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Agent Pet Peeves: Review These 34 Submission No-No's Before You Query

Learn common pet peeves of literary agents in this post featuring 34 submission no-no's for writers to avoid before querying for their books.

(This is Part 3 of a three-part series from literary agents for writers. Part 1 is a list of tips concerning what to do before you submit, and part 2 is a roundup of query letter advice.)

Ah, agent pet peeves. They're like land mines—dangerous, and out there hiding from you. Step on one, and your submission may go kaboom (in a bad way).

It's with that in mind I searched online for agents spelling out their dislikes, pet peeves, and personal vexations. To help you, I've cobbled together some amazing advice straight from literary agents in the publishing trenches—reading through years of hashtags of agent info on Twitter so you don't have to. I've also expounded on their points here and there.

Below find 34 notes on what to avoid as you progress forward into the valley of queries and submissions.

Good luck submitting!


How to Catch an Agent's Interest with Your First Few Pages

Writing strong first pages requires a great hook, a strong voice, and a clear premise. The first sentence should immediately catch the reader’s attention, while the subsequent text should leave the reader wanting to dive further into the pages of the manuscript. But making the first pages of your story absolutely un-putdownable takes practice, patience, revision, and an eye for detail. Which is why we’re here: to discuss what to do (and not to do) to make your opening pages stand-out.

Click to continue.


Typos and other similar errors in your query and manuscript are a sign of a writer who isn't giving his work enough attention and time. Such mistakes are not a sign of professionalism, and that is what an agent seeks—professionalism. 

Each query should be tailored and individualized for a specific agent. But besides that, know that you're not querying an agency; you're querying a specific agent at that agency. So you can't just say "Dear Andrea Brown Literary Agency agents."

(20 literary agents actively looking for writers and their writing.)

As always, avoid negativity in a query letter—in all forms.

(How to write successful queries for any genre of writing.)

Well, some agents out there will request initial unsolicited work be sent to them in Word or PDF attachments—such as for nonfiction book proposals. It's just exceedingly rare. Almost all agents want text pasted into the e-mail body when sent to them. This includes the query letter text, the synopsis text, and the sample pages text. (I know that pasting your sample pages text into an e-mail can mess up formatting sometimes. See what you can do about cleaning it up, but in the end, agents understand if there are some wonky formatting issues. They seem to put up with such issues in an effort to protect themselves against viruses.) If an agent ever does not make it clear whether they want your initial submission as an attachment vs pasted material into a query, always go with the latter to be safe. Once an agent responds to your initial inquiry and requests more work, the material is now solicited, and you can use Word and PDF attachments freely without worry.

If an agent ever speaks plainly, such as saying what genres they like and don't, or what submission guidelines they request or don't, then by all means listen. Read the writer's quote in Angie's tweet again. An agent translates it to mean: "I know you explained things clearly, Ms. Agent, but frankly, I'm not sure you're smart enough to know what you want or how you want it..." It's insulting. I have never heard of this approach working.

(To prologue or not to prologue?)

Writer Dave Barry said "Someone who is nice to you but mean to the waiter is not a nice person." An agent is probably thinking something like this when a writer bestows compliments on them, but then is unkind when speaking of others in the industry. Remember that a lot of bitterness shows itself in the queries that agents receive, so they are finely turned to it, and get turned off at any sighting.

Writers who send unsolicited submissions are in no position to make demands of any kind or size. Not only that, but try to avoid any language that makes you sound impatient or that you're annoyed in general with the publishing submission process. Even a line like "Thank you for your prompt response" comes off passive aggressive, like you're saying Please respond quickly. You won't keep me waiting like the last agent, WILL YOU??

It's unwise to burn bridges. If an agent rejects your book, do not send any kind of negative response to their decision, even something like "I wish you would reconsider. Please? I don't think you gave my work a long enough look." If you respond in any sort of negative or unprofessional fashion, then you won't be welcome to submit any of your future projects to that agent or even their entire agency. This does not help your chances.

Literary agents represent completed books. They do not represent film/TV, or stage plays, or poetry, or magazine articles. 98% of them do not represent short story collections. 100% of them do not represent individual short stories.

(25 publishing FAQs for writers.)

There are other, different agents out there who represent film scripts, TV projects, animated projects, stage plays, life rights, and book-to-film deals. Most or all of these agents do not represent books, too. So only send books to literary agents.

Agents hate this. If you have an agent, it's advised that you completely sever all ties with her before seeking new representation. Otherwise, it seems terribly duplicitous. Put yourself in Gordon's shoes. How does he know you won't be looking for a new agent after he signs you? When you sign an author-agent contract, there is language in the contract explaining how you can sever ties with the agency. Typically, there is a line that says something like "If you wish, you can get out of the agency agreement by requesting the relationship be terminated, and then enduring a waiting period, such as 60-90 days." So the correct way to leave an agent is to write them a formal email that clearly ends your partnership. Something you'll want to have when you leave is a list of all the submissions an agent made with your work in the past—because your new agent will want to know where your books were submitted to. You might not be able to get this, but at least try. 

