Say the Right Thing

Writers use words well.

That may seem obvious, but—judging from some of the submissions I get from aspiring writers—it’s worth stating. Sure, one man’s métier is another man’s poison, but I’m regularly amazed at the ability of some writers to write the wrong word, so to speak, in submitting work to a literary agent, even one as gracious and forgiving as I am. That last part was meant to be serious. Did you not catch that? 

Anyway, here is a top-ten list of fifteen recent submissions (see what I did there?) that managed to say the wrong thing:

  1. (salutation in cover email) “Dear Ben Hostetler”
  2. (salutation in cover email) “Dear Bob Harrison”
  3. (salutation in cover email) “Dear Mr. Hostetzer”
  4. (salutation in cover email) “Dear Steve Hostetler”
  5. (salutation in cover email) “Dear [Mr. or Ms. Last Name of Agent]”
  6. (in the email subject line) “just so you know, I will be deleting all my social media in a few days!”
  7. (first sentence of a cover email) “Sadly, some publishers today will hate this book.”
  8. (first sentence of a cover email) “I am an empath, and I am the reincarnation of Joan of Arc.”
  9. (first line of a cover email) “I have written the first transgender crime novel.”
  10. (second sentence of a cover email) “I realize it needs some work but I’m not usually one to write.”
  11. (third sentence of a cover email) “This book was wrote two years ago.”
  12. (in first paragraph of a query email) “This is my first fiction story in English. It … is somewhat similar in tone to E. L. James ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’”
  13. (last line of a cover email) “Please, reframe from the stereotypical smug remarks literary agents are too bold to often espouse toward people like me on the other side of their screen. It’s getting old.”
  14. (comparison section of a proposal) “The three books comparing to this novel are Oliver Twist, Don Quixote, and Crime and Punishment.”
  15. (first words of a fiction submission) “It was dark.”

Obviously (again with the obviously, Bob?), some of these are more revealing than others; and some may not be immediately disqualifying. However, as I wish to reframe from the stereotypical smug remarks literary agents are too bold to often espouse toward such things, I will simply let the reader decide how decisive each was or should have been and perhaps (one can always hope) heighten your vigilance against similar choices in your own submissions to even the most gracious and forgiving of literary agents.

35 Responses to Say the Right Thing

  1. Chris Storm December 2, 2020 at 5:11 am #

    😂😂😂 That’s funny, Barb. I ain’t got no words for this one..

    • Cole Powell December 2, 2020 at 8:07 am #

      As funny as the post was, I laughed harder at this comment. 😂

  2. Kathy Bruins December 2, 2020 at 5:18 am #

    It’s hard to believe people actually write these things, especially as writers. It’s like Kids Say the Darndest Things. This shows the great need for education for writers which is where conferences, online teachings, etc. come in. Thank you, Bob, for being a part of the teaching teams.

  3. Gordon Palmer December 2, 2020 at 5:29 am #

    Thank you for the laughs (“gracious and forgiving” – still laughing at that one)! I say that with humility and appreciation for the lesson.

    • Jean Purcell December 2, 2020 at 8:12 am #

      Live this, Ben …er, Bob! Live it! All thumbs up!)

  4. Cele LeBlanc December 2, 2020 at 5:53 am #

    At this stage of the pandemic, your gift of humor would buy a bag of gold if only I had one.

  5. Abby Martin December 2, 2020 at 6:02 am #

    Wow. Reading these submissions mad my morning! Wonderful post, Bob! 😊

  6. Andra M December 2, 2020 at 6:16 am #

    Oh my. These make me feel so much better about my own query letters!

  7. Nora December 2, 2020 at 6:39 am #

    Thank you for the laugh.

    Some people have no manners.

  8. Deena Adams December 2, 2020 at 7:02 am #

    Thanks for the chuckle this morning. 😂

  9. Bill Bethel December 2, 2020 at 7:11 am #

    Oh, grate! Thanks Mr. Hostler. Now I’ve got too rewrite the quarry letter for my historical romance novel: Peter Rabbit Takes a Mail-Order Bride.

  10. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 2, 2020 at 7:18 am #

    I know thatagents love to hate,
    but you strike me as a thinker,
    so I’ll bet you take the bait
    with speed, hook, line and stinker.
    I am not some new Joan of Ark,
    which I guessing you supposes,
    but with my first line, “It was dark…”
    you’ll see me as a Moses
    who brings thevoodoo world to life
    with all that I might say;
    my protag, she has a wife,
    and it’s like Fitfy Shades of Grey
    and thus I’m sure we are agreed
    this book will surely fit your need!

