Writing an effective query letter is something that many writers struggle with. It can be a super nerve-wracking task even though most queries are only one page long. But if you've ever written a query letter yourself, you know it's not always the easiest or most straightforward thing!
I work with a lot of writers, helping them to prepare their submission materials (including their query letter), and I've seen some of the same mistakes pop up over and over again. So, in this post, I wanted to shine a light on those mistakes—and provide solutions for what you can do if you make some of these mistakes.
But before we dive in, let’s just make sure we’re all on the same page about what a query letter is, and what it means to query agents or editors.
A query letter is a way to introduce yourself and your story to literary agents or editors. In other words, it's a way to make connections with agents or editors with the goal of garnering interest in your novel.
And if the agents or editors that you query like what you’ve said in your query letter, they will ask to see your work. This could mean sending your full manuscript, or just a few chapters from your novel—it depends on the agent or editor that you query.
The first mistake I see writers make all the time is that they’re not actually ready to query—so, they’re querying too soon. And what I mean by this is that I see a lot of writers either query when they’re not even finished with their first draft, or they’ve finished their first draft, done a quick revision, and then they’ve gone straight into querying.
And the problem with this is that if you rush the writing and revising process, you won’t have enough time away from your draft to know whether it’s really the best it can be just yet.
So, you should really only query when you can say yes to these three questions:
If you can answer yes to all three of those questions, then you’re probably okay to start querying. But if not, my advice is to take your time with this process. Finish your draft, let it sit for a while, and then do a revision. When you’re ready, get some outside feedback from beta readers or a developmental editor, and then do another revision. You don’t necessarily need to go through line edits or copy edits before you query unless this is something that your beta readers or your developmental editor suggests before you take the next step.
The second mistake I see writers make is that they just don’t do their homework or their research when it comes to choosing which agent to query. And this mistake shows up in a few different ways.
I see writers send their queries to agents that are either closed for submissions or they don’t represent stories in that author’s genre. So, if they’re closed for submissions or if you’re writing horror and you send your story to someone that only represents sweet romance, you can’t really be surprised or upset when that agent says they’re not interested in your story.
The other thing I see quite often is a situation where a writer will send out a batch of queries that are kind of just generic. So, in addition to making sure the agent or editor you’re querying is a) open for submissions, and b) is open to stories in your genre, you’ll also want to tailor your query letter to each person you’re submitting it to.
Instead of writing something like, “To whom it may concern,” make sure you include their name, and make sure you include the reason why you’re querying that particular agent. For example, maybe they represent another author or book that you love reading. If that’s the case, mention it in your query letter. It’s worth the effort and it will go a long way to catching an agent or an editor’s attention.
The third mistake I see all the time is not following the submission guidelines.
Different literary agents and editors have different submission guidelines, and it’s crucial that you abide by their rules.
Agents and editors are more swamped than ever with overflowing inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over contracts, and on, and on, and on. If you don’t follow their submission guidelines to a T, your query letter will be disregarded simply because they’re too busy to deal with queries that don’t follow their rules.
Also, a lot of the intake process is automated on the back end these days, so for example, if they ask for a specific keyword in the subject line of your query email, the system might dump that into a very specific spot for them to read. If you don’t include that keyword, who knows where your query will end up.
Plus, here’s the thing… Getting the specifics right is a strong indication that you’re able to figure things out on your own. And an author like this is always a welcome addition to any agents or editor’s roster of talent.
As an example, some agents or editors might ask for just a query letter, while others want five, ten, or even fifty pages in addition to your query. Some will want a synopsis of your story, and that could be a one page synopsis, or a 2-3 page synopsis or even up to five pages. Some agents might want all three of those things–a query, a synopsis, and a set of your opening pages.
So, you really do have to pay attention to every single agent or editor you want to query.
The fourth mistake I see writers make is that they forget to include their metadata in their query letters.
Metadata is basically stuff like your genre, your age category, and your word count.
So, are you submitting a fantasy novel? A cozy mystery? A thriller? What kind of story is this? And then what age range is this story intended for? Middle-grade readers? Young adult readers? Or adults? And then how long is your completed draft?
You can’t leave this information out because it helps set the story up in the agent or editor’s head, and it lets them know what to expect before they dig into the meat of your query letter. So, I always recommend putting this in the first paragraph of your query unless an agent specifically says where they would like this information.
The fifth mistake I see writers make when it comes to querying is that their story’s word count is too low or too high compared to the commercial length.
Most commercial fiction is somewhere in the 80,000-100,000 word range, depending on the genre.
If your novel doesn’t fall within this range, it’s most likely going to result in an automatic rejection. For example, if you’ve written a 200,000-word romance, that’s way far over the commercial range for romance novels. Same thing goes if you’ve written a 30,000-word fantasy novel or a 100,000-word middle-grade story. They’re just too far outside the commercial range for those genres.
It’s also important to understand that agents are not likely to want a debut novel over 100,000-words. And that’s simply because it’s too risky of an investment for them if the author doesn’t have a proven track record. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t query a debut novel (you definitely should!), but if you do, just keep it under 100,000-words.
The next mistake I see writers make in their queries is that whatever they’ve written doesn’t give agents or editors a clear sense of the genre.
And there are two parts to this, as I mentioned earlier, you will want to include your genre in the metadata. But beyond that, I’ve seen query letters where the author lists the commercial genre as a thriller, but then the summary of their story reads more like a romance. Or I’ve seen writers say they’re writing horror, but the summary of their story reads more like a thriller.
