Dear Sir or Madam

And so begins The Beatles’ writer’s anthem, “Paperback Writer,” whose lyrics are quite possibly the best example of what not to do in a query letter. (You may also remember my former colleague’s brilliant dramatic interpretation of these lyrics, here.) Generally, if you begin your query with the above-mentioned salutation, the agent you are querying will either a) groan, b) make fun of you via Twitter, or c) delete your query unread (this is a worst-case-scenario). 
There was a really great blog post today on Write It Sideways called Will Literary Agents Really Read Your Query Letter? that I think basically every writer who’s querying needs to read. Among their reasons why YOUR query might be getting deleted without even being read are:
  1. The manuscript is incomplete (if fiction)
  2. The agent doesn’t represent the author’s genre
  3. The letter isn’t personalized, but is part of a mass query (Dear agent…)
  4. The author hasn’t taken the time to research how to write a proper query letter
  5. The author hasn’t followed that agent’s submission guidelines
  6. The query or sample pages (if requested in the guidelines) are sent as an attachment
As a newer agent, and a writer myself, the term “instantly deleted” is terrifying, even if I’m the one doing the deleting. I try to be fair and give writers the benefit of the doubt. I’m aware that querying is hard. That said, agents, myself included, get easily frustrated when people don’t query “correctly” because there are a bazillion resources online on how to write a proper query, not to mention the agent-specific guidelines. (I’ve also heard writers complain that “it’s confusing because every agent has different guidelines.” This is true, but the differences aren’t usually that vast. If a writer can’t take the time to make minor adjustments, it’s not that unfair of a stretch to think, “Geesh, what’ll it be like if I ask for a revision?”)

Of the above examples of “potential instant deletion,” I’m guilty of #3 and #6. I delete mass queries and queries sent as attachments for what I hope are obvious reasons. (This includes “click this link for my query” emails.) I assume it is spam, and therefore it is dead to me. 

I also instantly delete “pre-queries” because they are so incredibly stupid. In case you don’t know (which I hope you, dear blog readers, don’t), pre-queries are emails that basically just ask if the writer can send a query. The answer is always, “YES! JUST SEND IT! WHY ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME WITH SUCH A DUMB QUESTION!?” So, instead of getting an all-caps rant, they just get deleted.

There are agents out there, usually the more seasoned ones, who will delete your query for lesser reasons than the ones I mentioned above. You don’t want to fall victim to an instant deletion, so while it is a lot to remember and can be frustrating to accommodate to, pay attention to agent-specific guidelines and pet peeves; read articles and blog posts like the one on Write It Sideways; and stop sending things as attachments. Almost NO agent ever accepts attachments unless he or she asks for it. It might be the one guideline every agent agrees on. 

One last note: there is no such person as Curtis Brown. I am not Mr. or Ms. Brown. Thanks 🙂

16 thoughts on “Dear Sir or Madam

  1. Thanks, E.P.! I don't know Nicole Aragi, but I'd say that most agents don't specify when they *are* open to queries. Only if they're closed. (It should be assumed we're open unless stated otherwise.) So, if an agent is closed but doesn't say so, they may have an auto-response set up instead. And if they don't, just move on at that point!


  2. Per your last tweet, I'm going to write a comment. In the case of elusive agents like Nicole Aragi, would you send a query letter if it's unclear whether they are even accepting queries? I'm just curious, I've never sent a pre-query letter. I decided to send an actual query letter.


  3. It’s wonderful that you’re both an agent and writer, and really understand the difficult process of writing. It’s so true that information about the querying process is readily available on the Internet, and what a blessing it is to have so much information available. Great blog post! And I love your former colleague’s interpretation of an imagined query letter using the words of PAPERBACK WRITER – that was hilarious!


  4. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks so much for mentioning my post:) Although I'm a writer and can sympathize with how difficult it is to get noticed, I know I'd be just as ruthless if I were an agent. Everyone makes mistakes, but there's no excuse for not following guidelines.


  5. I like this post. It reassures me that as long as a) I don't write a query letter sounding like a crazed person, b) I've worked on my query letter thoroughly and c)I actually have completed my novel there is a good chance I will get a response of some kind.


  6. I'm glad to hear an agent is scared silly by “instant deletes”. And though I wasn't surprised to hear you aren't Curtis Brown, I was surprised to see he wasn't even around any more!


  7. I'm tempted to come up with a “random personalized rejection letter” generator. The agent copy-pastes the query into the generator, copy-pastes the submitter's address, and the generator uses one of those amusing AI chat programs to concoct a seemingly personalized, albeit possibly nonsensical, response.

    “Thank you for submitting THE SCARLET LETTER, but I don't think puritanical Boston is the right setting for an English lesson. I enjoyed the idea of being shamed for her adultery, but is holding hands a symbol of affection among humans? Good luck with your writing career!”


  8. Jaimie: My form rejection is generally for everyone unless, of course, it's a rejection for something I've requested. (And yes, writers, the fact that I have a “form rejection” depresses me too, but they are sadly necessary.)

    Janice: I personally don't mind if a writer addresses me as Sarah (as long as they remember the H!). But if an agent has a specific rule against familiarity like that, I'd stick with Mr. or Ms.


  9. thanks for all the advice Sarah! luckily i have never pre-queried. it would not occur to me to do a query to query baha! and thanks for the link, will def check it out 🙂


  10. Great post, Sarah!

    Janice, from what I've seen it's always best to be formal. This is a business contract you're trying to form, you wouldn't walk into an interview and say “Hi Joe, I'd really like this job.” (Not trying to sound sarcastic or mean there.) You would want to be respectful. The same goes for a query.


  11. Helpful post, Sarah.

    I have a question that I’ve been thinking about on and off. When writing the query letter is it better to address the agent formally: Dear Ms. Lapolla, or informally: Dear Sarah?


  12. Great information. Thanks Sarah!

    On a similar note:

    I always want to know if agents have 3-5 different form rejections that they send out. I know I'm getting a form rejection, but I'd like to think I'm getting a form rejection CHOSEN for me. I'd like to believe that the crap writer down the street is getting a “You clearly can't write, have a nice day!” form rejection and I'm getting a “Not a great fit, sorry!” form rejection. Probably not though, because then you'd be pissing off the crap writer, and those are the worst kind of people to piss off.


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