Saturday, December 4, 2010

Which details writers should worry about

Recently, I posted on how writers sometimes raise flags on themselves in their submissions. There are also writers who worry about the wrong details in their submissions.

For instance, a writer recently sent me an e-mail message, because she was very concerned about our sample query letter to an agent. I take comments very seriously, but I couldn't believe this complaint. You see, the writer was concerned because we used a comma after the agent's name instead of a colon. Apparently, a comma is more personal while the colon is more professional. Actually, an agent isn't going to notice whether you used a comma or colon--just that you got his or her name correct.

Writers worry themselves sick over details like these. Should they use 10-point font or 12-point font? Or 11-point font? Times New Roman or Courier? Let me tell you right now that the answer is yes--unless the agent's guidelines specify fonts and font sizes.

Here's a little publishing secret: Agents and editors emphasize those things they care about in their submission guidelines. So they expect writers to follow their guidelines to the letter and then allow writers wiggle room with anything they don't specify.

So what are some industry standards on query letters?
  • Limit queries and pitches to one page maximum. The shorter the better.
  • 1" margins on paper or in files; of course, don't worry about margins in the body of your e-mail messages.
  • Single space.
  • Use a normal font (Times New Roman, Courier, etc.). It just needs to be easy on the eyes.
  • Use a 10- to 12-point font. Again, it just needs to be easy on the eyes.
  • Address the editor or agent by name if possible; if not, "Dear Editor" or "Dear Agent" will work better than "To Whom It May Concern" or "Dear Sirs."
  • Include your hook in the first sentence.
  • Don't talk about yourself at the end (if at all). If there's nothing special about you or your credentials, skip talking about yourself at all.
  • Include your name and contact information. You would be surprised how many freelancers do not think to do this. Seriously.
Of course, there are exceptions to the above rules if the guidelines specify otherwise. But these are the standards. I use a comma after the editor's name in my submissions, but other writers advise using a colon. You can use your own best judgment on that particular quandary.

There are other areas in which writers focus too much on the wrong details as well. Like word count. Sure, it's important to a point, but should you pump a lot of fluff into a 58,568-word novel manuscript to get it to 60,000 words? Of course not. If your 58,568-word novel manuscript is perfect, submit it that way.

If you can write pitches for nonfiction articles in one sentence that get you the assignment, don't feel that you have to follow a three-paragraph format (unless specifically told so in the submission guidelines). Being concise is usually preferable to rambling all over the query letter.

And with that, I invite writers to let me know if they have any other details that keep them up at night. After years of working in publishing, I've probably got an answer for your problem.

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Need some details to worry about? Focus on your home office:
  • Laptops. The right laptop can give you an edge by making you productive and mobile at the same time.
  • Chairs. Many writers don't want to shell out the extra dough to get a good office chair, but back pain can often end up costing them more than a bad night's sleep.
  • Desk lamps. Sure, overhead lighting is good, but a desk lamp really makes life easier on your eyes, which are one of the more important assets a writer has.
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Check out these other Tips for Writers posts:

6 comments:

amandahoving said...

I think it's easy to worry about those little things -- maybe because you then have a scapegoat to blame on if your submission is rejected. I used to agonize over my letter closings -- "sincerely," "yours truly," "love and kisses"...(kidding on that last one, but you get my point)

Robert Lee Brewer said...

You're right, Amanda. That is exactly what most of it is about. It's always easier to focus on everything else.

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Carrie Schmeck said...

Thanks. Good points. We need to remember that editors are people, too. They aren't big meanies with red pens. If they are, we might want to pass on that working relationship!

zoeyclark said...

Loved the list. I have been obsessively studying how to write perfect query letters for a while and this pretty much covers everything.

Robert Lee Brewer said...

Carrie, I think editors are like any other group of people. Some nice, some mean, all the rest in between.

Zoey, glad to help.