Query Paranoia

ParanoiaWriters often get freaked out by all our blogs and twitter posts about “bad” queries and big mistakes people make that can make them look…less than professional.

But here’s the thing. If you’re reading blogs and books and getting yourself educated about how to get published, then I’m sure you’re going to be fine. You can stop worrying so much, because YOU are not the one making those really egregious mistakes.

And even if you’re not perfect? Don’t sweat it. Believe it or not, agents can see through cliches, poor wording and other mistakes to identify good writing and strong book ideas. When we post all those silly things people say in queries, and write all those posts about “here’s what NOT to do,” we’re just trying to help, we’re not trying to paralyze you!

Believe me, we all see our share of queries that say things like…

To Whom It May Concern…

My book is your next #1 bestseller…

Your publishing house should publish my book…

My book is 200,000 words…

Please see my three attached PDFs…

…and sometimes we even *gasp* request partials on these queries!

I know you probably think we’re joking when we talk about some of the funny things we see in queries – as an educated writer, you may find it hard to believe anyone makes these common newbie mistakes. But that’s just because YOU’RE educated and well-read and informed and you know better.

So seriously…

Send out your query already.

And STOP worrying about looking like a bonehead. Trust me, you won’t! We want to hear what you have to say, we want to see your query, and we don’t want you to worry so much about mistakes you’re never going to make anyway, because you’re way too smart for that.

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!


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  4. Mercey Valley on January 28, 2013 at 9:31 PM

    I think you may actually need to post this one as a stand alone again and again. Yes, we worry about looking like a bonehead because we get told too often from so many sources, “Best foot forward! First chance is your last! Don’t stuff it up!!!!!!!”

    Maybe you should say, “Give yourself permission to look like a dork because your writing will speak for you.”

    We worry SO much about getting it “right” that we don’t do ANYTHING!! 🙂 Aaaugh! Paralysis of analysis, I believe is the saying.

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  14. Karen on September 16, 2011 at 7:42 PM

    Nice of you to say this. It’s a change of pace from this recent agent tweet:
    About your query to that coveted literary agent… Don’t screw it up! http://fb.me/17r0RkCsS

  15. Jessica Keller on September 9, 2011 at 10:12 AM

    This post made me feel much better. I sent you a query and made the biggest ‘green’ mistake of my life by having a word spelled wrong…not just any word, my genre. Yes. Talk about bonehead. I’ve been hiding under my desk since. I blame the late night and over excitement when I finally decided to send it.

  16. […] Query Paranoia […]

  17. Laura on July 3, 2011 at 11:12 AM

    Thanks for posting this! :o)

  18. London Escort Service on July 1, 2011 at 8:29 AM

    Thinking what-not-to-dos are aimed at me? Not so much. I learned a long time ago that people think about me far, far less then I think they do. I do my research and try to be professional and that eliminates most of the worst dangers.

  19. Pen and Ink on June 30, 2011 at 7:00 PM

    Thank you. I did,

  20. Marney McNall on June 29, 2011 at 3:26 PM

    Thanks for this. Sometimes, it’s too easy to just keep researching info on query letters, since there is so much out there. But, there comes a point where you have to just send it out.

  21. Dale Day, MSG, USA-Ret on June 28, 2011 at 8:23 PM

    I visit writing forums daily and constantly see writers asking for advice on their queries.

    I hate to say this but many of them show the lack in our schools of teaching basic English. They do not how to put words together in a simple sentence.

    But, at least their questions show an awareness of their weaknesses and their desire to learn.

  22. Mandy Santos on June 28, 2011 at 7:51 PM

    Thanks so much for this post. I really needed to hear this today as I struggle to get through a book proposal.

  23. LLKing on June 28, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    THANK YOU for this post, Rachelle!

  24. Kelly Miller on June 28, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    I have query paranoia of another kind. I’m obsessing over the words in my letter. I’m currently on version 12. When I receive more than two rejections from a version, I head back to the drawing board and either make revisions or start a whole new letter. I’m currently waiting to see how version 12 is received.

