How to Get an Agent (NOT!)

13 Ways to Screw Up Your Query

1. Address your letter to Dear Sir/Madam or Dear Agent or To Whom It May Concern.

2. Write “I believe you are the perfect agent for me” even though it’s obvious the same email was sent to fifty agents.

3. Pitch a mainstream novel of 40,000 words… or 250,000 words. Most agents won’t look at it. Pay attention to appropriate word counts!

4. Start your query with a rhetorical question: “What if…?” or “Have you ever wondered…?” or “Why is it that…?” It’s cliché.

5. Say “I am a previously published author” and then list several self-pub companies as your publishers.

6. Pitch a non-fiction book without giving any of your credentials or platform information. (This doesn’t apply to memoirs.)

7. Write, “Please open my attachment” or “Please click on this link” or my favorite, “Please Google my name and see what you find.”

8. Write, “I have just completed my first novel…” It sounds like you’re sending a first draft, and we don’t want that. Especially, don’t send a query in December that says, “I just finished NaNoWriMo…”

9. “I am querying about my non-fiction novel” or “my fiction novel.” The first is non-sensical, the second is redundant.

10. “This story has everything a great movie needs.” Excellent! Except you’re pitching me a book.

11. “I’m writing to see if you would be interested in publishing my book.” Well, SURE I would! If I were a publisher.

12. “I’ve been querying other agents, but they keep rejecting me.” Not exactly getting things started on a positive note.

13. “I know you don’t accept (genre) but I’m confident when you read this, you’ll change your mind.”

What are some GOOD things to say in your query letter?

“I enjoy reading your blog and I particularly resonated with what you said about _______.”

 “In reading your website, I saw that you’ve worked with two of my favorite authors, ____ and ____.”

If you’re having trouble being creative, just go with the basics: “I am seeking representation for my …” It’s simple, clear, and to the point. It allows you to introduce your book and get right into it.

Q4U: What is the hardest thing about writing a query letter?

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Richard Mabry on October 31, 2013 at 7:57 AM

    How about the ever-popular line (and I mean no disrespect with this)–“God gave me this book?” I’ll probably get some comments about this one, but I’ll bet you’ve seen it. I certainly believe that God has a hand in much of what we write, but I also believe the old saying, “God will help the sailor but he still must row.”

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thatpreteen on June 29, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    The hardest for me?
    I have yet to write a query letter, but I would think that having a good, non-generic introduction would be difficult.
    Also, this is sort of a general obstacle, I’m thinking my age would put off a lot of agents/publishers.
    Tis not easy for 12 year olds to find deals.

  3. Lisa Fredersdorf on June 27, 2011 at 10:48 AM

    I haven’t written a query letter, since I haven’t finished my manuscript yet. But I am afraid now, when I see what things I can possibly do wrong…

  4. virtualDavis on April 20, 2011 at 2:39 PM

    >Txt'ing ur qry in twitter-talk iz gr8 cuz it shoz ur n-sync w/21st cent norms… 😉

  5. Marianne Cushing on April 20, 2011 at 7:12 AM

    >Ugh! Number three just stopped me in my tracks. My novel is 50,000 words. Does it need to be longer?

  6. girlseeksplace on April 19, 2011 at 1:04 PM

    >Writing the darn thing. I cannot seem to make myself sit down and write it.

  7. Lisa R on April 19, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    >The hardest thing for me was getting everything important about my book into one to two paragraphs! The things you caution against are excellent points and when I was researching how to write a great query letter, I read similar advice in many, many places. These great tips are available to any writer who chooses to look for them. Do some people just not even research how to query before doing it? I can't believe someone would not do research before doing a query, especially now with the internet–we have access to wonderful blogs like this. It must be frustrating for agents to have to give the same instructions over and over again!

  8. Marleen Gagnon on April 19, 2011 at 5:12 AM

    >My hardest part about the query letter for me is selling myself. I've talked people out of buying lawnmowers when they walked into the store to buy just that item. I was honest with them. They chose a $20 repair to a $120 lawnmower.

