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?

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  1. A question – I can see where saying ‘fiction novel’ sounds idiotic, but does the ‘non-fiction novel’ genre still exist?
    * It seems to have begun with Walsh’s ‘Operacion Masacre’ in 1957, and the last major example I could find was Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil’. ‘Roots’, ‘In Cold Blood’, and ‘Helter Skelter’ also seem to fit the genre.
    * But I can’t recall anything more recent than Berendt’s 1994 effort; is this an extinct (or dormant) genre?

  2. Lara Hosselton says:

    Semi-colon šŸ˜« šŸ˜« Iā€™m forever second guessing myself.

  3. I’ll confess to thinking (in my early writing days) that the great idea was enough. Over the next decade, I learned how wrong I was.
    * On the other hand, I knew early on that spelling matters. My grandmother won the state spelling bee, and the prize was a piano. My mother had to deliberately misspell a word to find out how spellcheck works.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Wow, your mother is a gifted speller. I’m decent at it; so I thought it was ironic, when I was teaching at a seminary, that I was asked to offer a course on spelling. It was a required course for students who flunked a spelling test. So, I had a group of disinterested students–and since I’d never found spelling a challenge, I had no idea how to help them! I mean, I just “see” words in my head. I have no idea if the light bulb went on for any of them.

      • I’d ask my mother how to spell a word, and my dad would fuss, “Are you going to take your mother to college with you. Look it up!”
        *Janet, those students probably wanted to take you to college with them.

  4. Aww. We try to jump over the hurdle and knock it over. Haven’t we all been there? If we can reflect and feel embarrassed, surely that’s a good, humble sign of growth. And somehow I have a sinking feeling that we never outgrow the embarrassment, because hopefully we are always advancing. It took me a while to find myself in a wonderful crit group (I have to constantly pinch myself to believe it), which has made such a difference for me. Because everyone has unique strengths to bring to the table. At every meeting, I get a healthy dose of satisfaction and embarrassment. But I’m growing. šŸ™‚

  5. Janet, thanks for this. I used to think I was pretty knowledgeable when it comes to grammar. I’ve since learned, I need to always be on my game when it comes to this aspect of writing. I love having someone read my work before I send it anywhere (including my blogposts). But even then, I’ve missed little things, like “fo” in place of “of.” Oy.
    I appreciate your tips and the way you approached this topic!

  6. I think it’s so tempting to spend all of your time on the actual manuscript and then dash off a quick query letter at the end, forgetting that first impressions are everything! I had to take a couple of classes at writers’ conferences on query letters before I truly understood the importance of the query letter/email. Great blog post, Janet!

  7. Thanks for this post. I think the fear of not being grammatically perfect has held me back–I tend to be a perfectionist. But, this blog has thoroughly cured me of that because of this little box I’m writing in right now. What? No spell check, and no way to scroll back and check for errors when my finger is typing as fast as my mind is going. Do I dare hit submit? Agh! Oh no. I’m sinking . Total embarrassment. They’ll never pick me up. Agh! Another error. Well, thankfully–most times I am remembering to slow done and check before the words roll out of the box. It has forced me to slow down and check as I go. Thankfully, with my proposal and manuscript I can edit to my hearts content.

    Thanks for this little rolling box to write in. It has become a disguised blessing.

    • Elizabeth, you have an error in your post.
      Can you find it?
      šŸ˜‰

      • Janet, I accept your challenge in spite of being bone tired from an all day birthday celebration for a dear friend. In other words, I’ll see if I can find it, but I’ll use that as an excuse if I get it wrong. ( A sly smile slips swiftly across my silly face.) Enough blabber! On to the challenge.Hmm? I’m thinking it is no comment after “most times.”

        Did I get a ding, ding, ding for a correct answer, Janet? Or do my eyes deceive me, an a dreaded foghorn sound? Let me know.

        The above for Janet Ann Collin’s. To Janet Grant, I’m glad it made you smile.

      • Okay, okay. It was an autotext error on my answer to your challenge. I wanted to write: no “comma” after “most times” NOT no “comment” after “most time.” Oh fiddle faddle.

      • Oh, and I did see in my answer to your challenge auto-text took my ” and” and made it an “an” before “a dreaded foghorn.”

        Who created the auto-text monster that gobbles up my words and spits out others anyway? That overly hungry monster has caused more errors than my brothers trying to fold fitted sheets! Off to bed with me. Twas fun. Thanks for the challenge.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Elizabeth, it’s good to know that little box serves multiple purposes. Your comment made me smile.

  8. Elizabeth, you said slow done instead of slow down.

    • Wow! Well, I’ll be! I made a error on the very thing I was describing as the cause for my errors in this little rolling box. The first time I typed slow down, I made an error, but the second time later in the paragraph I wrote it correctly because I had purposely slowed down. There you have it–an example of exactly what a was describing as the most common reason I make a grammatical faux pas in comments I have left here on the blog…in this little rolling box. šŸ™‚

      • I do see an “a” where an “I” was to be before ” was describing. ” I was somewhat distracted by auto-text which kept insisting I spell “faux pas” differently. Okay, I’m done posting comments on this particular post. I need to be able to hold my head up for the rest of the day. Just trust me when I say it does not reflect the writing I submit. Okay. Bye for now. I’ll return next week.

  9. Shirley Whitman says:

    I’m sure it must be very frustrating and wearisome for an agent to open an email with errors in spelling and proper punctuation. From a brand new author’s perspective, however, those first query letters are daunting. It’s like trying to get a toehold while attempting to climb Mount Everest. I’m anything but careless and read my query letters obsessively; yet, much to my mortification, I recently spelled an agent’s name wrong. I think even in the world of professionalism there is room for grace and that the quality of the writing is what really counts. I say this very respectfully and with fear and trembling that my punctuation isn’t spot on.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Shirley, I appreciate your concerns over having to write a merely perfect query. šŸ™‚ That’s far from the case. Why, I’ve been known to take as a client writers who mailed handwritten proposals. (Obviously that’s not the norm.) The reason I wrote this blog post was because this particular query was riddled with errors. Only the first paragraph was error-free. I marked all the errors in bright orange. You should see how bright that page looks, with all those marks. I almost took a photo of it to add to my post, but I couldn’t figure out how to do it without disclosing identifying details about the query’s author. I would never embarrass a writer that way.
      I didn’t write about these errors to make writers feel like the bar is set so high to gain an agent’s attention that discouragement sets in. Instead, I hoped to encourage writers to take their time with their queries, have others read their queries with fresh eyes, and put their best foot forward. Agents read queries because we hope to have our breath taken away–or at least to recognize the writer worked very hard to make that good first impression. I’m sure you do make that notable impression. An agent will happily skip right over her misspelled name as she rushes to read on. After all, this might be The One she was hoping to find.

  10. Pat Iacuzzi says:

    #4–Redundancy and #9–being long-winded. I want to “explain” things clearly, so I go over word counts and repeat. Thank you, Janet for clarifying these missteps!

  11. Sharyn Kopf says:

    Another red flag is not knowing her protagonist’s exact age. If you’ve written almost 150,000 words it seems you should have a clear picture of your main character!

    That said, many of us have sent queries out from the thrill of a finished manuscript. Then looked back, mortified, years later, wondering what on earth we were thinking. Hopefully this girl will take the steps needed to learn how it’s done!