    But I’m always second guessing myself. Eight of the nine rejection letters I’ve received have been form letters so I don’t know if it’s my query letter that’s lacking or my actual book (since they’re reading the first few pages). The whole process is enough to drive a writer mad!

  25. Susan on June 28, 2011 at 8:35 AM

    I think it’s important to take the time to study the query process thoroughly.

    The query is the first representation of your writing. If it’s way off than it might not get a second glance.

    It’s like taking the time to pick out a perfect gift and then wrapping the gift up in newspaper.

    I think this post is important because it comes from an agent’s point of view.

    The agent is letting us know not to hold back on submitting a query until we feel we’ve reached some sort of perfection.

    There’s a huge between doing your homework and not having a clue.

    This is a great post.

  26. Peter DeHaan on June 28, 2011 at 8:03 AM

    That was exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you so much for a timely message.

  27. Madeleine on June 28, 2011 at 1:44 AM

    I haven’t quite reached the querying stage yet, but hopefully the fact that I’m reading this NOW bodes well for me. Thanks!

  28. Jenny Lee Sulpizio on June 28, 2011 at 12:31 AM

    Bless you for writing on this topic. My fingernails are nubs, my hair is falling out, and I can’t sleep, but other than that, I’m not stressing about my submitted query (and the mistakes I know I made) too much. LOL

    This was reassuring to say the least because different agents and agencies possess varying guidelines when it comes to submitting a query and eventual proposal. As a writer, it can be overwhelming to try and keep up with it all and make sure every detail is perfect.

    I can now get some shut-eye and let my nails grow again.

    Thanks, Rachelle.

  29. Melissia Griffith on June 28, 2011 at 12:27 AM

    Thanks for the information! Can’t wait to finish my book!

  30. L Armstrong on June 27, 2011 at 11:52 PM

    Great advice! Love your style, too.

  31. Heather Marsten on June 27, 2011 at 11:13 PM

    Thank you for this post, I have been looking at info about queries and stressing. I do have a question. Some agents suggest with a non-fiction/memoir to query early on so agent can give guidance to the storyline. Others say to complete book first. I am an unpublished author, so I assume that I need to complete book first. I am 3/4 done with a rough draft. What is your opinion? So far, on critique circle, I have acquired a following of people who feel my story has promise and they come back weekly for more. Thanks for your blog, I always gain something helpful from it. Heather

    • Rachelle on June 27, 2011 at 11:36 PM

      Of course, you’ll get differing opinions. But if you’re a debut author and an inexperienced writer, you’ll do yourself and everyone else a big favor if you finish that memoir before sending it out. Memoirs are tricky – they’re difficult to write well. You need to take your time with it. Throughout the writing process, your memoir may change a dozen times in terms of the structure. You may even end up telling a different story than you thought you set out to tell. You don’t want to do this on a deadline. And you want to prove to yourself as well as everyone else that you actually can finish writing the book.

  32. Heather Marsten on June 27, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve heard conflicting opinions about nonfiction/memoir. One agent advises writing query early and sending it out so agents can tweak MS and give direction about the writing, others say wait until you have written and edited your MS. I can see value in both. I assume, as an unpublished writer, that finishing MS first is the way most agents would prefer. Am I correct?

  33. Amy Guglielmo on June 27, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    Great post but even better photo!
    That is exactly what I look like when I send out my query.

  34. Sherri on June 27, 2011 at 9:21 PM

    OK the timing of this post is perfect for me. I just took the plunge and sent a query on Saturday – to you! I hope it is one that catches your interest. Whatever happens, though, I appreciate the advice to stop putting it off and just do it. SCARY!!! EXCITING!! I’ll be watching my email…


  35. Kay Elam on June 27, 2011 at 6:46 PM

    I recently sent out my first round of queries. (Check your slush pile, Rachelle. It’s there–LOL.)

    I followed the school of thought to only query agents I would really want to represent me. Therefore, I queried my top choices first. Was that a mistake? Perhaps I should have “tested” my query on agents not on my A list. But that didn’t seem fair to these agents or to me.

    So, I patiently wait and then hold my breath when I open my e-mail. Of course I want responses, but I’m almost afraid to open them when they do come. I’d probably have a heart attack should an agent ever phone me–but I’m willing to risk it.