  9. patti.mallett_pp on April 19, 2011 at 5:02 AM

    >Thanks, Rachelle, as always, for offering information that is concise and helpful! It's going to be filed away until it's time for me to take this next step.

    In the end, we can only do our best. If we are too afraid to send a query out for fear of not having done a good enough job, wouldn't that be Mistake # 14?

    I sweat through my first (and only) one, and maybe it wasn't perfect, but the sense of accomplishment when dropping those envelopes in the mail was a successful step in it's own right.

  10. Taz on April 19, 2011 at 3:19 AM

    >The hardest thing about writing a query letter is KNOWING I AM GETTING IT RIGHT!!! Good gracious!! I can write an article, a resume, a novel, even figure out how to fly a rocket around the world, but write a query letter? Far out…

    Ok, good confessions. I'm getting better at the query, and this blog and a few others have really helped with making the process concise. I guess I'm just really cautious about selling myself/my work/blowing my trumpet because who wants to come across a dork? What works for some doesn't work for others. Can we bottle that elusive element when we find it?

  11. Robert Sloan on April 18, 2011 at 11:54 PM

    >Getting a Round Tuit.

    I'm not kidding. I've done it a couple of times with a novel that I beat into submission shape and crafted a good synopsis for. No negative responses, just didn't stick yet anywhere. Life interferes, I get going on another project and forget to keep pushing the ones I finished.

    But I've done cover letters and other sorts of queries. I've studied it often. I think if I get down every concrete fact about the book that could sell it and then trim the prose without leaving any information out, it'll fly.

    When I look at my plans and what I'm actually doing, it all takes longer than I think it will. Everything does. If I don't quit, I will get there when I do.


  12. Sharlie on April 18, 2011 at 11:03 PM

    >Writing the query is ten times harder that writiny my manuscript! I think it comes down to knowing that this is your one chance with this agent. I seem to constantly second guess myself when writing a query. Does this sound too cheesy? Did I hit on all of the key points? Does it stand out? Does this make the agent want to read more?
    Thank you for this list. It does help to give writers some insight into an agent's mind.

  13. Kristin on April 18, 2011 at 10:59 PM

    >The person who comes up first when I Google my name looks much more awesome than me. I bet she could get a book published.

  14. Ruth A. Taylor on April 18, 2011 at 10:56 PM

    >Mine is a story within a story. Determining how much of each plot to detail in the query is my biggest challenge.

    I don't want to undermine the story of my protagonist, but the majority of the novel focuses on the sub-plot (17 chapters out of 25).

    Would it be wrong to note the chapters that contain the subplot? For example, "Chapters five through twenty-one entail the story of…"

  15. Ishta Mercurio on April 18, 2011 at 10:04 PM

    >Someone told you to Google them? Wow. I mean, we know you guys might Google us, but I'd never actually tell someone to do it in lieu of telling them anything about myself.

    The hardest part of writing a query letter for me is actually the deciding who to send it to part. I like writing queries, actually. Color me weird.

  16. Roslyn Rice on April 18, 2011 at 9:35 PM

    >Summing it all up in a few paragraps.

  17. Jennifer Fromke on April 18, 2011 at 9:23 PM

    >I think the hardest part is the fact that with each agent I query, I have only one shot to pitch this novel. I can't even approach the agent again until I finish another novel. All or nothing and everything rides on about 10 sentences. No pressure!

  18. Amy Armstrong, MS, NCC on April 18, 2011 at 9:20 PM

    >The hardest thing about writing a query letter is condensing a project I've spent years on down to a few paragraphs so that I can receive a form email a few days later.

  19. Bethany Robison on April 18, 2011 at 9:11 PM

    >I'd say the hardest thing is reminding yourself that, like all writing, it's an iterative process. You won't get it right the first time.

    My favorite mistake I've ever made in a query letter? I once misspelled my own name.

  20. Michael on April 18, 2011 at 6:43 PM

    >A brilliant list for people to read and absorb! People just don't seem to realise that this is a business proposition. Make it the best you can, folks, if you want to interest a reader, editor or agent!

