My office receives thousands of submissions a year. We’re thrilled to see proposals so well crafted that they’re ready to submit to publishers. Those submissions are few. Most contain mistakes. We don’t want you to feel stymied, as though agents are looking for reasons to reject proposals and will pounce on any infraction. Rather, let’s consider what my office may be able to overlook when the manuscript and author are otherwise so spectacular that we feel compelled to offer representation:
Uncertainty about my name. My office receives submissions for Mrs. Hancock all the time. I know my name is complex, but it does appear all over the Internet. Authors who botch my name will still be considered but have placed an unnecessary hurdle for themselves before the opening paragraph.
“Agent” as a salutation. Authors who are afraid of misspelling my name may opt for a general address. While that choice may seem safe, the result feels impersonal. We suspect this author may be sending a letter with this greeting to a hundred other agents. We may be coldhearted, but we want to feel special. Don’t you want your agent to be special?
One or two typos. With many free computer programs offering help to writers who snuck out of high-school grammar classes to smoke cigarettes in the locker room, the agent shouldn’t see any typos or grammar errors. We know the limitations of even the most-expensive grammar programs, so we can overlook one or two blunders. However, we prefer that authors use care before submitting. After all, can we trust authors who are negligent in initial correspondence to pay close attention when writing to our editor friends later?
Flattery that’s just plain wrong. When we see something like “Because of your long track record and great success with sports novels and memoirs, …” we believe that the author has cut and pasted the same letter to a hundred agents using a general, unedited list. Flattery won’t garner an offer of representation, but nonsensical flattery will earn an author a quick no.
People in our industry generate and respond to countless pieces of correspondence every day, so mistakes are inevitable. We don’t mind granting the same mercy we’d want others to give us. And, again, we don’t want you so paralyzed by fear that you never send us your submission. Just be cautious as you would with any essential correspondence, and all will be well.
Kristen Joy Wilks
Thanks for the tips, Tamela! I know that I’ve worried about whether to say Ms. Mrs. or Miss before and have usually just gone ahead with Ms. when I don’t know. Considering that at least I’m spelling the agent or editor’s name correctly, I suppose that my angst wasn’t necessarily warranted. Oh, I’ve also just used the agent’s full name instead of a title before. Such as: Dear Tamela Hancock Murray. What are your thoughts on this vs Ms. Miss or Mrs.? Guys sure have it easy with the plain old Mr. in front of their name.
Tamela Hancock Murray
The full name is one way to go. I’m not offended if someone chooses an honorific I don’t use. All of my bios reveal that I’m married, but I realize some women do go by Ms., regardless. In general, I would venture that a writer who’s obviously being respectful will get a full read.
When I worked on the magazine for the National Restaurant Association, I received mail addressed to “Sarah Hamburger,” a mangling of my last name, Hamaker. We all had a good chuckle about that, but the writer’s article pitch went directly into the trashcan…
Tamela Hancock Murray
LOL! I’ll venture that the article would have been accepted had it been well written, though!
This is really more of a question. I once saw a post by an agent that said; he didn’t even consider manuscripts that had been professionally edited because he felt like that meant the writer wasn’t serious. Having had my manuscript edited and after correcting it sending it back for a last look, I want to say I am very serious! However, after his comment I’m afraid to put this in the query letter. Should I tell or not tell that it was edited by a former editor at a publishing house? Is it okay to quote the editors comments on the manuscript? Or will this get my query deleted?
Tamela Hancock Murray
I don’t turn down manuscripts based on lots of editing, a little editing, or no editing. I’d like to know either way. What concerns me is the finished manuscript the publisher will be reviewing.
Damon J. Gray
That’s hilarious, Sarah.
My dear Agent Tamale,
I hope this finds you well;
I’m so impressed by the zombie
novels that you sell
to cutting-edge pub houses
like Readers Digest Press,
while Random Penguin grouses
’bout your clients that they missed.
You’ll find my tales a perfect match
for your author-stable,
stories like ‘Undead Sasquatch’
with which you will be able
to make the Lit World understand
that you’ve got the next Jaqueline Susann!
I don’t pretend to be perfect, but I put forth my best efforts and use the grammar software on my computer religiously. The horrifying thing is when I’ve misspelled a word after looking over a document a gazillion times and still didn’t see the error until AFTER I hit the send button. It’s then I melt to the floor in my own embarrassment and humiliation.
Always, always be respectful to everyone!
This is SUCH promising advice. I am feeling this right now. I’ve worked, had it edited, and now I am reworking parts, and I have had it edited again, but I still imagine there are a few mistakes—God loves when we offer His mercies and forgiveness to others, as He does to us, and this is a beautiful reminder of just that!
Thank you for sharing this with us!
Thank you for this encouraging post. I’m a perfectionist who reads over my document many times before submitting. Still, I occasionally find an error. Last time this happened was when I used an incorrect word in my sample chapters. I’d read it for what seemed a million times and never saw it. My dad asked to read it, and he saw it right away. But none of us are perfect; that’s why even published authors have editors.
Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D
How would you feel about being called “Pamela?” I get the same thing from everybody. Telemarketers call me “Mrs. Parmeelllee” (I am neither). Student call me “Mrs. Parmalee” – Nope, try again.
Thanks for the very informative posting. Or should I say, “Thks four the vary niece psoting?”
Tamela Hancock Murray
I mind being called “Pamela” much less than “Pam” because then not only is the speaker inaccurate (understandably because Pamela is more popular than Tamela as an American name) but please don’t assign me a nickname while you’re at it. 🙂
Mmm… I find the one about flattery interesting. I usually try to include something personal so the the agent can see I read his\her bio. One normally would mention the achievements so I guess that is flattery? How do you feel about that Tamela?
Then, I prefer to use Ms. in all cases as it is nowadays accepted as a general term?
I sent a proposal to Bob a while ago, spelling his surname Hostler instead of Hostetler. I experienced something of Loretta’s emotions afterwards. I did send a correction with an apology, though I suppose the injury was done.
Tamela Hancock Murray
I can only speak for myself, but I don’t consider a statement as to why you chose me to query as a form of flattery. You are correct in that a statement about the agent’s bio shows that you are informed and that the agent isn’t receiving a query from you that is identical to every other query going out to 30 other agents.
Bob is easygoing and kind so I sincerely have no doubt that you did no “injury” so I wouldn’t worry a bit.
Bottom line: if an agent is so focused on their own ego that they can’t be forgiving, that’s a tell on the agent.
Stephan, I’ve been called worse. Much worse. 🙂 A mistake like that is easily overlooked, especially by someone as “easygoing and kind” (thanks, Tamela) as I am.
Carol R Nicolet Loewen
Great post, Tamela. I’m in the same boat with a dual, non-hyphenated last name so when I get mail to Carol Nicolet, I know the person doesn’t know me or hasn’t done their homework. Critical to take a second, maybe even a third, view at any submission before hitting “send”. Thanks for the reminder!
Thank you for this post! As an author who struggles with spelling in general, I’m always afraid I’ll make a typo even after several reviews of my email or comment.
Also, this is a good reminder to research the agent’s name well–another thing I could see myself failing to do well.