  36. Mary Jo on June 27, 2011 at 6:27 PM

    Well, the good thing is that queries can be changed. If I send the query and get silence as a response, I rewrite it, change the title of the ms, etc. I’ve never just had one query–it’s always being tweaked until I get some nibbles…

  37. otin on June 27, 2011 at 4:49 PM

    The biggest problem that I have with my query letters is that in such a short forum it is sometimes difficult to accurately depict the entire story without making it sound like a train wreck. As a writer it pains me to have to skip over some of the underlying story lines so that my query isn’t as long as a book. lol. (notice no apostrophes)

  38. Stephanie Scott on June 27, 2011 at 4:43 PM

    Thanks for the encouragement! I’m an overthinker/planner for sure. However, I still need to finish my book. 🙂

    Like Shelly said above, I’m wondering in the back of my mind if my story is original enough, or if I found a similar topic published, would that ruin my chances? In the end, I think it’s whether the writing is strong enough, which is probably what I need to focus on anyway!

  39. Alicia Amariah on June 27, 2011 at 2:58 PM

    Rachelle, Thank you for this post.

    Christmas eve 2010 I sent my 1st query to a very well known Christain agent. He responded in 4 days and told me how weak me query was but he wanted to see more. I WAS PARALYZED! All I saw was WEAK and sent nothing else fearing I was not ready. I respected his comment and started educating my self on the business and query letter writing. I’ve come to conclusion that I have to do my best, be myself, and SEND IT OUT ALREADY!

    Thanks again…

  40. Carrie Butler on June 27, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    I’m bookmarking this as a pep talk. Thanks, Rachelle! 🙂

  41. Laila Knight on June 27, 2011 at 1:38 PM

    No matter how much I’ve studied up on queries and practiced writing one, I always find it daunting that the whole querying thing appears to be subjective. I’ve seen examples where an agent will reject a query because there’s not enough information given, but they will accept a query with the same faults simply because they liked the sound of the author’s voice. Of course there’s fear. We all want to succeed, to be read. Before we can jump in we have to be ready. We only really get one chance to make a good impression.

  42. Shelly Goodman Wright on June 27, 2011 at 11:03 AM

    Someone recently asked me if they should continue with their ‘end of the world’ type book. He had read somewhere that the premise has been over done. My advice to him was write what you’re passionate about, no matter what the topic. It seems everything is over done, but if you can put an interesting twist on it, create strong and likeable characters with high stakes on the line, you’ve still got a chance. I told him to finish it, join a writing group to fine tune it and then work on the query. Of course that sort of scared him. 🙂 I hope I gave him good advice. I made sure he knew I’m a newbie author–still learning and growing.

  43. Rusty McGee on June 27, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    Thank you! It’s good to hear some words of encouragement around.

    I will take your advice and ‘rip it off like a wax strip’ for least pain.

  44. Tana Adams on June 27, 2011 at 10:57 AM

    I’m glad when I sent my three attached pdf’s you didn’t turn me away, and I’m flattered that you used me as an example in your post. I help where I can.

    • Rachelle on June 27, 2011 at 8:17 PM

      Dang it, I was hoping you wouldn’t notice. It’s obvious you never read agent blogs so I assumed you didn’t read mine.

      • marion on June 28, 2011 at 2:28 AM

        Thanks, Rachelle & Tana,for the encouragement.
        I’ve pfutzed around for months, and now my ideas are arranging themselves nicely, and I’m ready to do a super G (like Tomba the Bomba, or whatever he was called) & nail the first revision.
        So I’m suddenly one step closer to the terrifying query stage, & this reassurance is great.
        P.S. Is Tana for Lake Tana in Ethiopia? Are you sick of that question?

  45. Angela Barton on June 27, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    Dear, to whom it may concern
    At the end of the day, to be honest, the grass always looks greener on the …..

    LOL!Occasionally I’ll re-read what I’ve written for the day a see that a little cliche has sneaked its way in to a sentence. A little tapping on the back-space key and it’s gone!

