A Rogue’s Gallery by Lisa Collier Cool

Watch out! You may be undermining the effectiveness of your book or article query—or worse still, making an amateurish impression—with subtle mistakes. Having received perhaps ten thousand queries during my years as an agent, I’ve identified a variety of common flaws that could be working against you. Here’s my “least wanted” list:

Moniker Mishaps. Few mistakes arouse an editor’s ire more than spelling his or her name incorrectly. I’ve frequently received letters rendering my first name as “Liza” or “Leslie,” and was once addressed as “Shirley” by a particularly confused writer. Another unfortunately memorable query opened with the salutation “Dear Agent Collies.”

Using outdated directories can also make a poor impression—if your letter arrives at all—since an obsolete address speaks poorly of your research skills. Similarly, addressing your query to an editor or agent who’s long since departed from the company is sloppy and often delays response considerably. It’s wise to double-check the names and addresses you find in current directories with a phone call to the firm.

Format Fumbles. Although the two formats I’ve recommended [a single-spaced business letter or single-spaced cover letter with separate double-spaced query manuscript] are not the only acceptable approaches—a couple of my most successful clients prefer to format their queries as memos, for example—extreme variations are likely to signal to an editor that the query is the work of an amateur.

I’ve often heard editors complain of receiving handwritten queries and material typed so faintly that it’s hard to read. Offbeat stationery and unusual typefaces or ink colors (remember that black is the only acceptable ink color) also work against you. Making your query look like a winner is important; make sure your type is crisp and leave wide margins for easier reading.

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