Every morning, I grab my favorite coffee cup and nestle into my rolling office chair to check my email. I never know what awaits me in my inbox. But more often than not, the cover letter meant to get my attention has painted a less-than-positive picture of the writer who sent it. In a matter of mere seconds, I can tell if the writer in question has taken the time to build a quality cover letter. Or if, in a steam of haste and hurry, submitted whatever he or she happened to blurt out onto the page before hitting the send button.
As a writer, I totally get it. I mean, I literally misspelled my own name on a cover letter once. The anxiety-ridden frenzy with which I hurriedly assembled all of my pitch assets was absolutely bonkers. I wanted to quickly send all of my documents and overcome the nervous turning of my stomach by just getting all of it over with–without proofreading. I regretted it immediately once I spotted my obvious error on the front page. My mom, who is an avid quilter, has a saying that I try to remember: “Measure twice. Cut once.”
But as a literary agent, a messy or half-thought-out cover letter is anything but cute. Reading through choppy sentences or glaring misspellings usually results in a swift rejection or a lack of belief in potential projects.
Here are a few of the “red flags” that quickly turn agents off and fix-actions that can help you avoid them.
First, communicate in a professional tone versus being casual or too friendly.
Pitching a book requires a polished presentation and purposed verbiage. Writing a cover letter in a fashion that feels like a catch-up coffee with a friend doesn’t communicate the kind of professionalism you want when pitching. I would also recommend ditching the urge to decorate or embellish the front of your cover letter. At best, it is a distraction.
Instead, I recommend a salutation, one or two sentences explaining why you chose to send this particular proposal to the intended agent, and a one-sentence thesis statement of your book. Opening your cover letter with concise wording and sharing your goals up front goes a long way.
Next, don’t open with the sentence “My life story could be a book.”
Please hear the encouragement here. I believe everybody is called to write their story and share it with those they love or people who could benefit. There is something unbelievably cathartic to writing one’s story and capturing wisdom on the page.
However, pitching a project for publishing requires writers to showcase skill, craft, and creativity and the propensity for success. Lead with credentials and then experience. I am always on the lookout for books that are written by people with authoritative credentials and training. Share your background as a subject-matter expert, or detail your relevant education. Tell me what area of expertise qualifies you to pitch a book for publishing, and give me the relevant information I need to see you can run the marathon of manuscript writing.
When it comes to comparable writing, or establishing your unique position in the market, use descriptor words that communicate how you are different.
Don’t compare your writing to the profound writers of the faith by saying, “I’m the next Charles Spurgeon” or “This book could be the next New York Times Best Seller.” Instead, tell me more about your unique voice, qualifications, or intentions. I want to know how you are contextualized, distinct, or intentionally stepping into something new.
Finally, please include a statement letting me know if you have sent this to multiple agents.
And make sure to include your contact information. It is continually surprising to me how many submissions I receive without any cover letter or contact information.
Be encouraged, friend. Writing is a long-game career and passion. The timing is low and slow. My honest advice when it comes to submissions and cover letters is to take the time to develop and sharpen your pitch assets (the proposal, one sheet, website, etc.) and enjoy the journey. Establish yourself as an authoritative voice in your area of interest by communicating clearly in your cover letter and submissions. Be meticulous and steadfast. It will be in these small, consistent areas that the work will shine through.