Query Turn-Offs

Now that you know what I’m looking for, here’s a follow-up on what I’m NOT looking for – a quick list of my query pet peeves!

These won’t be an automatic deal-breaker for you and your project, but they will make me a little sad; more importantly, they’ll make me wonder if you’ve done your research, and if you take your writing seriously. And your pitch and sample pages will have to work that much harder to win me over.

  •  “What’s her name? Shannon? Close enough.” While no one loves “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern,” it’s even worse to get a query addressed to “Dear [Coworker’s Name]”; “Dear Sarah” (you’d be surprised how often it happens), or even “Dear Mr. Spelletier.” You should be doing your research to make sure you’re querying agents who will be a good fit; in addition, messing up my name makes me wonder if you’ll take your time and pay attention to detail when we work together.
  •  “Pssht, guidelines don’t apply to me.” Yes they do, and they’re right here! So please follow them; don’t ask me to click on your website or download a file from Dropbox. I won’t buy your self-published e-book or look under a rock in Central Park for your hand-penned sample pages.
  •  “My book is the next GONE GIRL meets WILD!” It’s probably not, and those comps don’t do much to help me understand your book – what’s special about it, why you were the perfect person to write it, how it fits into the market. Of course you want to highlight how your book will fit in with what’s popular right now, but be specific, and show that you’ve read widely in your genre. If you’re querying me with a thriller about a time-traveling cheerleader who kidnaps the Lindbergh baby, mention The Shining Girls and Dare Me, not Gone Girl and Twilight.
  •  “Whatever, spellcheck probably caught it all.” Now I must admit that I am a grammar zealot, and my spam filter is set to automatically delete any email that omits the second attributive comma (just kidding – that’s only a dream of mine). I’m self-aware enough not to hold minor typos against you, and I might even let it slide if you use fiancé where fiancée should be. But fundamental writing errors like homophone confusion (isle ≠ aisle, discrete ≠ discreet), dangling participles, verbsubject disagreement, etc., are a red flag. Whether you need more time to learn the basics of your craft, or whether you just didn’t bother to give your letter a second read, grammar mistakes are signs that you might not be ready to work with an agent.
  •  “You’re making a huge mistake.” And please be nice. Be professional in your query, not arrogant or demeaning, and don’t write back rudely if I decline. Even if the project you’re querying isn’t for me, who knows when and where our paths might cross again – publishing is a small town!


Now you know what to double-check before hitting SEND on that fantastic project that’s exactly what I’m looking for. For more query tips, check out Jessica and Mike’s great insights recently.

Do you have any suggestions for making sure your queries are good to go? Any embarrassing mistakes you didn’t catch in time?


7 Responses to Query Turn-Offs

  1. Any strong feelings about whether it should be “Sharon” or “Ms. Pelletier?” Personally, when someone I don’t know calls me by my first name it irritates me a bit, and they say to treat a query like a business letter. I almost always use an honorific, unless the agent’s gender is totally unclear, like their first name is “Taylor” and there’s no picture or something.

    • sharon says:

      Hi Stephen, good question – no strong feelings either way! I do agree with the advice that a query is a business letter. But I would suggest going with whichever one YOU feel more comfortable with, since the query is also my first glimpse at your voice as a writer. If you’re sending me a super fun romance, it’s not at all out-of-place to write “Dear Sharon”; if you’re querying an exhaustively researched nonfiction, “Ms. Pelletier” might be the better choice. Hope that helps!

  2. Judith Burnett Schneider says:

    Stephen, when faced with the problem of a name that is not gender-specific, I usually write “Dear Sharon Pelletier.” It’s a bit more formal than simply “Dear Sharon”, and it’s far safer than writing “Mr.” to a Mrs. or a Ms.!

    • sharon says:

      Great suggestion, Judith! Thanks!
      And remember, we aren’t reading queries to look for your tiny mistakes – we’re reading them to discover exciting projects. All these query details just contribute to our overall impression of how you’d be to work with.

  3. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    It’s not much discussed in these many query etiquette posts, but your 5th point might better have been called “Keep A Civil Tone & Don’t Smash The Furniture”. I’m forever amazed at all the writers out there who grind their gears trying to argue with a rejection; an agent read-request being like nothing so much as an audience with a medieval monarch-hard to get and any decisions are final and irrevocable. Make your best artistic parting flourish with your top hat and exit stage left before the guards start fingering their scimitars. After all, it’s a big world out there and we always have W.C. Fields’ law of persistence to inspire and guide us: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. The quit-no sense being a damn fool about it…”

    • sharon says:

      So true, Kevin! If anything inspires us to give a second chance to a project that didn’t interest us…it’s certainly not a snotty reply!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>