In my life, I’ve read a lot of queries and submissions. In high school, I ran our newspaper — and our newspaper’s literary journal. I spent half a semester reading submissions for a college literary journal. I ran the Ninja Writer zine before we moved to a Medium publication. I interned for a year and a half as a literary agent’s slush reader.
I’ve read an imperial shit-ton of queries and submissions in my life.
I’ve also submitted a whole bunch. So I know, first hand, that there are a whole bunch of blog posts and articles on the internet that give authors tips and tricks for submitting to agents and editors.
I’m a writer. I drink that shit up when it comes time for me to submit.
So it amazes me that so few of the submissions I’ve read followed that advice. And not only did they fail to follow it, they managed to fail in new and surprising ways that ensured that my forehead was never far from my palm.
So here are a couple of tips, things that might seem fairly obvious to some of it, but clearly aren’t to others.
#1: Include your name in the body of the email.
You want the agent or editor to know who you are, right?
First of all, if you’re submitting work, you should be using a professional email account. xxLordOfDarknessxx@ymail might have been cool back in 2007, when you were chatting on YIM and surfing MySpace. It’s not cool now.
But they can live with an unprofessional email address if your name is somewhere in the body of the message. When I was responsible for responding to slush, I would use form letters, of course, but I liked to include the person’s name in the salutation, just to give it the slightest tinge of humanity.
If I couldn’t figure out your name, all you got was a generic hello.
Also, not including your name means that somebody has to go through the awkward deal of asking what your first name is. If they want to print your name in a zine or, God’s above, an agent wants to represent you, your name should be stuck in their head.
They shouldn’t be asking “Oh, God, what is that person’s name?”
#2: Put the body of the email in the body of the email.
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried — but suffice it to say, the entire body of your email should not be in the subject line.
Some agents and editors specify exactly how your subject lines should be — it helps with organization and automatic sorting in some cases. But even if they don’t specify, the subject line is a brief way to communicate the content of your larger message (Does this seem really obvious, it’s really obvious).
When I was querying my novel, barring agent specificity, my default subject was:
QUERY: Somehow You’re Sitting Here (YA F/F Contemporary)
It tells you what the email is — a query letter, the title of the work, Somehow You’re Sitting Here, and the age group and genre — YA contemporary.
They already know what the gist of the message is, even before they open it.
And for God’s sake, if nothing else, put the word “Query” or “Submission” in your subject line. It tells them something, at least.
#3: Nobody’s opening that shady-as-hell ZIP attachment.
I don’t know a literary agent or editor alive who requests submissions in a ZIP file, but if they do, that’s the only reason to send one.
Most agents and editors will specify if they want attachments or not. But, unless they’re using a form, the default is NO — especially if you’re emailing a blind query/submission. Simply paste the submission text after the query / pitch letter.
And, for the love of God, make sure the formatting looks right. When you copy and paste from Word, weird things happen. So heads up. Make sure you send yourself a test message, first.
If an agent / editor doesn’t request an attachment, they’re not going to open it. When I read queries, I made that mistake and ended up having to factory restore my computer.
That was a royal pain in the ass.
#4: Don’t send work that isn’t ready for publication.
If you’re sending your work to an agent or editor, it needs to be as ready for publication as it can possibly be.
I’m not going to say anything about perfection. Perfection is a scam. But don’t mention in your email about how you just scratched your submission out in the last hour, and now you think it’s ready for publication for the whole damn work.
Your work should be polished and edited to the best of your skill. It should be beta-read, if at all possible. Something that you’d be proud to see in print as-is.
Depending on the agent or editor, you might get some editorial revision if you get signed. But, more and more lately, you shouldn’t be counting on that, especially with smaller agencies and pubs.
Send work that’s ready to go out into the world.
TL;DR: I hate having to rehash this.
Your query letter or submission is a business letter between you and an industry professional — even if it’s read by an intern or a student like me. You are trying to get someone to invest time and, usually, money into your writing.
And too many writers are doing the equivalent of throwing feces at the wall and hoping it sticks.
Agents and editors are always looking for a reason to say yes. Too many people like to talk about gatekeeping, and that’s definitely part of the job. But what sets a gate apart from a wall? The gate can open. And they legitimately love opening the gate and letting writers through.
They want to open the gate to you. But they aren’t going to do it lightly. There’s limited space and limited resources. Will you prove yourself deserving?
It seems like this advice is in every corner of the writers’ internet, bandied about on blogs and Twitter like candy. But there are so many poop-flinging writers.
So, so many.
Take some pride in your writing and your submission. If you want to make money as a writer, do your research and submit your best work.
Treat this like the business that it is.
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer. A native of Whittier, CA, he currently lives in Warren, PA.