5 Things You Don’t Need in Your Query

Photo credit: smlp.co.uk on Flickr
Querying is a tough, sometimes soul-crushing business—and writing a query letter can in many ways be the most difficult part. After all, being asked to condense your 60-100k (or more?) manuscript into a page-long letter that makes your book sound intriguing and also personalizes to that specific agent with the teeny tiny stakes of  the agent reading your manuscript (or not)? It’s ridiculously tough.

I’ve read my fair share of query letters over the years, and with the WriteOnCon query critique forums still fresh in my mind, I thought now as good a time as ever to write about five things you don’t need in your query.

  1. Explanation of the lessons the reader/your characters will learn. I understand the impulse to include this, I do—English teachers have told us for years that a book isn’t really literary gold unless it has some grand, over-arching, bigger than thyself message. But here’s the thing—even if your book does have that kind of message (and, um, you know what it is?), it’s best to leave it out of your query letter.

    Now, I can already hear what you’re thinking (apparently my online self is a telepath)—but Ava, I worked so hard to get those messages into my book—why wouldn’t I talk about them? The why is pretty simple actually: 99% of the time writers include the message or lesson the characters or readers (or both) are going to learn when reading their book in their query letter, it sounds preachy—and worse, it sounds like your manuscript is preachy (or teacher-y, which isn’t any better), which leads to a ginormous no thank you.

    I know that seems a little unfair. It’s totally possible that you have messages in your book that aren’t preachy at all and are woven really nicely into the story, and if that’s the case, that’s great, it really is. But don’t mention it in your query if you don’t want someone to assume your book is going to be preachy/teachy. 

  2. Vague phrases. I actually wrote a whole post about why details are so important in queries and pitches, so I won’t rehash the whole thing, but in queries, vague phrases are you enemy. Mentioning your protagonist's dark secret or life-changing quest or how they meet a mysterious stranger or will have to make a life-altering choice whose consequences will affect all of humanity? Yeah, it’s not helpful.

    The thing is, agents and editors read thousands of queries a year. They have books getting pitched to them all the time and the only way you’re going to pique their interest is if you show them how your book is unique. If your query is full of vague phrases, not only can I guarantee they’ve seen someone else (or many many many someone elses) describe their manuscript the same exact way, but you’re completely missing out on a vital opportunity to show them how your book stands out from the crowd. 

  3. Quotes from your manuscript. I did this in my first ever query (spoiler: it so didn’t work), and it’s something I’ve seen especially amongst new writers.

    Again, I get the temptation: you’ve worked so very hard on your manuscript and you want to share some gems with the agent/editor in the hopes that it’ll pique their interest. But the query is not the place to show off your writing (or at least, not the writing of your manuscript)—the query is the place to explain your manuscript in a condensed, interesting way to make the reader want to learn more (and hopefully read) your book.

    But Ava, you’re thinking (boy, telepathy is fun), this super amazing quote isn’t in the first sample that I’m attaching to the query letter. What if they don’t see my really awesome quote because they don’t read enough? Well, my friend, I’m going to share a little tough love: if they don’t read far enough to get to your super awesome quote it’s because a) it wasn’t for them b) your query wasn’t strong enough to represent your manuscript or c) your manuscript wasn’t ready.

    Leave the quotes for the actual manuscript. Your query is not the place for them. 

  4. A huge bio. Let me start off by saying that bios are definitely important—and a vital part of the query. However, the focus of the query letter should absolutely be on your manuscript. Not you.

    Your bio should be a few sentences to a paragraph long. That’s it. And that paragraph, quite frankly, really doesn’t need to take up all that much space.

    Agents don’t need to know that you worked on this book for four years. They don’t need to know that your mom thought it was the best book she ever read, or that you won that online poetry award, or that you’ve known since kindergarten that you were meant to be a writer. All that should be in your bio are publishing or manuscript-related credentials (i.e.: you’re writing a medical drama and you’re a surgeon, or you’ve published short stories in The Glimmer Train, etc.). If you don’t have publishing credentials, that’s totally okay! Just say it’s your first book (or, you know, don’t? There’s some debate on this point) and let your manuscript do the talking (no debate on that one). 

  5. Anything in either of these two posts. Self-explanatory, really. For your sake, (and the agents’ sakes) don’t do anything in those posts. Please. 

