How NOT to Query: A Guide

29 Jun

By Sammy Bina


As an intern at a literary agency, I’ve had the opportunity to read through some of the query letters authors send us. I’ve seen some really spectacular ones, and I’ve read some that made me cringe. I’ve noticed a general trend in the queries we reject, most of which contained problems that could have been easily avoided. We recently critiqued a bunch of queries here on the blog, and hopefully you guys learned something from our comments! As an addition to that, I thought I’d put together a guide on how NOT to query.

Rule #1: Don’t let yourself be unprepared.
This might sound like common sense, but hear me out. You’d be surprised how many authors are not prepared when they first begin querying. The most important thing is that you have a complete manuscript ready to go, should an agent ask to see it. Don’t start sending out query letters once you’ve written a decent partial. If an agent reads it and wants to see more, they’re not going to be happy when they find out the rest of the story has yet to be written. So make sure you’ve finished your story, and polished it up as best you can. Never send a first draft. Have people read over your work (if you need a critique partner, we even have a section for those here!), and make sure they’re people you can trust. Grandma’s probably going to tell you your work is the Next Big Thing, but Grandma also lies. Find someone you know who will be brutally honest (if that’s Grandma, all the better), and heed their advice. That way your manuscript will be shiny and perfect for when Awesome Agent asks to see it.

Also, make sure you’ve written a synopsis. A lot of agents are going to ask to see them, and you can’t leave it out just because you think yours sucks, or you didn’t feel like writing one. It can sometimes be a deal-breaker while reading your partial. An agent or intern will read through your work, and if they’re not completely sold at the end of 50 pages, they want to see a synopsis. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to doubt you, so make sure you send it.

As a side note, don’t write a ten-page synopsis. 2-4 pages, double-spaced, is the norm. If your synopsis is longer than your first chapter, you have a problem.

Rule #2 (which goes hand-in-hand with #1): Don’t send out a premature query letter.
If you need some suggestions, scroll through our comments during this month’s Query Week. Trust me when I say that the first draft of your query letter is probably not the one you want agents to see. Write it, then have people read over it for you. If they’ve never read the book, even better. If someone who knows nothing about your book can’t make sense of your query letter, it’s a safe bet an agent won’t be able to, either. Use your friends and family as guinea pigs. Personally, I went through four or five drafts before I was really happy with my my own letter, but I made the mistake of sending out the earlier drafts. Don’t do what I did. Wait until you’ve got something solid before you let Awesome Agent see it.

Rule #3: Don’t mass query.
As some of the ladies here have already mentioned in the past, it’s best to send queries out in small batches. Agents aren’t fans of queries were the cc box is a million miles long because an author couldn’t be bothered to individually contact them. You want to personalize each query letter to the agent you’re sending it to. If you refuse to add that extra 2-3 sentence paragraph at the end of your query, and just want everyone to see the exact same thing, at least address the letter to the individual agent. When you’re a female agent who receives letters addressed to “Dear Sir” or “Dear Editor,” it’s pretty obvious what you’re doing. You lose your credibility, and you’ll most likely end up with a rejection letter. Personalizing an email or letter takes about ten seconds, and it will only help to make you look good. And don’t we all want to be pretty?

Rule #4: Don’t query agents who don’t represent the genre of your manuscript.
If your book is science fiction, you don’t want to query people who represent mystery. You’ll look foolish, probably end up annoying the agent, and you’ll most likely wind up with a form rejection. Just because someone’s a literary agent doesn’t mean they represent every kind of fiction (or non-fiction). Agents have personalized tastes, just like everyone else.

Rule #5: Don’t send unsolicited materials.
Seriously. Don’t do it. This includes pictures, family trees, character listings, business proposals, artwork, random excerpts from your manuscript, or any part of your manuscript at all. If an agent wants to see your work, they’ll let you know. Until then, you just have to sit around and twiddle your thumbs. Waiting sucks, but take comfort in the fact that you’re not the only one doing it!

Rule #6: Don’t use fancy paper.
I know you want your letter to stand out in a sea of slush, but pretty paper isn’t going to compensate for a poorly written query or novel. And even if your query’s good, the pretty paper still gets a raised eyebrow. It’s just going to get recycled anyway, so stick with the standard 8×11 white printer paper. It’s professional and standardized. We like standardized.

Rule #7: Envelopes. Get the good ones.
Obviously you’re free to use whatever kind of envelope you have on hand, but let me just tell you that the self-adhesive ones are the best. You know, the ones that have the tape you just peel away? When you send a SASE, and it’s hot out, other envelopes will seal themselves shut in the mail. Then interns like me have to take sharp objects and slice them open, only to tape them back together. And trust me, you probably don’t want to make me use pointy objects.

Rule #8: Don’t query from prison.
Stranger things have happened.

To be fair, the person may be a good writer. But if you’re going to query from prison, please be professional. We don’t need to know what you’re in for, or how long you have left until you get out.

Rule #9: Don’t forget your SASE.
Or your postage! If you forget your envelope, or didn’t include postage, you probably aren’t going to get a response, and then you’ll spend weeks wondering what happened to your letter. I’ve seen people send money with their envelopes, but not every agent is going to be nice enough to actually take your letter to the post office and mail it. So make sure you put the stamp on your SASE yourself.

