As any good writer I watch the assorted query feedback feeds on Twitter (if you don’t watch them yourself, check out #tenqueries, #querylunch, and #500queries just to name a few.) One thing I notice is that there’s a lot of basic email mistakes happening among writers.
So, using my 13 years of business communication experience I’m gonna outline a few things that will get you really far in basic email communication. This works for queries, but it also works for submissions, nudges, and general interaction on a professional level.
But before I start I want to make something very clear. Interacting with a potential agent is a professional business communication. I don’t care who you are or what kind of books you write, you’re soliciting a business partner with your queries.
Emails are not Letters
I don’t care what your typing or keyboarding teacher told you all those years ago, emails aren’t letters. You don’t need the same kind of salutations, you don’t need small talk, but most importantly of all you don’t need the formatting of a traditional letter with the addresses on both ends.
The header data behaves in the way the old letter format did. So leave it off.
Salutations I’ll talk about later on, but keep them simple.
Closings and Signatures
In most cases you can do away with a closing entirely or keep it with a simple “Thank you.” Avoid the old standby’s of “Sincerely” as it’s just another thing pushing your signature further down the page.
And about Signatures. They should be text, preferably black text. Not graphics or graphic laden. They should include all the ways you want that person to be able to track you down. That means phone, email, websites, and important social media.
If you MUST include a pithy saying, put it at the very bottom.
Attachments and enclosures should appear after the Signature line. So if you’re including sample pages or a synopsis, put that after your track down information (but consider ditching the pithy saying entirely).
Paragraphs are your friends
This is where most people screw up emails. Most people who read emails skim. If your email includes giant paragraphs, they’ll skim even more. That means the only thing they’re reading is the very first sentence and MAYBE the last sentence if you’re lucky.
Long paragraphs, walls of text, or going to the other extreme, thirty sentences with double spaces between are not efficient communication.
1-5 paragraphs is your goal for the communication portion of your email (excluding attachments and enclosures). 2-3 sentences in most of the paragraphs is reasonable, but like your English teacher taught you, your first sentence should be a guide as to what what the rest of the paragraph is about because… you actually want to help people skim.
Yes, you heard me right, the more you can assist in skimming the easier your emails are to read, the easier the communication is between you because they have positive feelings toward you because you aren’t going to waste their time.
Single Topic Communication
Every email you send should have a single topic. If possible a single question to it. The more complex the question, the fewer thoughts or ideas should be included in your email.
This means for a query, you should only have a single Manuscript up for their consideration. You could mention you have more, but it’s better not to even do that. The more topics you introduce into a single email the lower the likelihood that you’re going to get any response at all. You start making them think, which means they have to come back to it, which means it gets buried lower in the inbox.
If you want an answer keep your email focused on a single topic with a single question and then respond with follow-ups. If the topic cannot efficiently be covered in this way, consider sending an email that requests a meeting. (NOT while querying, obviously).
Forms of Address and Gendered Language
As I stated above, keep your greetings simple. But in addition to it, keep your communication non-gendered. Politeness used to require someone’s title, but in the modern era, that’s a slippery slope to wrong. Best, always, is simply the person’s name. First and Last for initial communication, what they use in their communication back to you for subsequent.
In addition, never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever (you get the picture) use “Gentlemen” or “Dear Sir or Madam” or anything else gendered because that’s a sure way to tell that the person sending the email doesn’t actually respect you as a human being regardless of your gender identity.
But, along those lines, avoid pronouns in your written communication. Avoid pronouns in professional communication. For two reasons, you probably don’t know their preferred pronouns being one, but also pronouns get confusing really fast. Again, use proper names wherever you possibly can. It’s polite and it’s clear.
Subject Lines are Vital
In business communication, subject lines are as important as the message itself. It needs to be unique, clear, and short.
Unique, especially for queries means AT LEAST put your Title in the subject. If you know someone else is querying something with your title, put your name in there, too. The exception: when someone tells you exactly how to do it. If you don’t follow the individual’s rules you’ll get caught in the filters and you might as well have not queried in the first place.
BUT, after the initial query, change the subject IF your communication to them branches off from the primary conversation. That means, if you want to ask two unrelated questions, use two separate subjects. Don’t run two whole conversations on the same subject because modern email applications make it difficult to follow.
Best practice is to add the new subject. For example, your query email is “Query: MY AWESOME BOOK” and on the main thread you’re discussing your R&R, but you also want to discuss the other books you’ve already published consider “Self-pubbed Novels Re: Query: MY AWESOME BOOK”. Or something similar. That maintains context AND adds clarity.
That said, try to avoid branching conversations UNTIL you’re farther along in the process and you have a stream of communication going. Do NOT proactively branch conversations when all you’re doing is sending submissions or updates.
In the modern era, it seems like we know people better than we do. We’re acquainted with more people and think maybe we’re friends with more people, but you NEVER know what the other person thinks about you until they say so.
So when in doubt, err on the side of professionalism. That means, if you want to remind an agent that you’ve interacted on Twitter, you say things in the MOST professional sounding way possible.
“You may recall my name as I am one of your many followers on Twitter” or “active commenter on your blog”
“You may remember me from Twitter movie livetweets we’ve participated in.” You can be specific, but only if it remains professional. I have at least one Twitter Agent acquaintance that is an agent that I met through 50 Shades of Grey and if I were to query her (which, fortunately for both of us she reps different content) I would NOT bring up that detail.
But that goes to my next point. Consider not cultivating particularly familiar relationship with agents that you foresee wanting to build a professional relationship with.
In the modern era of Twitter it’s nearly unavoidable and in some cases, there are agents that you end up following and interacting with that it would be awkward if you DIDN’T follow them, but for the most part, I try to keep an arms length from agents so that I ensure I interact with them at my most professional and not the weird internet person you all know and look at side-eyed from time to time.
And if, say, you’re querying someone you often make Miss Havisham jokes with, as I have, ensure that the business communication sounds like it would for any other agent to show that you know when to be silly and when to be a grown-up who treats their livelihood with the respect it deserves.
And finally, in all communication, if you must compare yourself, your work, etc. (which should be avoided as much as possible) only do so positively. Describing things by what they’re not is an ineffective technique, but casting negative comparisons is downright dangerous.
There are times and places to share negative opinions. Being outspoken on social media can be vital to discussion, but when you’re trying to build yourself up personally, avoid tearing anyone else down to do so. You look smaller by doing so, not larger.
So there you are, my tips, tricks, habits, and advice on communicating professionally in email. Keep in mind, all interaction is highly contextual, but approaching email as if it were a business interaction is often the best way to avoid stepping on toes.
Some of these things may not work for your personal style or communication, and that’s fine. You have to do what you feel is right for you. If what I’m describing is too stiff, too formal, consider at least the spirit behind my guidance and make sure you’re not actively insulting the other party (such as with gendered language).
Business communication sets a tone for how you’re going to behave in the future with this person. And, from my experience, keeping the business aspects separate from personal or promotional is the safest way to ensure you’re communicating effectively and simply.
But if you have a burning desire to talk about your kids in every single email you send, I am not going to be the one to stop you. But please, please, if you take nothing else, make your initial subject line unique!