Unless it is the day of a specific pitch party (such as #PitMad or #DVpit), you should follow submission guidelines and send your work via e-mail.

You can always hyperlink text in your query letter in case an agent wants to see more material. For example, you may say: "My articles have been published by several newspapers and I have appeared in more than a dozen TV interviews." In this situation, instead of explaining all the details about your past, such as which newspapers you're talking about, you hyperlink the mention to a website (usually your own) that has all details laid out. Agents understand your hyperlinked text means I don't want to get into all the details, but if you want to know the specifics of all this, click the link and everything is laid out nicely.

That said, when people share links without much query letter text, that is a lazy approach and not advised. A common example is simply saying, "I self-published a book—check it out, yo. [hyperlink]. Let's get rich together $$$."

One thing that I recommend you do is try to explain to the agent why you have picked them out of all the agents in the world to contact. You can do this with a line such as "I read on Twitter that you're looking for an Indiana-Jones-type adventure for teen girls. That's why I'm submitting my novel, [Title]." But at the same time, trying to establish a connection with an overly generic line can actually work against you. Avoid lines such as "Because you represent romance, here is a romance," or "Because you're an agent who is open to queries, here is my query." If you can't come up with a good/unique connection line, just don't include a connection line.

Be professional. Don't use words like honey, darling, sweetie, or babe.

Agreed. Also, do not ask them for referrals to other agents who may be interested in your genre. Again, research is your job. In the event that you cannot find basic agency submission online—for example, you find an agency online but nowhere do they reveal what genres they represent—that is a pretty clear sign that they do not want cold submissions in the first place. I would just not query them, rather than contact them to ask for their list of preferred genres. 

This is true! Exclamation points are almost never a good idea! And just because you're writing a fun adventurous children's book doesn't mean this guideline goes away!!

This is one of the first submission etiquette things you learn. Personalize your salutations and your submissions.

Starting or ending your query pitch with a rhetorical question is an overused and ineffective technique. Avoid it.

Historical fiction is a massively broad genre. Sometimes you have stories set in the times of the Bible. Sometimes you have stories set in the Roaring '20s. So yes, listen to Abby here and don't hide your era. Be upfront about it.

Standard protocol is to only query one agent at an agency. A no from that agent is a no from the entire agency for that particular project. What Alec is saying here is that if you choose to break this rule and query multiple reps from one agency, they will likely find out and not be impressed with your decision.

Talking about political correctness can be difficult, but this is important, so let's try and gently touch on the subject here. Writers should be aware that agents tend to be quite educated and also politically correct. (Not all, but certainly most.) Plenty of them are vocal proponents of diverse books and #ownvoices. So keep in mind that your word choices matter. For example, if you have a line in your pitch such as "Then Joey makes a new Asian friend at school," an agent may think Wait. "Asian friend"? Is this new friend Korean or Chinese or Japanese or another nationality? Does this writer not understand that these are different countries with different peoples and cultures? Words or phrases that you may have grown up around/using—from "mulatto" to "handicapped" to "retarded" to "hobo"—are now not politically correct, and thus not advised for being used in a query. This gets into a tricky area. Because what if your main character is not politically correct, and thus uses terms like "handicapped" or an expressions such as "That's so gay." In this instance, I suppose my advice is to be careful and perhaps avoid any such language in the query letter text. In the novel text itself, do what you like and be true to your characters. Readers understand that characters are flawed, and don't always say or do the politically correct thing. (Watch any Quentin Tarantino movie and this becomes obvious.) But in your query, the text could reflect back more on you the writer rather than the perspective of your character. So be a bit cautious here, and educate yourself.

Any self-praise for your own work is almost never advised. It comes off as egotistical. If your short story won an award, by all means mention that. But don't call your own work "enthralling ... brilliant ... one of a kind," etc.

Resist the urge to try gimmicks. If pitching in person, don't sing your pitch. If pitching over email, don't write the query from the perspective of the main character. Note: I just got done watching a football documentary that focused on a particular game in history. In this game, one of the teams attempted an unusual trick play that failed. The winning coach later commented on the maneuver, saying that trick plays were/are usually a sign of weakness—a signal that a team cannot win by playing straight up, so they have to revert to gimmicks and trickery. Keep that in mind with query writing. If you have an interesting story and you write well, you don't need gimmicks or unusual approaches. 

Standard manuscript fonts to use include Cambria, Times New Roman, or Arial. Almost always, these are your default fonts when you open Microsoft Word. I would avoid others.

In my opinion, the number one impediment to a writer composing something great is impatience. They just get tired of working on something and decide to send it out, pretending that it is still a work in progress. Be patient. Get it edited by others. Go through drafts. Resist the urge to finish something and send it out soon after.

Don't do anything weird or strange concerning font and formatting.

1) Legitimate agents and editors do not steal work. 2) All work is copyrighted the moment you write it down. Getting a formal copyright from DC just gives you more protection; but you already had protection in the first place. So once you understand those two points, you should realize that mentioning how the work is copyrighted is both amateurish and also a bit insulting, because, like Leon says, it implies that the agent is a possible thief.

Like Saritza says, let the writing speak for itself.

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