  11. Cole Powell December 2, 2020 at 8:03 am #

    No, no, you don’t understand. It’s like Don Quixote…but with LAZER SWORDS!!!

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 2, 2020 at 9:35 am #

      Cole, I beg your indulgence. I just couldn’t resist.

      Cervantes had old-timey words
      that we might well enhance,
      by introducing Lazer Swords
      and Don Q’s Thermal Lance.
      Not windmills he’ll be fighing,
      but cross-galactic crime,
      and with Sancho ride the lightning
      to arrive in nick of time
      to rescue Dulcinea
      from that charming jerk,
      that scoundrel, black-clad player,
      evil twin of Captain Kirk
      who appears in this duality
      when Scotty beams up wrong reality.

      • Cole Powell December 2, 2020 at 9:49 am #

        😂 Andrew, GENIUS! I love it!

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 2, 2020 at 9:55 am #

          I’m delighted, Cole; your words were the seed. If you can use it in any way, please feel free, no attribution needed.

          • Cole Powell December 2, 2020 at 7:54 pm #

            Wow. Thank you so much, Andrew! I am honored.

  12. Roberta Sarver December 2, 2020 at 8:04 am #

    Thanks, Bob. Your posts are not only instructional; they’re humorous. And thanks, Andrew, for that delightful sonnet.

  13. Kay DiBianca December 2, 2020 at 8:17 am #

    Hilarious. Thanks for starting my day off with a good laugh.

  14. Louise Sedgwick December 2, 2020 at 9:10 am #

    Thank you for your blog today. It is eye opening to me that authors make these egregious mistakes in their submissions. What would be helpful to me is to hear the subtle or inadvertent mistakes aspiring authors make when sending a proposal to you. Can you help us with that? Thank you for your efforts to help us grow in the craft of writing. It is a tremendous gift.

    • Bob Hostetler December 3, 2020 at 11:25 am #

      Louise, I can try to do that. Of course, subtle or inadvertent mistakes are seldom, if ever, disqualifying. But I’ll give that some thought and maybe post on that topic in a month or two.

  15. Kristen Joy Wilks December 2, 2020 at 9:19 am #

    Oh, my! Well, now I know not to claim to be Joan of Arc! It’s already been done!

  16. Nancy Lohr December 2, 2020 at 10:18 am #

    Good post, Bert. Some of these really peeked my interest.

  17. Sally Valentine December 2, 2020 at 11:14 am #

    This made me laugh out loud.

  18. Paula Geister December 2, 2020 at 11:43 am #

    “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between ‘lightning’ and ‘lightning bug.'” ~ Mark Twain

    Thanks again for useful information presented with a slight bit of humor.

  19. Frank December 2, 2020 at 12:19 pm #

    Your humor reflects where you live. DRY, very dry. But you drive home your point of view very well! Thanks for all you do.

  20. Lois Keffer December 2, 2020 at 1:46 pm #

    But is WAS dark! And stormy. So of course it was at night.

  21. Jennifer Haynie December 2, 2020 at 7:35 pm #


    I have one word (well, two, really) to sum up these salutations, etc.: “Dumpster fire.”

    Hah! Thank you for the laugh. Steve (hubby) and I both got a huge chuckle out of them.

  22. Judith Robl December 2, 2020 at 7:59 pm #

    Late to the party, I am. But after the day I’ve had, I really needed this humor. As a former English teacher, I’m aghast at the lack of common knowledge even among those who aspire to write. Things like “he starred into the fire” or “it peeked her interest” or “they did this for him and I” make me cringe.

    When I see your tongue-in-cheek, Bob, or your sonnets, Andrew, I can feel that all is right with the world again.

  23. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. December 3, 2020 at 7:42 am #

    Bob, thanks for making me laugh out loud this morning! Several years ago, my son David was seeking employment. He got a rejection letter that began “Dear Charles”- I knew exactly what you were talking about! I got a rejection letter from a major university once that I felt like correcting and mailing back. There was not a line that was expressed correctly. And then there was the time that I was asked to sign some legal papers. I found 40 errors. I went over the document with the attorney, and got them fixed. He said that, if he ever wrote a book, he wanted me as his editor. He did and I was.

  24. Peter Buxton March 25, 2021 at 6:54 am #

    I come late to this blog; I think Muphry’s Law has been playing tricks with your post—”… I wish to reframe from…”?

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