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What NOT to Write: The Query Letter

Monday, November 17, 2008

Before I was laid off from the publishing house, one of my duties was going through the slush pile. What that meant was that all manuscripts coming from authors we’d worked with or through agents went straight to our publisher. Everything unsolicited went into the slush pile. Instead of looking at it as a drag, or something tedious, I looked at it as a learning experience and started taking notes, because I knew I’d eventually want to share it here.

What was I looking for when I opened a query/cover letter?
1. What is the story about? (Does it line up with what we publish?)
2. How long is the story/book? (Does it adhere to our guidelines?)
3. Did the author do his/her homework on what we published?
4. What makes the story special?
5. What makes the author qualified to write it?

Common mistakes I saw with query/cover letters:

  • No cover letter included
  • Cover letter doesn’t say anything about what the story is about
  • Author did not PROOFREAD before sending [actual examples: “many of my student’s have enjoyed this story” and “resent lists/marketing trends shows . . .”)
  • No SASE or blank, stamped post card enclosed for a response
  • Every sentence starts with “I” or “My”
  • When sending multiple submissions, letters got put in the wrong envelopes so they had the wrong editor/publisher name on them
  • Okay, now to the nitty-gritty. Here are some actual examples of salutations NOT to use:

  • Dear Sir/Madam:
  • Gentlemen/Ladies:
  • Dear Submission Editor:
  • To your literary department:
  • Dear _________ [name of someone who hasn’t worked there in two years]:
  • Dear Publisher:
  • Dear folks,
  • And here are examples of things people wrote in their letters that just made me shake my head in wonder—and many of them claimed to be members of professional writing organizations!

  • “I’ve never written children’s books before, but . . .” [submitting to a children’s book publishing company]
  • “I have no publishing credits . . .”
  • “I’m just beginning as a writer . . .”
  • Gives a long author bio—and says nothing about the story
  • “I have something I want to submit. What should I do with it?”
  • “Enclosed is a story which I wrote for your consideration.”
  • “I would like your company to consider my proposal, entitled ________”
  • “I propose that 12% percent of the net sales would be a fair contract.” [yes 12% percent]
  • First and only sentence: “I submit the enclosed manuscript for your consideration.”
  • “I’d be happy to submit the manuscript upon your request.” No SASE enclosed for a reply.
  • “Dear Publisher: I was born in 1942 . . .”
  • “Dear Editor: I hope this letter finds you well . . .”
  • “I am new to the publishing world and look forward to any advice you can give. I am flexible and open to change.”
  • “I am writing to enquire would you be interested in publishing my book, __________.”
  • Query letter written on a greeting card. (This was the one with the “Dear folks,” salutation.)
  • See Beyond the First Draft—The Query Letter for more details on writing a proper query letter.

    Tomorrow, I’ll get into stuff that’s more about what not to DO when it comes to submissions than what not to write. Hope you’ll come back!

    1. Monday, November 17, 2008 10:58 am

      As a children’s writer, I bet the next sentence of that “I’ve never written children’s books” opening was something like “but I’ve found them so much easier than all the writing for adults I’ve done–they’re shorter, after all.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard that…:)


    2. Monday, November 17, 2008 12:35 pm

      Haha children’s books…easier to write…haha

      Okay, sorry I’ve composed myself again…I think I’ve avoided all those mistakes and faux pas 😀

      It’s always interesting to see what people write when they do queries.


    3. Monday, November 17, 2008 12:35 pm

      Okay, seems to me there’s a lot of wasted words in those letters. Saying what’s obvious.

      So we need to relay only relevent info in concise and informative sentences. Forget the lead-ins, is that correct?

      I’m still learning here, you see.


    4. Tuesday, November 18, 2008 7:43 pm

      So… I didn’t write any of those, BUT, Lord, PLEASE don’t one of my giant stupid beginner mistakes show up on someone’s blog someday!

      Because, wow, the first two I did were worse than anything you mentioned.

      And I am going to plead the fifth and not put them here. Kaye once told me to be careful what I put online, and that would black list me forever for all who read it!

      I also have made note of the one agent and one publishing house I sent those beginner/IhavenoideawhatIamdoing submissions to. I probably won’t submit to them anytime soon, as I’m sure they wrote my name down as someone to immediately reject.

      Yes, it was that bad!


    5. Sunday, May 15, 2011 9:41 pm

      Wow. I’m worried about the one who had “student’s”…hope they’re teaching math. Fun and helpful post. Thank you.
      Edge of Your Seat Romance


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