  21. Lucy Ingels on April 18, 2011 at 6:01 PM

    >Great post! Regarding #7 "Please click on link": I am guilty of writing that because I have my illustrated picture book dummies online. They can only be viewed by agents and publishers and I provide the user name and password. Is this such a terrible no-no?

  22. Jacqui Pirl on April 18, 2011 at 5:20 PM

    >The hardest part?

    Hitting send.

    And then waiting.

  23. The Paper Doll on April 18, 2011 at 3:51 PM

    >Wow…I can really see myself making mistake #9 LOL. The hardest part for me is probably writing the hook. A close second would be the middle, though.

  24. Eileen Astels Watson on April 18, 2011 at 3:45 PM

    >COURAGE to do so.

    I'm praying that courage will come when my writing is truly ready!!

  25. Ashelyn Nicole on April 18, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    >The hardest part of writing a query is when forming a concise and simple summary of your 60,000+ word novel.

    At least, that's been my problem. I want to include everything. Even my character's social security number.

  26. Krista Phillips on April 18, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    >The hardest thing is 2nd guessing myself. I always rewrite it twenty times and hate it every time. Is what I said appropriate? Am I being presumptive? Have I miss-spelled a billion words? Is my tone okay? Do I sound like an idiot? Do I sound desperate? Did I commit some horrible query letter faux pas without knowing it? (and looking back at my first one I ever did… I have, so this is a real concern!!!)

    Then when I finally make myself hit send, I read back over it and roll my eyes because I'm sure it sounded worse than the first version. But oh well. It's sent. Now where is the chocolate??

  27. Sistergirl on April 18, 2011 at 3:29 PM

    >Great advice. What do you think about if a author is able to self publish and develop their own niche market?

  28. Crystal Laine Miller on April 18, 2011 at 2:33 PM

    >When working with authors, this is the part they quake about the most. They can write a fantastic novel, but have no idea how present themselves in a query.I've seen a fair share of query letters and your tips here are so helpful and practical.

    This month as part of our American Christian Fiction Writers courses, agent Terry Burns teaches how writers can present themselves. I think if you just extend that presentation to your correspondence with an agent, it will go well.

    Probably the hardest part of a query letter is what to leave out. What's TMI in a query letter? What stays? Once you know this, you're ready to connect, I think. Sometimes I have a tough time knowing what stays in that oh-so-short-letter.

  29. Nicole L Rivera on April 18, 2011 at 1:16 PM

    >Hitting the "send" button. It is so official, so head on the chopping block. I'm so nervous I'll accidentally send before I'm ready that I refuse to put the email address in until last. Lol….is there a phobia for this?

  30. JEFritz on April 18, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    >Great advice. Honestly, I think that a writer can't read enough about writing a good query letter because there is always going to be something s/he missed. This time, I learned some good things to put in a query letter.

    For me, the hardest part about querying is writing about my book so it's interesting and has voice. What works for me often doesn't for my beta readers!

    Thanks for the post.

  31. Mary Vensel White on April 18, 2011 at 12:20 PM

    >The hardest thing about writing a query letter? Knowing that your novel, which you've crafted for years, will get about 30 seconds of attention from somebody's assistant, and will be judged by a query letter. :-).

  32. marion on April 18, 2011 at 12:16 PM

    >The whole thing is terrifying!
    Like most other people, I find it hard to summarize my book. Sort of like taking a living entity & turning it into a dead specimen. But it needs to have a spark of life to attract the agent.
    Writers' League of Texas has an annual conference where you can talk face-to-face to an agent for 10 minutes. Of course, you'll still probably have to write to them, but at least you can say: "It was a pleasure meeting you…" blah blah blah. (And, if you really don't hit it off, you can cross this agent off your list!)

  33. Jill on April 18, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    >The fact that one query is right for one agent, but not another. Can't I just write one, for heaven's sake?! I mean, come on, why can't agents be robots instead of human beings? Okay, the other part is that the query system feels like a dead end for me. Send a query. Get request. No response. Please can't I just be rejected? I'm used to that. Sadness. 😉

  34. Katherine Hyde on April 18, 2011 at 11:27 AM

    >The hard part for me is making the story sound as interesting in one paragraph as it really is in its totality. I don't write high concept; my strengths are in the writing and the characters' internal conflicts. It's difficult to capture the voice and the forces that drive the characters in such a small space.

