Today literary agents Lauren E. MacLeod and Colleen Lindsay hosted “QueryFail” on Twitter. Several agents and editors joined in by sharing the worst query lines from their slush piles.

The intention wasn’t to mock writers, but to educate them. “I know writing and querying are hard,” wrote Ms. MacLeod. “So my queryfails have been chosen from people who did not follow submission guidelines.”

Originally I had reposted many of the QueryFail examples here. But after hearing from several writers who were upset by the event, I have removed the specific entries. Instead, I’ll focus on what I learned by following QueryFail.

I apologize to those writers who felt disrespected. My intention in reposting was to share what I thought was good information. I still think it’s good information. But if you know me personally, you know I’m an empathetic soul and I don’t wish to cause another writer distress. Frankly, we’re distressed enough.

So onto what I learned, sans examples… 

1. Failure to follow directions is an automatic rejection.

Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. Their submission guidelines help them work efficiently. If you don’t follow those guidelines, it takes more time to read and respond to your query. The easiest solution is therefore not to bother.

2.  Don’t include anything in your query other than what is requested. (Typically a one-page letter and first page(s) writing sample.)

What sells a book? The writing. The same goes true for your query. The writing sample’s the thing. Don’t include food, photos, scented paper, stickers, alcohol or anything else. This distracts from your writing, the one thing that will win the agent’s attention.

3.  An agent makes a living by selling books. If you don’t have a book available to sell, you shouldn’t be querying.

Do not query until your book is finished, polished and ready for sale. Agents do not write for you, so don’t send ideas you want them to complete. Don’t contact an agent if you have something already published but nothing new to sell.

4.  Only include relevant, professional publishing credentials in your query.

If you are writing a middle grade novel, your articles for a food packaging trade magazine aren’t relevant. Neither is adult fiction, unfortunately. And if you don’t have any credentials, don’t apologize. Simply list your membership in a writer’s organization, like SCBWI. Remember, your writing is what matters. Experience is good, but not a requirement.

5.  Submit a novel with a unique idea, not a bizarre one.

You may write well, but is your book marketable? Remember, an agent’s job is to sell books.

6. Don’t toot your own horn.

Confidence is an attractive quality. Arrogance is not. Know the difference.

7. Remember correct punctuation and grammar.

If your one-page query contains mistakes, the agent can assume that your manuscript is flawed, too.

8. Use the correct salutation.

Call the agent by their name. They want to know that you know who they are! If they are agent #47 in an email blast, they know you haven’t done your research. Don’t call a female agent “sir.” And don’t address your query “to whom it may concern.”

After all those fails you may be wondering, what is a Query Win?

  • First sentence hook
  • Wordcount/genre
  • One- or two-paragraph blurb
  • Relevant writing credits/background
  • Polite closing
  • Solid writing sample

If you want to read more, search for #queryfail.

One last tip from Query Fail: “If you must scream about your rejection, do so into a pillow, not on your blog.”