    I remember my very first submission. I didn’t know how to number the pages, so I wrote the numbers on!!! Horror! I received a reply a month later. It was a ‘no’!

    Thankfully, I’ve read, practised and learnt from my mistakes and now have an agent. But I agree, always find out who to address the letter to and don’t tell an agent that you’re the best thing since sliced bread. Ooops, done it again!

    Ange xx @angebarton

  46. Loree Huebner on June 27, 2011 at 10:46 AM

    Thanks for this post. Very timely for me.

    I’m getting ready to start the query process again in just a few weeks and have been stricken with the deadly query paranoia.

    It helps to know that agents really see beyond.

  47. Mike on June 27, 2011 at 10:42 AM

    Thanks for posting this. I sometimes think (from having read query shark as an example) that agents look for any little reason to frown on a query, including something as innocuous as saying, “Dear [agent] I’m seeking representation for…” and then having that agent rip that apart by stating “how dare you take up my time by saying “I’m seeking representation for….” I know I’m an agent, I know that if you’re writing me that you’re seeking representation…this is useless and worthy of a form rejection…” Especially true if the salutation was meant as a sign of respect…it’s almost a slap in the face.

    • Colin Smith on June 27, 2011 at 3:42 PM

      To be fair to Query Shark, she does say (and I think this goes along with what Rachelle was saying) that the main purpose of the query is to get the agent to want to read more–even if the query breaks all the rules. At the end of the day, it’s the compelling story, not your perfectly-formed query that will get people interested in your work. That what she says, anyway. 🙂

  48. Diane Henders on June 27, 2011 at 10:41 AM

    Thanks, Rachelle! It’s so nice to hear some words of encouragement. 🙂

  49. Sarah Thomas on June 27, 2011 at 10:26 AM

    Yes, but if go around thinking our queries get rejected because we make silly mistakes, then we don’t have to improve our book/idea/writing. We can blame it on the query police.

  50. Rhonda Brooks on June 27, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    My question is, and I already feel silly for asking it, about resending queries once they have been overhauled. I confess, and apologize Rachelle, that I was so excited to be done with my manuscript that I whipped out a query and sent it out to half a dozen agents before it or I was ready. Of course, it was horrible and I heard nothing back from it. Do I resend the revised (and hopefully improved) version to all new agents? Or do I include some that received the original praying that they don’t remember? Thanks!

    • Rachelle on June 27, 2011 at 8:15 PM

      Rhonda, since there are so many agents out there, you should concentrate on sending to a new batch of agents. But if there are any agents in that first batch that you REALLY want to query, go ahead and resend, making sure to let them know that you’re re-querying since you’ve retooled your letter to better capture your book.

  51. Deborah Taylor-French on June 27, 2011 at 10:07 AM

    I’ve made three runs at my letter and all three fell flat. And yes, I’ve been all over reading blogging advice and at writers’ conferences taking notes on query letters.

    Advice over load. Also in a workshop, I pitched my book then got a query consult, which added to my belief that I’m not ready to nail my letter. I’ve spent over 5 years and 7 drafts of my first novel.

    Any other advice to get unstuck?

  52. Sharon on June 27, 2011 at 9:59 AM

    A vert timely post for me…I’ve just sent out my first round of queries and partials, even one full. I freak out everytime I hit send. I’ll try to chill. 😉

  53. OddDustin on June 27, 2011 at 9:18 AM

    I finally got my query as fine tuned as it could be after months of stressing over it. I sent it out to the agents I knew I wanted to send to because I read their blog or like the books they’ve put out with their authors. I have been a wreck all week. Then I got an email from the agent on the top of my list and she was very nice about how the book wasn’t for her but I could submit to some other people in her agency that may be interested. I looked into them and sent out my query again. So much fun to have interaction and be moving on this finally. I’m always afraid that I’m just seeing things through rose colored glasses and who am I kidding with this writing business my work may just suck. I send it out into the world anyways. I have found to do things is better than to not do things and wonder what if.

  54. T.J. on June 27, 2011 at 9:04 AM

    Great post. I am one who actually tries to personalize queries before I send them out. It’s not easy to do, but I think agents like when writers take time to care about them. Are you one who appreciates personalized queries?