    All the "nos" you've listed are technical gaffes that can easily be avoided if one takes the trouble to read posts like this one. It's the meat of the query that is challenging.

  35. Anonymous on April 18, 2011 at 11:22 AM

    >I have only written one, and it worked. I made it clear that I was approaching her because I admired many of the writers she represented, and felt that the nature of my book proposal meant that she would be the very best person to represent it. Fortunately she agreed with me.
    The hard part was believing in myself enough to hit send.

  36. Loree Huebner on April 18, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    >The hardest part for me is crunching the story into a paragraph…or two. I'm learning.

  37. Michael Offutt on April 18, 2011 at 11:00 AM

    >This is a good reminder for me that when I do send out a query, to try my hardest to tailor it to the specific person, keeping in mind all of their background, their present work including blogs, and in general who they are and what they do. People respond to that level of connection and is proven over and over in customer service.

  38. Choices on April 18, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    >The hardest part is wording it the right way, so it will catch the agents attention.

  39. Laura Drake on April 18, 2011 at 10:43 AM

    >Polishing the book first!

  40. Vanessa K. Eccles on April 18, 2011 at 10:31 AM

    >Thanks so much for the advice.

  41. tiggy on April 18, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    >The hardest thing for me is to sum up all the points that make you desire to read more and not give away to much! Then there is the issue of showing and not telling which drives me insane. It's a fine line according to me and I'm trying my best to hammer it out. I think the query makes me become a fine tuned writer….teaches you to really analyze your work and word choices.

  42. CarolM on April 18, 2011 at 10:29 AM


    I agree with whoever said 'everything but the salutation and closing'.

    Those I can do. I even know to change them for each agent I send to. AND to change a few notes about the individual agent. So I don't end up sending Natasha Kern an email with information about authors I've enjoyed – who are represented by Chip MacGregor [or whoever].

    Now, making those notes and the summary and myself look good is a whole 'nother issue…

    /sigh/ Spent all day Friday on it. Expect to spend more time today…

  43. LupLun on April 18, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    >" 5. Say "I am a previously published author" and then list several self-pub companies as your publishers. "

    Clarify, please. If you DO have past self-publishing credits, how do you finesse those to sell yourself?

  44. Erin MacPherson on April 18, 2011 at 10:23 AM

    >Ack! I'm pretty sure I've done some of these things. I like your suggestions about what is BEST to write… that's really helpful!

  45. Laila Knight on April 18, 2011 at 10:11 AM

    >There's suppose to be a teaser blurb paragraph. We are not to try to cram a whole book in one paragraph. I get that, but I always feel like I'm leaving something out that will be crucial to the story and help to hook an agent, or send the message that it's a different genre. It can be stressing.

  46. Jaime Wright on April 18, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    >I think the hardest thing for me about writing a query letter is worrying about what will or won't attract, offend, irritate, or delight the agent/editor reading it. Since the written word can be subjective even to implied tone, I worry sometimes I can come across too unprofessional or too serious.

  47. Casey on April 18, 2011 at 9:52 AM

    >I had to laugh at some of those. 😉 But the last few are great tips! Will you do another post on what you DO look for in a query? Thanks for the post today!

  48. Lisa Dunick on April 18, 2011 at 9:46 AM

    >I think the hardest part is trying to figure out how to personalize it. I've seen so many agents in live chats or interviews who say that everybody and their brother says, "I read that you said…" and I just feel like doing a quick search and trying to make the query seem personalized comes off as insincere.

  49. KH on April 18, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    >The hardest part of the description of my novel in a few short sentences. I have been over it so many times that I know it forwards and backwards, but I want it to sound exciting to someone else.

  50. Michelle DeRusha@Graceful on April 18, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    >I admit, I totally flubbed on #3. The first time I queried, my memoir ms was 103,000 words when it should have been about 75,000 (yeah, I had that much to say about myself…).

    As for the letter itself: I swear, I found writing the actual book easier!