What would you add to the list?

Twitter-sized bites:
Working on a query letter? Writer @Ava_Jae shares 5 things you DON'T need in your query. (Click to tweet)  
MS quotes & vague phrases are 2/5 things writer @Ava_Jae says you don't need in your query. What do you think? (Click to tweet)


Darth Lolita said...

On the bio part, I have a question. I've been getting contradictory answers, but I gotta know: I basically have no publishing credits. I won an award once while I was in high school, but it was for a play scene and it makes me sound juvenile so I wouldn't add it in. I've also heard agents don't care whether or not you majored in creative writing, and that English-related education is only worth mentioning if you got an MFA. So I'd know to leave my degree out of it.


I work as an assistant editor for my school's undergraduate literary magazine. I've heard some people say not to mention this because it also doesn't count, but I've heard others say agents want to know if you've done some kind of work related to the publishing world.

What do you think, Ava? Yay or nay?

Ava Jae said...

I totally understand your plight on the bio thing—what to include and what not to include is pretty debated.

I personally don't think it would hurt to mention you're an assistant editor for the lit mag. I mean, maybe it counts, maybe it doesn't, but it definitely won't work against you, you know? (Of course, I'm not an expert on the bio section here but...I mean, I don't think it'll hurt, so why not?)

Bolo Yeung said...

Great way to know what they want or not in a query letter - thanks for the insider information which isn't usually available to an outsider like me

Ava Jae said...

You're very welcome! I wouldn't really call it insider information, though—I actually learned most of this from reading agent/pub blogs over the years and critiquing many many query letters, both of which are options totally accessible to everyone! :)

Kim said...

Research what each agent say they want in the query and go from there. For agents who want it, include it. For agents who don't want it, don't. And this goes for lots of things, too. Can't remember if this is included in Ava's other two posts she's linked, but besides the four points above, I think researching what an agent wants and doesn't want is also a very important thing to do, and then personalize your query from there for each of them. You never know, some things an agent say they'd like might also be some thing another agent thoroughly hates. Good luck.

Taylor Lynn said...

I'm not really anywhere near querying at the moment, but this post is super helpful and definitely something to keep in mind as I go forward! I especially like the point you make about vague sentences--the urge to use them is certainly there, since they seem to be fairly popular in back cover copies, but your description of why they have no place in a query makes a lot of sense.


Ana said...

I'm not anywhere close to querying, but I was wondering whether I should reveal the ending of my manuscript in a query. I know you have to put an ending in the synopsis, but what about the query? Also, if I'm submitting a fiction book, but I've won a contest/been published in a magazine for nonfiction essays and articles, should I say that, or just leave it out?

Jen Donohue said...

This is great advice. When you're going "Wait, I have to write a what letter? How long? Which has WHAT?"

I reread my query letter attempts for a project and...miracle of miracles, one of them didn't suck!

Ava Jae said...

Thanks, Taylor—so glad you found it helpful! I think the vague sentences thing is probably one of the most difficult aspects of the query—when we're trying to summarize, vague sentences can seem like a great way to show an overview of a certain plot aspect, but we definitely lose the actual plot and WIP-uniqueness when we do use them. Thankfully we always have revisions to perfect our queries, too. :)

Ava Jae said...

Okay, as for putting your ending in your query—no, you shouldn't. You're right that it belongs in a synopsis, but a query should not be identical to your synopsis. The synopsis' purpose is to explain the entire story so someone can evaluate the full plot from start to finish—the purpose of the query, meanwhile, is to show just enough about your plot that the reader becomes interested in reading your book (think: back cover copy).

As for credentials, there tends to be some debate on what to include and what not to include, but I don't think it would hurt you to mention you've won a writing contest, even if it is non-fiction (after all, it still a writing award). But that's just my opinion.

Ava Jae said...

Yay! And thanks, Jen!

Ava Jae said...

Yup! I'm basically the same. Goodreads and discovering more books (especially YA and NA) are largely to blame—not that I'm complaining because BOOKS. But as for now, my re-reading habits are largely the same as yours, judging from your description.

Ava Jae said...

That's so interesting! But it's great when you've found a book that really resonates with you. :)

Taylor Lynn said...

Absolutely! Thank goodness for revisions. ;)

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