I don’t claim to be an expert on query letters, and I’m not a literary agent. But in my day job as a conference coordinator, I get a LOT of inquiries from people who are interested in being part of our conference. Most of these are perfectly reasonable emails, but by around this time every year, enough problematic ones have arrived that the common mistakes people make in writing and sending queries become astoundingly obvious. And if they’re obvious to me, with my relatively small number of queries received, imagine how they look to literary agents who deal with thousands of queries every year.
So, for what it’s worth, here are a few of my tips for cleaning up your queries, based on the repeated mistakes I encounter:
1. Follow the directions. Yes, hoop jumping can be frustrating. But showing you can jump through the requested hoop shows you’re reasonable to work with and avoids annoying the recipient by wasting his or her time. There are reasons for the directions. One of the things I ask for, for example, is for proposals to include where the person lives. This is important information for our board in allocating travel budget, and I don’t want to have to go hunting for it. It may seem like a nothing thing, but including that bit of requested information puts you ahead of the people who don’t bother.
2. Use email unless otherwise instructed. Whether it’s a query@ address, a direct email address, or a contact form on an email, there is almost certainly a correct, requested place to send your query that should not be difficult to find. Unless you are specifically asked to by the person you’re querying, NEVER use social media for queries. Facebook, Twitter, etc., are great, but they are not the place for business communication unless that’s what the instructions say.
3. Remember you are writing to a human being. Your goal is to establish a professional working relationship. Queries and proposals should not be generic press releases sent without context or salutation. In the same vein, you are a human writing to another human. This isn’t the place to talk about yourself in the third person. (If you’re later asked to send a bio, however, third person is great!)
4. A query is a business letter. Conferences and publishing are businesses. Want to stand out from the crowd? You don’t need to be fancy. Write a clear, informative business letter that includes all the relevant information and is grammatically correct. There is no magic here. I know people fret over writing these letters (I have, too!). If you’re going to agonize over anything, agonize over writing an intriguing blurb about your book or for your proposed workshops. Then surround the blurb(s) with a friendly, straightforward letter that contains any requested information, and you’ll be ahead of 9/10 of the other people sending queries.
Most of this won’t be new to most of you, but I’m throwing it out there in hopes it’s helpful to someone!
Feel free to add your own tips or thoughts in the comments.