually describes a compelling idea for a novel.

What missteps caused you to feel a twinge of “Oh, I’ve done that”? What other query weaknesses do you struggle with?


How not to query an agent. Click to tweet.

A lit agent points out common query errors. Click to tweet.

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