Finishing a query is big deal! You’ve spent hours in front of your computer wrestling the words that capture your passion, imagination and life experience into a query letter.
To give your dream the best chance of getting an agent to say, “Yes, I’d like to see more,” hold off on clicking send and conduct one final check. Here are six phrases that you should avoid in your query as well as helpful suggestions on what you can write instead.
Here we go!
- “This is the next New York Times best-seller!”
Telling a literary agent that your book idea will be a best-seller is like boasting that you can predict the winner of the next presidential election. Is it possible that your book idea could be a best-seller? Maybe. So a wise agent “never says never,” but in my opinion, a wise agent tends to hang out in the “wait and see” camp.
Rather than telling an agent that your book is the next best-seller, cast a vision for how your book will inspire, encourage or add value to your readers’ lives. This is an example of what fellow agent, Wendy Lawton, calls “romancing the reader.” Since a literary agent is the first “sale” that you need to make for your project, show him or her the details that will woo them into asking for the next date, i.e., requesting to see a proposal or full manuscript.
Here is a quick exercise. Re-write this paragraph by replacing the parenthetical statements with the words or phrases that best describe your project. Then, fill in the blank with the intended result of your project, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.
I wrote this project to __________________(help/inspire/encourage) readers to (what will they feel/relate to/confront/overcome), so that _______________________ (what is the result that you want the reader to experience).
- “There aren’t any other books like this…”
Unless you’ve read every book in your genre or category ever published on your topic, this statement likely is not true. Even if this were true, a publisher may hesitate because they want to know that there is already an established market of buyers for your book. Comparable books are a good thing because if it is an established market, then a publisher feels that they can be successful with your book. (As long as the list of similar books isn’t exhausting to read, and as long as the list doesn’t include every best-selling author imaginable.)
While your goal is to make your project stand out as unique, perhaps a better way to express this is to say, “A number of books are similar to mine, but my project is unique because _________________________.”
Note: Please take the time to read more books that are similar to your book. Check Amazon’s best-seller rankings in your category, and read those books. This will give you a better feel for the other voices similar to yours and to increase your confidence in what makes your project unique.
- “I’m querying other agents as well.”
The undertone of this statement is intended to create urgency for the agent to say “yes” to the project before another agent snaps it up. I hope that you query more than one agent at a time, as long as you query the right agents who are looking for projects like yours, and I appreciate your letting me know other agents are looking at your query.
But agents appreciate hearing why you’ve queried them. If you state, “I’m sending this query to you because I’ve long admired your work and read your blog posts regularly.” Something personal lets the agent know you’ve been paying attention to who he/she is. And, yes, agents do like to know if others are looking at your query or if you’re sending it exclusively to one agent.
- “My novel is complete at 175,000 words…”
Wut? That’s too many words. Yes, mega-selling fiction authors can write massive word counts. However, when I see this sentence in a fiction or nonfiction query, this is my face:
Why the sigh? Incorrect word counts in a genre tips me off that a writer hasn’t done his or her homework on the basics of traditional publishing. If you’re writing a novel or nonfiction book, take time to find out the word count range in your genre. You can check writing websites like Writer’s Digest or Google other resources.
- “Here are my top five projects that I’d would like to pitch to you.”
Some writers use the “spray and pray” approach when it comes to contacting an agent by pitching more than one project in a query. Remember, a query is a place to romance the agent, so when a writer pitches two or more ideas, it’s like asking the agent to date four to six ideas at once. Is it possible? Yes. But an agent isn’t a contestant on “The Literary Bachelor “or “The Literary Bachelorette.” Bottomline: We only want to hear about one project at time.
Instead of pitching multiple projects in one query, focus your efforts conveying the results of the exercise that you completed in #1 and making us fall in love with the project that you love the most.
- “This is a pandemic or Covid-inspired story.”
While the pandemic has created lots of avenues for unique storylines, agents, editors and publishers aren’t necessarily racing to fill retail bookshelves with pandemic-centered novels or nonfiction books.
Consider the Vietnam War or even September 11th. Both of these events reshaped our country’s consciousness and culture. However, we don’t have fond memories of these mammoth events in our human history, so I’m steering my clients and prospective clients away from solely focusing projects on the pandemic.
Instead of telling us in your query that your plot or nonfiction book is centered around Covid, zoom out that specific event and identify a related theme. Consider themes like grief, resilience, hope, courage or creativity that you could focus on instead of writing about the pandemic.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION! Leave a comment below and tell us about other phrases you would remove from current query. Also, do you have a different or more effective phrase to use instead of one of my suggestions?