In the past three-plus decades, I have spent an incredible amount of time with many, many agents and editors. I've done this as a writer, moderator of forums, conference speaker, writing contest judge, and several other capacities at writers' get-togethers, conferences and writers' clubs/groups around the country.
This gave me a lot of time for brain-picking. And I took advantage of those opportunities to ask, "What would you advise writers not to do?" "What ticks you off?" "What screams, 'Amateur,' not worth my time?" Often I didn't need to ask. It was the default topic of conversation with no prompting.
Here's what I hear/heard over and over and over again. It might help some of you avoid irritating, offending, or creating obstacles or misrepresentations you never intended. Get used to the fact that you project yourself through ALL your words.
All writers hate the phrase "... judge a book by its cover." Well, once you get into this business, you find out that's exactly what happens to your manuscripts, your letters, and emails. You get sorted out first by how your message or manuscript looks rather than what it contains.
Sorting and weeding out is a tiered process that begins with the first communication between you and an agent or editor and continues through the point where only some manuscripts get read for content. Along the way, some folks sort you out because of what they see or don't see in your query letters and or emails. Then you get sorted out when someone sees what you have actually sent; that is your manuscript. And, eventually, after a large number of the aspiring novelists who wanted to get their manuscript have been weeded out, someone finally reads what's left.
So form, format, and appearance all count — big time! If it doesn't look right to them, they don't bother to read it. It's a reason to throw it in the slush pile unread.
Worst yet, you'll find out you are not just judged by what you wrote in your manuscript. Instead, everything is scrutinized for signs of professionalism and seriousness of purpose. Novel writing is not a business where you get your novel read and then published by who you know, what contacts you have, or your perky personality and attractiveness in meetings.
If you are like most novelists, and you are, the first impression you give an agent or editor will often be in the form of a query letter, a cover letter, an email, or a fax. From the first moment, they begin to read something/anything you write, you can count on them sizing you up based on that alone. It is based on the opinion they form there that they often decide:
- Do I want to read on?
- Does this write as if words mean something?
- Do I want to go into business with this person?
- Is this (letter/fax/email) indicative of their attention to detail, ability to communicate, and their consideration of my time as an agent/editor?
You may write the world's best novel, but if you turn off an agent or editor with any indication of lack of professionalism of your written communication, you might just as well have written the world's worst novel.
Remember these two things:
1. You are represented by your words, all of them.
2. You only get one chance to make a first impression.
Agents and editors get ahead of your words by asking themselves those questions above. The truth is that there are far more letters/faxes and emails coming across their desks every day from far more writers than they could ever take on. So guess how they start to screen you out? By your ability to communicate with:
- Demonstrated respect for the language
Here's what I hear from them; what they don't warm up to:
- Cute: They're busy, working, and hassled. They hate cute emails, letters, and even phone messages. They have little patience when it comes to trying to figure out what a writer's vague, imprecise, or unfocused message is while that writer is trying to appear hip and clever. They won't struggle to try to pull the message from the obscurity of the text. They'll just move on to the next writer.
- Adolescent affectations: They see it as unprofessional and immature when writers use clipped phrases, smiley faces, hearts over signatures, emoticons, colored text, cell phone text abbreviations, fancy fonts, and other departures from standard acceptable business letter formats. (Even in emails and especially in manuscripts.)
- Non-standard punctuation/spelling: If I've heard it once, I've heard it many, many times. They hate sentences that trail off, lack appropriate conventional capitalization, missing periods, commas, apostrophes, and the inclusion of unneeded dashes and ellipses.
In short, they want you to be clear, brief, and expect your message/letter/email to be organized in a manner most useful for them, the reader.
Finally, a common topic is the confusion of email with business communications. We all cut our teeth on email as a social, light, and fun way to chat and save long-distance phone calls. So we got used to getting and sending cutesy, silly, flip, trendy, and informal messages from out keyboards by hitting the SEND key.
When emails were new, the publishing business would never hear of accepting a query letter or exchanging business information through Cyberspace. Times have changed. But the fact that agents and editors might be willing to communicate with you by email doesn't mean they will lower their expectations and demands that you be clear, brief, and organized just because you are using email. Treat it and write it with the same level of precision and professionalism you would give to a business letter on your letterhead stationery.
And while we are talking email, give some thought to your email address and the subject line of your email message.
These two things are the first two items an agent uses to decide to read on or not. Pick an email name that not only includes a recognizable part of your name in the address but be sure it is an appropriate email address. Get an address you can use for business.
Your address is more likely to give a better first impression if it reads: Marilyn Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) than one that was chosen in haste with a bit of whimsy like, email@example.com, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'm sure you get the picture.
So, every time you communicate with someone in this business, give your message the same level of attention you would give a manuscript.
One more thing: You will be surprised at how often you are or might be approached by people who are or end up being agents and editors but met you first in a workshop or writing class. They, too, will form early and too often negative opinions of you by your communications in class. So let everyone know you take writing seriously by writing like a professional and projecting everything about yourself the same way.