  55. Tracey Solomon on June 27, 2011 at 8:52 AM

    I feel like you eavesdropped on my conversation with the editrix (who’s name shall not be used to protect her innocence, or lack thereof)!this weekend. That, or you’re just as amazing as I thought you were. You really get it, don’t you?

    Thank you. I am one of those writers, learning herself into paralysis. Ok. Ok. I hear you.

    Thank you. You just removed one more hurdle I’d created for myself.

  56. Cynthia Herron on June 27, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Rachelle, I wish I had a dollar (or even a dime!) for every infraction or query no-no I made over the years. I could probably retire on an isolated island somewhere by now. (Heck, I still anguish over a simple blog post!)

    Suffice it to say, mistakes–big and small–are how we learn.

    What an encourager you are! 🙂

  57. Michael A Tate on June 27, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    You have no idea how encouraging your post was to me. Perhaps I will be sending out my query a little sooner because of this…

    But still not now. No. It’s still not perfect 😉

  58. Lisa C. on June 27, 2011 at 8:43 AM

    Happy is so right…Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

    Don’t be someone sitting there at 80, ready to die and saying: “Why didn’t I sent that query to 10 more agents?”

    When you could have been the next Stephen King?

    Just do it!

  59. Heather Webb on June 27, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    Thank you for the encouraging words. I like to consider myself in the “educated writer” category, but it’s amazing how much I continue to learn. It’s a relief agents can recognize potential through our mistakes!

  60. Katie Ganshert on June 27, 2011 at 7:36 AM

    I love that you used the word bonehead in your post. Great word. 🙂

  61. Ramona Richards on June 27, 2011 at 7:21 AM

    As an editor, I can tell the difference between a writer who’s trying to be professional but makes a mistake, and a query that reveals the author’s lack of knowledge about the business of publishing. Even then, I try to look past the oops sections to the writing . . . but the truth is that the writing on an unprofessionally prepared query or proposal is usually horrible.

    Even when it’s not, why should I spend one of my few publishing slots on someone who can’t even be bothered to go to the library and check out a book on preparing a query/proposal?

  62. Maril Hazlett on June 27, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    This is very kind of you to say… But I’m not fooled, I still think the Query Police are out to get me, and I’m going to hang on to everything and freak out about it a little while longer 🙂

    (Plus which, I’m actually not DONE.)

  63. Catherine Johnson on June 27, 2011 at 6:52 AM

    I used to suffer from analysis paralysis, but i just get on with it now. On submission and writing a new book and may even re-write my first book if my beta reader lkes the story.

  64. Kristy Bryan on June 27, 2011 at 6:48 AM

    Sometimes we forget how much we’ve learned and how far we’ve come through studying texts on writings and consistently reading blogs such as yours. Thanks for the reminder!

  65. Jackie Ley on June 27, 2011 at 5:09 AM

    An encouraging post that emphasises the balance between striving to be the best we can be, without falling prey to the ‘analysis paralysis’ that one of your guest bloggers referred to in a recent post.

  66. Sharon Bayliss on June 27, 2011 at 2:19 AM

    Thank you! I may need to start reading this post every day to help treat my queriphobia.

  67. Happy on June 27, 2011 at 2:15 AM

    yes! and the same applies to life in general, really. Some people will like you, and others won’t- but you just have to step out into the world and be yourself– and the best version, hopefully! I work really hard on my queries, and though I think not rushing and giving writing (including a query) time to “steep” is important, at some point you just have to believe in your research and ability and just go for it 🙂 thanks for the encouragement~

  68. Trisha on June 27, 2011 at 2:06 AM

    Yep, sometimes I really do think we get ourselves way too twisted up in knots over the query thing. The key is a good idea and writing it well 😉

  69. Alli on June 27, 2011 at 1:48 AM

    Phew! Sometimes I think we can have too much information at our fingertips and it can make us paranoid. It’s good to know agents are so forgiving if we do (gasp!) make a mistake. Onward and upward!

  70. Eric on June 27, 2011 at 1:30 AM

    Good, level-headed advice. It reminds me of the Nike slogan: Just do it.