Cheesy lead. Don’t be cute. Skip the rhetorical questions. The “What if you were stuck on a sailboat in a hurricane with a mysterious killer” teasers get old fast. Better to lead with the facts; otherwise your reader may feel as if you’re trying to manipulate him or her to create more sensation than pure fact warrants.
Addressing the Editor. Do Not begin the query with “Hey…” It is disrespectful and may stop an editor on the spot! It reeks of unprofessionalism and childishness.
Bobbled blurbs. The biggest problems we see with blurbs are 1) too many characters and secondary characters when only the main character should be the emotional hook, 2) a description that’s more thematic than plot-driven (i.e., this book is about peace and love), 3) the author attempts to tell the whole story, including the ending, when he or she should use the blurb as a teaser instead.
Appearance. The letter looks bad, smells, is printed on cheap paper or photocopied, etc. We also receive e-queries that are poorly formatted (all caps, colored and silly fonts, goofy pictures in the signature line) or that lose their formatting once they are sent. TIP: Do yourself a favor and test your e-query to make sure it keeps its formatting by sending it to a bunch of your family members and friends to see what it looks like in their inboxes. Then you can send it to agents.
Mentioning prior manuscripts (and/or certain self-published books). If you’ve written three unpublished book manuscripts in the past, best not to mention them. Otherwise the agent in question may be intimidated by your prior projects, thinking, “If I take on his/her current project, the writer will probably pester me to represent all those previous books that, for whatever reason, didn’t sell.” The same goes for self-published manuscripts, which agents will look at the same way as unpublished manuscripts UNLESS you have significant accolades for your self-published book.
The multiple personality bio. Often writers will inadvertently begin their bios in first person, but wind up in third. Be on the lookout for pronouns gone wild! Also, some bios will begin in present tense, but then end in past. And, as always, it helps to have a strong bio.
Groveling. It may seem like it makes sense to acknowledge your own humility by pointing out a lack of experience, but resist this urge. Confidence wins hearts.
TMI. While it’s always good to convey your own unique personality in your bio, be careful not to include too much information. If your novel is about sailors, it may help to include your background in the Coast Guard. Be personable and interesting, but do so with care.
Listing publishing credits that aren’t really publishing credits. Be careful that the publishing credentials you’re listing are not part of poetry contest scams or anthology scams. Including bad credits suggests you don’t know the market (and therefore don’t know good writing).
Copyright. Industry standard is to not include the copyright symbol on your work.
Cover art. If you include cover art, you show a) that you don’t know how the industry works (since writers get almost no say over their covers), and b) that you might just be the kind of high-maintenance writer who wants complete control.
If you flatter, mean it. Agents can often see straight through the “I greatly admire your agency” bit; they know a generic form letter compliment when they see one. If you’re going to take the approach of flattery, be specific in your praise.
Some common phrases that authors should NEVER use in query letters:
This is the first book I’ve ever written! If this is true, you don’t need to say it; better to position yourself as a person who knows the biz (which means you must be a person who knows it!).
I’ve been writing since I was five. Writers who feel compelled to explain that “I’ve been writing since I was X years old” or that “It is my greatest wish to get published” inadvertently declare to editors, “I am a newbie.” It’s presumed that you’ve been writing since you were X years old and now want to get a book published. That’s what every writer wants.
This would make a great movie. Almost everyone thinks his or her book could be a great movie. You want your query letter to ask your agent to do one thing and one thing only: represent and sell your BOOK—not a screenplay, not a series of action figures, not your foreign rights. Let the publisher in question decide if your book is screen worthy or not.
This book will appeal to readers of all genres. Editors want to work with writers who understand that each genre appeals to a very specific demographic. When you say, “This appeals to everyone,” an agent will read, “This appeals to no one in particular.”
My friends/parents/teachers like my writing. We often read how new writers get a favorable response to their writing from close ones. But unless your mom or dad is a renowned literary critic, leave off any amateur praise.
Oprah will love this book. If the story is solid and the writing is strong, there’s no reason an author should feel obligated to proclaim that a book is the next Harry Potter. Don’t promise what you have no control over. Your work should speak for itself.