Rule #10: Don’t be aggressive.
You know that phrase that goes “B-E aggressive!” that people tend to use when they’re joking? Don’t. Don’t be aggressive. Not when you’re querying, anyway. Make sure you give agents plenty of time to get back to you. Typically, it’s perfectly acceptable to resend a query if you haven’t heard back in two months (unless their guidelines specifically tell you they don’t respond to queries they aren’t interested in). Don’t be that person who checks in every week or two to see if an agent’s read your query. By the time they actually get to it, the agent will have already formed a mental image of you, and it probably won’t be a good one. I know from experience how nerve-wracking waiting can be, but just keep yourself busy while you wait. You’ll come across as professional, and you’ll be glad you did in the long run.

And that’s it! Keep in mind that your query letter is the first thing an agent sees. It’s the first impression they get of you and your story. Like any job interview, you want to be polite and professional. So follow the agency’s guidelines, and don’t get over-zealous. Rules are there for a reason, and in this case, they weren’t made to be broken.


Sammy Bina is a fifth year college senior, majoring in Creative Writing. She is currently querying her adult dystopian novel, THE AGE OF NEVER GROWING OLD, working on a YA paranormal romance, and interns at the Elaine P. English Literary Agency in Washington, DC. You can follow her blog, or find her on twitter.


23 Responses to “How NOT to Query: A Guide”

  1. Kat Zhang June 29, 2010 at 1:28 AM #

    As always, great query advice! I’ll keep number 8 in mind especially ;P

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 7:46 PM #

      God, I hope you never end up in prison, Kat :-p If you did, though, I would at least consider your query.

      • Kat Zhang June 29, 2010 at 8:26 PM #

        Dear Ms. Bina

        I am writing you from my tiny cell in ****** precinct in hopes that you will consider my 150k novel PLACES I’D RATHER BE, which is followed by the 200k sequel REASONS I SHOULD NOT BE HERE. Per request, I have included my query and first ten pages below. Feel free to take your time in getting back to me. I feel like I’m going to be here a while…


        1234 Jailtime lane
        Get Me, Out of Here 80099
        1-800-RESCU ME


        • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 11:10 PM #

          And that, my friends, is the perfect end to a perfect day.

        • Angela June 30, 2010 at 6:51 AM #

          HAHAHAHA! Nice one, Kat.

  2. Jules June 29, 2010 at 2:04 AM #

    Excellent article! I enjoyed the voice and appreciated the practical advice. Great work, Samantha!

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 7:47 PM #

      Thanks, Jules! I hope it was helpful!

  3. Kate June 29, 2010 at 5:49 AM #

    This is great advice! Thanks for posting.

    It baffles me that people would bother sending a query when their manuscript is only partially done. That just sounds like a terrible idea! Imagine if the agent loved it and wanted to see the rest. I’d be embarassed.

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 7:49 PM #

      It’s happened, believe me. More often than it should, too. I think people just get really excited about what they wrote and send off the first fifty pages without thinking. I’m feeling that excitement right now with what I’m writing, but at least I can hold myself back πŸ˜‰

  4. Angela June 29, 2010 at 8:22 AM #

    Rule #8: Don’t query from prison

    Didn`t expect to see that in there. It sounds like an interesting story. haha

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 11:11 PM #

      I’d tell you, but then I’d have to kill you πŸ˜‰

  5. Sarah J. Maas June 29, 2010 at 11:33 AM #

    Fantastic post!!! This is all really wonderful advice!

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 11:11 PM #

      Thanks, Sarah!

  6. Rachel June 29, 2010 at 2:11 PM #

    My favorite is: “I bet you never received a query like this one!” as an opening line.

    Seriously?? LOL

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 11:12 PM #

      I haven’t seen any of those ones yet (that actually say it in the query), but every time I open up the bad ones, that phrase jumps into my head πŸ˜‰

  7. Myra June 29, 2010 at 6:06 PM #

    This is SUCH a great article, Sammy! Definitely things to keep in mind for the vague, nebulous future in which I might query.

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 11:13 PM #

      Thanks, Myra! I know they’re all little things, but when they add up, they really are an important package! Good luck querying when you get to it! (It’s totally nervewracking, haha!)

  8. Julie Eshbaugh June 29, 2010 at 7:18 PM #

    Sammy, this is (another) awesome and helpful post from you! And as far as #8 goes, I used to see small ads in Poets & Writers magazine all the time, posted by prisoners seeking co-writers for their memoirs. Everybody has a story to tell. *sigh*
    The only thing I would add would be similar to your rule #6, but would include fancy fonts. Stick with the tried and true for querying. Fancy type won’t make up for a poor query. πŸ™‚ Great post!

    • samanthabina June 29, 2010 at 11:14 PM #

      Thanks, Julie!

      GAH! I totally forgot to add that one! YES. Anyone, if you’re reading the comments, DO NOT USE FANCY FONT.

      • Heidi July 4, 2010 at 8:35 PM #

        As a first time reader of your blog, thank you for the insider view. Terrific advice, and I wanted to add has a great networking site for query critiques if anyone is looking for one. Thanks for the info!

  9. Vanessa July 1, 2010 at 12:05 AM #

    Sammy, this is SUCH a great post! LOVED it!

    It makes me miss interning at a literary agency though…


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