I’ve also seen summaries that read like parts of two or more genres. So, imagine a summary that starts off like a thriller, but then ends like a romance. For example, imagine if a story summary started with Jack So and So’s son being taken by the government, but then in the end, you read that Jack gets together with Holly and they live happily ever after. It would be a bit of a head-scratcher, right?
If an agent or an editor sees this kind of mismatch in your query, they’re going to assume your story suffers from the same problem.
The seventh mistake I see writers make when it comes to querying is using the wrong comp titles—or using comp titles that make no sense.
Comp titles are comparable titles, so stories that are similar to yours.
Well-selected comp titles can help an agent start to envision the market for your novel and which editors they should send your story to.
If you choose the wrong comp titles, this will highlight that you either don’t read in your genre and/or that you have an overinflated idea of your book’s potential.
For example, if you say your book is the next Harry Potter or the next Twilight, you might be over inflating its potential. It’s great to have confidence, for sure, but you’d be better off picking fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content or tone of your book rather than the best-selling potential.
Similarly, if you use something like The Catcher in the Rye as a comp for your YA novel, that could be a red flag to agents or editors that you haven’t read a YA book in a long, long time.
So, the point here is that comp titles only work if they’re culturally relevant in the current marketplace and if they’re truly comparable to your book. In fact, some agents even say they prefer titles that are less than five years old—and I think that’s a great filter to put all your possible comp titles through.
The next mistake I see writers make when it comes to query letters is that they write a summary of their story that is super vague. So, they’ll use vague, non-specific language, or they’ll hint at things in a way that doesn’t make sense to someone with no knowledge of the story.
So, for example, I read a query last week that said something like, “When the protagonist goes to XYZ land, his powers will be tested.” But that doesn’t really tell us anything—we can’t imagine what that looks like or why this person is going to be tested.
So, instead, that author could say something like, “Upon arriving in XYZ land, the Protagonist will have to use every ounce of her telekinetic power to save her sister from XYZ.” See how that's a little more specific? And how it hints at the protagonist’s goal and the stakes now?
As I mentioned earlier, the sole purpose of your query letter is to give agents and editors just enough information about your story that they’ll want to read more. So, at the very least, you need to include these four things in your query letter:
If you’re not clear about those foud things, your query is most likely going to fall flat. And out of those four things, the one I see left out the most is what’s at stake—so, if you are writing a query letter, or if you already have one written, go double-check that you’ve included what’s at stake.
Also, as a quick bonus tip... Please don’t ever end your query with any variation of, “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!” Trust me on that one, just don’t do it.
Mistake number nine is trying to include too much in your query letter.
I see writers who try to include way too many characters in their queries, or they spend too much time talking about themes their story explores, or they attempt to fit in every single detail, including plot twists and the ending. But here’s the thing…
You only have one page to sell your book to an agent or an editor. Even with your personalization, metadata, and bio, the query should still fit on a single page.
So, here are some quick high-level tips for writing an effective story summary:
1. Focus on 1-2 characters at most. You don’t have to reference or name everyone. It’s okay to call characters “his best friend” or “her parents” to allow the agent to digest what they’re reading without getting bogged down in too many names.
2. Focus on the plot and your character’s growth arc, not the theme. If you write a good query letter, agents and editors should be able to infer your theme from what you write about your plot and your character.
3. Try to keep the pitch portion of your query to 250 words or less. This is about the length of the copy that appears on the back cover of a book, so it’s definitely enough to capture your whole story and to catch an agent’s attention if you focus on the right things.
Remember that the purpose of a query letter is to entice the agent to read your book, not to include every little detail or scene. Plus, as I mentioned above, agents just don't have the time to read through a ton of pages for each manuscript they receive in order to figure out what a story is about—and they shouldn't have to.
Mistake number ten is writing a query letter that’s weird, unprofessional, or that includes too much information.
While it’s always a good idea to convey your own unique personality—especially in your bio—be careful not to go too far. I say this because your query letter is first and foremost a business letter. You don’t need to try super hard to be cute or clever with the way you write it. Just get to the facts and the story.
You’ll also want to do a spelling and grammar check before you send your query off to agents and editors. A single typo isn’t going to make or break your chances, but a query riddled with mistakes will most likely make an agent assume that your draft will also have a bunch of typos. And if they are on the fence about whether or not to request, this can tip you over into the reject pile.
And on that note, please don’t use all caps or weird fonts or colors when sending your query. When in doubt, just use black, 12 pt, Times New Roman font. And in terms of spacing, you can double space between paragraphs, but otherwise, your query should be single-spaced.
Sending agents or editors a query that is professional, well-written, and compliant with their submission guidelines shows that you take your writing—and yourself—seriously.
It’s the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent or editor that you’re someone who will be easy and professional to work with—which is what they want. It’s a business relationship, so treat it that way from the get go and you’ll be setting yourself up for success in the long run.
And there you have it! Those are the 10 most common querying mistakes I see and how to avoid them when you're ready to query.
With all of that being said, I do want to remind you that writing an effective query letter takes time and practice. You won't get it right on your first try, and you will definitely make some of these mistakes. But now you know what to look out for and how to course correct if you do!
So, don’t give up and keep going until you’re satisfied that your letter is doing its job—selling your story. Good luck!
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