Writers often ask how they can improve their chances of getting an agent interested in their work, and of course the most important response, always, is to write a great book — fabulous story, strong hook, beautifully crafted prose, satisfying ending. That’s easier said than done, and it’s not something an agent can really help a writer with other than to encourage them to hone their skills, to get feedback from trusted sources, and to keep on trying. But not all advice requires such time-intensive, career-building effort.
I offer up for your benefit the low-hanging fruit of the submissions process — the advice that is easy to follow. In many cases these morsels are common sense, things that should not even need to be said, but for some reason still get ignored all too often, whether because the writer has gone half-blind staring at their manuscript, nerves make them careless, or the task just hasn’t occurred to them. Most of these things should be done after you’re finished tweaking your manuscript, and in most cases repeated if you go back in for additional revisions. Others apply to your query letters and should be handled on an as-needed basis.
Run spell check. I understand you might have a lot of wiggly red lines in your manuscript and/or query letter. Fantasy writers especially deal in made up words and names that set spell check into a tail spin. If that’s the sort of writing you do, it’s worth the time it takes to create a custom dictionary for your project where you add in the correct spelling of your characters’ names, fancy spells they throw out, the names of countries and rivers and mountain ranges you’ve devised, etc. That way you can not only minimize those wiggly red lines, but you’ll find out if you have a typo in the words you’ve created as well as the more standard varieties. But in this day an age, there is no reason for an agent to face a query letter and/or manuscript with multiple misspellings. If my spell check catches them, yours will, too.
Save edits and eliminate markups. All too often I open a manuscript to find that the writer’s critique partner made extensive edits and comments using Track Changes or some other system, and the writer has left them in the file for the world to see. Even if I have Track Changes turned off, Word presents me with the Final Showing Markup. It’s important to go through all those comments and edits and physically accept or reject the changes in order to have a clean manuscript for submission. If you want to keep track of your critique partner’s or your editor’s notes, simply save a new, clean copy of the file for submission purposes only. You really don’t want your prospective agent to find a sea of colorful revisions the first time they look at your work.
Read the submission guidelines. Agents will repeat this until they go hoarse, and yet I constantly receive queries that show without any doubt that the writer failed to take two minutes to visit the agency site and read over the guidelines for submissions. Take the time. It’s in everyone’s best interests. Why would you want to query an agent who does not handle the sorts of stories you write? Guidelines are there to streamline the submissions process and to help both writer and agent make the best match possible.
Proofread your query letter. This is the first thing an agent will read, so give it the same love and attention you would give your manuscript. The easiest way to handle this is to write your query in Word or another word processing program with a reliable (or customized) spell check, review it carefully for any clunky phrases, missing words and so on, then copy and paste the final version of the letter into your email.
Personalize your query letter and check for errors. Yes, it’s nice if you tell me why you’re submitting to me, specifically, but by this I mean make sure the email address and the salutation match. There’s nothing worse than opening an email query only to see it says Dear [Name of some other agent]. Most agents expect that you’re submitting to multiple people, but don’t let that turn the process into an assembly line. Take the time to double check that you’ve updated all parts of your query letter before you hit send. And by no means should you send a single email to a long series of agents. If the wrong name in the salutation will annoy me, the site of one hundred agents in the to: field will cause me to auto-reject. And no, hiding the list by putting the addresses in the blind copy filed doesn’t change my poor impression. Again, take the time to query each agent individually.
Include pertinent information with all correspondence. Remind the agent who you are and what you’re writing when you send any follow-up emails. If you meet an agent at a conference and they request material from you, be sure to remind them of that when you follow through. Include your name, where you met, the title and genre of your work, and what you’re sending (three chapters, 50 pages, synopsis, whatever). If the agent has requested attachments, be sure they’re actually attached and that they are the correct files, and that they include your name and the title of the work as well. When you write an agent to check up on a project, include your previous email in the thread or, at minimum, use the same email address to make yourself searchable.
Are any of these a magic bullet that will land you an agent or get you published in a heartbeat? Of course not. But they are all basic good-business practices that you should make a habit as you travel along your career path. Agents look for great projects, but they also look for writers with whom they will enjoy working. A writer who takes a few moments to make sure they’re sending the cleanest possible work, with clear correspondence accompanying it, will be a much more appealing prospect than a writer who is sloppy and creates extra work for the agent. Take a professional stance and you will already shine more brightly in the crowd.