  51. Carol Riggs on April 18, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    >Great list! Luckily I haven't been doing any of those no-no's. ;o)

    The hardest part? Getting that right balance between not enough details and too many details–and making it intriguing and voicy-y at the same time!

  52. Walt Mussell on April 18, 2011 at 9:24 AM

    >The hardest part is the book introduction. I have an atypical setting for my books. Condensing my story into one paragraph such that it has enough of a draw is a challenge. However, I understand it's MY challenge.

  53. Cynthia Herron on April 18, 2011 at 9:19 AM

    >Good Morning, Rachelle!

    I can relate to what Sarah said. How many of us have hit "send" only to realize we could have said something differently or more eloquently? Querying is a learning process, just like the art of writing the book itself.
    The trick is to resolve to make each query better than the last, and learn from something that isn't working.

    I have to admit, I did use #4 on your list. In my most recent query, I opened with a question–not a rhetorical question per se–but one that was followed by a few other questions with a healthy dose of humor injected. I used this means to reflect the heroine's take on an otherwise serious issue.

    I try to speak and write true to my personality, and this method seemed to work for me. I can't say what worked for me would work for everyone. Obviously, you're the expert and I'm not. : )

    Thanks for continuing to teach us! Have a great day!

  54. Rick Barry on April 18, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    >This is hilarious, and these NOT tips present a poignant teaching tool. Of course, some highly successful authors have glanced backward and shared silly faux pas moments from their own pasts, which encourages us that, while embarrassing, such boo-boos need not be fatal for those with persistence. Thanks for teaching with humor.

  55. Maril Hazlett on April 18, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    >The hardest part of writing a query letter so far is sorting through the excellent advice available. Thaaaaank you for a clear list. (And thanks to all agents who provide similar lists; your summaries are invaluable.)

    The second hardest part of writing a query is compiling a list of the top 25 mistakes I have made/ am most likely to make – and keeping the number down to 25.

    The third hardest part of writing a query is to stop taking obsessive notes and JUST WRITE IT.

    So far.

  56. Michelle H. on April 18, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    >These are very good tips – thanks for them! The hardest thing about writing a query…condensing my book blurb. That's hard. And making the hook hook-y. That's really hard. But thanks for your tips, they're helpful!

  57. Sarah Thomas on April 18, 2011 at 7:36 AM

    >The hardest part of querying is realizing 28 ways to improve your query two minutes after you hit "send."

    Thanks for the tips!

  58. Kelly Combs on April 18, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    >I really did laugh out loud (not just LOL) at #12. This is a fun list, and I enjoyed reading it.

    And while I'm not pitching anything, I really do enjoy reading your blog. Thanks.

  59. Peace, Lena and Happiness on April 18, 2011 at 7:12 AM

    >The hardest part for me is knowing what to put in queries for different agents. Some of them say focus on the beginning conflict that sets things in motion. But I've read examples of that kind of query where an agent critique said they can't tell what the story is about! So I have one that summarizes all but the main climax and one that focuses on the first 30pgs. But which to send to which agent?

  60. Kristy K on April 18, 2011 at 7:09 AM

    >I'm finding the platform to be the most difficult, because I don't have one! I'm working on it, but don't have anything to show for it yet. I read somewhere that agents and publishers don't want to see "I'm going to speak at churches about this topic." They want to see "I've spoken at x number of churches to more than x number of people." So the platform is what's holding me back now.

  61. Darke Conteur on April 18, 2011 at 7:08 AM

    >I understand #10. There are some agencies that handle both movie scripts and novels, and maybe the author was covering all the bases, but this would still fall under the 'I didn't do my research' catagory.

    Hardest part for me? The whole thing. So difficult trying to condense the story, even when I did try to look at it as an experiment in creativity.

  62. Terri Tiffany on April 18, 2011 at 6:35 AM

    >The middle! Condensing my book down to a short paragraph and making it jump off the page. I do not do it well!

  63. Laura Pauling on April 18, 2011 at 5:55 AM

    >Right now it's coming up with an original way to personalize it without it sounding like everyone else and without sounding forced.

