Big, bad and ugly – avoid these things
1. Sounding arrogant. Anything which makes it sound as though you just know you’re going to be the next Big Thing, even if you actually are. Let your talent shine through your writing, nowhere else.
2. Sounding naïve about the business. For example, “I realise it may be some time before I can earn enough to give up my job.” The agent can sense the pseudo-realism: she knows that you really think you’ll be earning a proper income from this writing malarkey very soon.
3. Seeming to tell or suggest how the agent should do her job. The commonest example of this is, “I believe there is film/TV/etc potential.” This is simply not for you to say. First, you are highly likely to be wrong; second, if you are right, the agent will know without you telling her; and third, there’s potential in lots of things but it usually comes to nothing.
4. Sycophancy. For example, “I know how incredibly busy someone as important as you must be” or “I’d be so incredibly honoured if someone of your calibre were to deem my humble book worthy of publication.”
5. Including anything unnecessary, whether that unnecessary thing is bizarre information or a “wee extra” gift in the envelope. When you get an agent, you may give her presents, but not before.
6. Lying. Lies come back to haunt you.
7. Asking the person to do anything. For example, never suggest that the agent visits your blog or website. Do include its address in your contact details and, if it’s relevant, do say what it does, but do not give the agent the work of visiting it to find something that should be in your actual submission. If they want to see it, they will. If you ask them to, you’re implying that you think they’ve got nothing better to do and that your blog will be the single most inspiring thing they’ll have read all day. Also, never ask for feedback or advice. I’m sweating even thinking about you doing that.
8. Mentioning that someone has read it and thought it was fabby, unless that person is important in publishing and said something you can officially quote. Examples of this error include: “My children/parents/pupils/friends have read and loved it.” They would. Means nothing. You will sound hopelessly naïve and the agent may choke on a cornflake. Or, “A well-known writer/film director/celebrity said my writing was extremely talented.” First, writing isn’t talented; writers are. But, secondly and more importantly, it’s almost certainly irrelevant. If an editor working for a publishing company that the agent has heard of and respects has actually said (in writing) something that you can quote, fair enough. Otherwise, by saying to the agent, “Well, so-and-so says it’s fab,” you are implying, “So, if you don’t, you’re wrong, loser.”
9. Mentioning money, commission, percentages. Those things have no place in the letter and will only serve to make you sound objectionable and ignorant. As will such gems as, “Together, we can be rich.” It would be lovely if you were right but it’s so unlikely as to sound delusional.
10. Anything negative about readers, writers or the publishing industry. I once read one that said, “Publishing needs a kick up the backside,” and talked about the “pathetic lives” of readers.
11. Sounding ridiculously pretentious. For example, treating the agent to an obscure (or even not obscure) quote from Dostoyevsky. There is no need to bamboozle or impress with the astonishing originality of your letter. Just say what needs to be said and then leave. When agents say they like a letter to “stand out from the crowd,” they generally mean “by being excellent”.
12. Tacky abbreviations, such as LOL or other examples of major over-informality. Moderate informality is fine, even desirable, but there’s a line to be drawn. No one can say exactly where that line is, and it will differ for different people, but LOL is definitely the wrong side of it. So is Hi.
13. Mentioning God’s influence on your work. OK, if you’re writing a religious book for a religious publisher, bringing God into the letter probably isn’t going to harm your chances, but God’s influence on your publication prospect does not improve by your name-dropping him in the covering letter. Also, do not, as I have genuinely seen done, start having a doctrinal discussion in the letter. “God exists, whether you believe that or not,” was one I received, although there were actually two spelling mistakes in that sentence so what God was doing at proof-reading stage I simply don’t know.