    And congrats to your daughter for placing 2nd!

  64. Jessica Nelson on April 18, 2011 at 5:48 AM

    >I was always paranoid about typos or offending the agent with something I said, so yeah, I think the salutation is particularly challenging because I want the agent to get past my salutation to my book blurb.

  65. A3Writer on April 18, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    >Trying to nail down voice in a query letter is difficult. The short space saved for telling what the story is about, and the need for simple language makes voice difficult to convey.

    The hook is also difficult. What one thing is it about my novel that makes it different from all the rest, and provides incentive for reading further? Now condense it into a short, pithy sentence.

  66. Lance Albury on April 18, 2011 at 5:17 AM

    >The hardest part for me is the subjectivity of exactly what each agent wants balanced against the mountain of advice in books and on the Internet.

  67. Jackie on April 18, 2011 at 4:55 AM

    >I think it's tricky to get the tone right. You want to sound professional but you also want to inject some personality into your query, convey you're a friendly, approachable person with a sense of humour etc. There's a fine line between being too businesslike and possibly boring, and treating the agent you're querying like your new best friend.

  68. Kendra on April 18, 2011 at 4:07 AM

    >I find it hard to be unique. I have read that agents want you to be yourself, to use your own voice and not be generic. Still, they want you to be professional. I don't know how to balance my uniqueness with professionalism. I usually have no problem with summarizing my novel. It is the other stuff that gets me every time.

  69. Rosemary Gemmell on April 18, 2011 at 3:48 AM

    >I used the enormous help with queries offered on your blog, Rachelle. But the most difficult part of writing the query was trying to condense the novel into a couple of interesting paragraphs!

  70. catdownunder on April 18, 2011 at 2:21 AM

    >Thankyou. The differences between the US and the UK/Australia/NZ market are very interesting indeed.

  71. Stephonavich on April 18, 2011 at 2:11 AM

    >I totally resonate with Barbara!

  72. Rachelle on April 18, 2011 at 1:06 AM

    >catdownunder: In that case, just use your best judgment. I guess you have no choice but to use a generic salutation.

    Melissa: No gong coming from over here!

  73. Melissa on April 18, 2011 at 12:39 AM

    >The hardest part about writing a query is summoning up the motivation to send it. ☺

    Seriously. I wonder who’s on the other end reading my little mawp-mawp. I don’t want to bore agents with something they don’t want to read or work with to completion. It’s hard to get a grasp of personalities from websites and even from client lists. How do I know if this agent is someone I can trust? I’m waiting to hear back about a few partials, after which I’m going to hold off. The query process got me in too deep, too fast. But, if I were to query Rachelle, I would want to say:

    "I enjoy reading your blog, and you strike me as an agent with integrity who genuinely cares about writers.”

    (Do I hear a gong?)

  74. catdownunder on April 18, 2011 at 12:35 AM

    >I presume your first point applies to a specific agent's site where there is a specific person to target.
    Some large agencies (especially in the UK) do not have a specific person to target, rather a department. Is "Dear Sir/Madam" acceptable in those circumstances or should an author try to find a specific name? If you have time to answer this observation I would be most grateful. Thankyou.

  75. Nick Hight on April 17, 2011 at 11:52 PM

    >I've never actually written one, but I've thought about it a great deal – and I've decided that the story outline is probably the hardest.

    You have to give the general gist of an entire novel in just three or so sentences, yet write enough so that the main and important themes are covered and hook the reader (agent).

    In other words you must deal justice to a complexity that occupies hundreds of pages in a few, simple sentences.

    Sounds tough.

  76. Tana Adams on April 17, 2011 at 11:41 PM

    >I had the greeting and my name at the end part down pretty good, but it was that whole thing in the middle that used to throw me for a loop.

  77. Barbara Kloss on April 17, 2011 at 11:35 PM

    >The whole thing!

    Really, the trickiest part for me is deciding which element to focus on. From there, how to create just the right balance of intrigue while telling what the story's about.

    Thanks for mentioning the part about letting an agent know you read their blog. I've done that to a few and hoped that was alright.