Monday, March 29, 2010

Query Formatting

When you receive an e-mail query where the formatting has been stripped or altered, does that play a part in your rejection? Or are agents as a whole more forgiving of these errors and look only to the writing in e-mail queries?

While agents certainly understand that these things can happen through no fault of the author’s, it does play a part in how we perceive the query, although not necessarily the rejection.

Think of how you read. Before picking up a letter, magazine, newspaper, book, or any printed material, the very first thing you see is the formatting. How that appears has an immediate impact on how you read the material. If the work is written in a childish font you’ll think it’s a piece for children, or take it less seriously than you would if the book were written in a more serious font like Times New Roman. The same goes for formatting. If a letter is formatted without any paragraph breaks or written in an incredibly small font you’re going to assume that everything this writer writes is written in that way.

While I think agents are very forgiving of formatting errors, etc.—in fact, I think agents are far more forgiving than authors often give them credit for—it’s hard to ignore what that first glance says to someone. If formatting is a mess then the letter has to wow that much more to grab the agent’s attention. If she’s on the fence about asking for more, the formatting can be the one thing, whether she’s conscious of it or not, that makes her decide not to ask for more.

Think of your interview suit. You can be the most impressive candidate a company sees, but if you’re wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt, everything on your resume can easily be ignored.



Jane Lebak said...

A better comparison than your interview attire would be if you arrived for your job interview wearing a tailored business suit that had coffee spilled on it, or a run in your nylons. You did try to dress well for the interview, but fate (or the email gremlins) intervened.

I actually have a fondness for snail mail queries because at least there, I know that what I see is the same thing the agent is going to see, minus the tire tracks on the envelope if the nice lady at the Post Offal decides to drive over my query with her truck.

Anonymous said...

OK, this is just kind of scary--the question doesn't ask about poor formatting choices, but instances in which the formatting has been stripped. I make my formatting as basic as possible to avoid this kind of thing, but obviously don't know how my email looks in someone else's inbox. Is there anything else I should be doing to avoid this, or are decisions really being made, even on a subconcious level, on something that I have no control over?

Unknown said...

Yeah, I wouldn't see why formatting would be held against the writer if it's a matter of the sender's email not translating well to the recipient's account type. But I think the only problems I've seen with this might be a different font used or different spacing for hard returns. So I don't think it'd be that big a deal anyway.

One thing I wish editors/agents would do is to allow writers to send PDF file attachments. They are safe and would preserve formatting as well. But I don't see it happening...

Scott Eagan said...

Way to go Jessica, this is what I'm screaming about as well!

Scott Eagan said...

Anon and Jason,

I think you might be missing what Jessica is saying. The point is the perception the editors and agents have when they see a poorly formatted query. I always stress the idea from the Head and Shoulders commercial. "You never get a second chance to make a first impression."

Anonymous said...


Sorry I think you are missing their point. Most of us do our best to make everything perfect, but we can't see what you are recieving.

I had a 'no thanks' to a query letter I sent out come back and my original letter was still there because the agent had just hit reply.

It looked nothing like what I sent out. It was a garbled mess with some of the words missing and symbols inserted for some of the letters.

I sent the same letter to my second business email account, and it looked perfectly fine.

We can control our end, but we cannot control how you recieve it. And after two years of slaving over a MS and doing your best to write that perfect query letter, it is really sad to have your efforts ruined by someone's email not working properly with yours, especially if that person is your dream agent.

Suzan Harden said...

@Anonymous 11:54 AM:

All the credit for this tip goes to writer Rick Daley, but it's really helped me with e-query formatting issues.

If you're using MS Word, copy your text to the MS Notepad. It strips out all formatting. You may need to a do a little tweaking before copying your query and sample pages to your e-mail, but this does the trick for me.

Also, make sure you're sending the e-mail in RTF format, which should cut down on the funky symbols and gobbledy-gook.

Anonymous said...

Thank-you so much Suzan.
It's a shame we have to be aware of all the computer tricks to write a book. It makes you so nervous to not be sure of what your email is going to end up looking like. I guess snail mail does have its advantages.

Unknown said...


I don't think I'm missing the point. Maybe we disagree, which should be OK, right? It happens.

I totally believe in first impressions. But first impressions should be based on the person, not the quirks of doing business using an electronic medium.

Maybe Philangelus has the right idea. If formatting is that important maybe we should all us snail mail. That way you control exactly what the other end sees.

Amy said...

I definitely see what Jessica is saying, and I totally agree that efforts to make a good impression are important.

What I think Anonymous is referring to, and I thought the original question was getting at this as well, is what does an agent think of an email that is sent out via HTML format but received in Plain Text format. In my personal email account, I compose and send email in HTML all the time because I prefer it. But in my professional account, I am careful to compose and email in Plain Text format. If I send in Plain Text, either an HTML or Plain Text receiver should be seeing what I'm seeing, more or less. But if I send in HTML, only an HTML receiver can view it the same way I did. Otherwise it will be converted to Plain Text, and that's when bolding, italicizing, and underlining look a complete mess.

I doubt that Plain Text takes care of all those problems -- there are all sorts of codes that I don't understand added to email when it's sent. But it's definitely a safer choice than HTML if you're worried about formatting. Hope this helps a little.

Unknown said...

Suzan...good tip,

Also make sure if you're using Outlook to not use Word as your email editor. Even if you do the Notepad thing, you'll just be putting it back in Word in essence.

T. Frohock said...

First let me say that with the number of viruses that are sent as attachments, I can definitely understand why agents don't want to have material sent as attachments, PDF or otherwise. I have no problem there.

However, I am painfully aware of how editors and agents perceive the query as a first impression. I am also aware of the great lengths I (and other writers) go to so that my query looks professional.

Here's what happened to me: I always save my documents as .rtf files. To strip the formatting for e-mail, I saved the document as a text file. I made sure all my paragraph breaks were there in my text file.

I cut and pasted the text file into my e-mail. Everything looked perfect. When I received an acknowledgment from the ezine I had submitted a poem to, all of my paragraph breaks had been stripped from the message.

The letter looked unprofessional and just plain tacky. I was mortified.

It took a lot of experimenting and several test e-mails before I came to a solution that eliminated most of the problems. However, I can't be sure of every agent's e-mail service and how that service will read my e-mail's settings.

After reading multiple agent blogs, I've noticed a lot of the on-going agent complaints are about big blocks of text (no paragraph breaks). I know the turnaround time is often better with e-mail, but this is my one shot in the door.

I'm not inclined to take a chance on electronic mishaps deciding my novel's future. I suppose I could either use snail mail or add a disclaimer to the beginning of the e-mail stating that when I pressed "send" this e-mail was formatted professionally. ;-)

I just don't know. I'd like to hear how other writers have handled these issues.

Anonymous said...

Oh gosh Jason,

What is email editor?

I thought I knew quite a bit about computers, but it turns out I don't know that much at all.

Anonymous said...

Good gravy!

I'm getting ready to query and now I am a nervous wreck about emailing!!!

Because I definitely have sent stuff that came out looking like the original!! I just thought those types of things would be forgiven, because I wasn't claiming to be a computer expert.

I don't even know what an email editor or rtf. is? and I thought I was pretty much computer savvy.

Richard Gibson said...

Some of this was discussed just a couple weeks ago, too. rtf=rich text format - you can save a Word doc in that format without most of the extraneous stuff Word creates, but retaining some things like bold, italics, etc. But plain text (.txt) is probably safest for the query letter.

Anonymous said...

This is why I believe agents are kind of "in the way" when it comes to the publishing business. If it's a good book, who cares about such petty things as formatting?

I read a post on another blog that predicted that agents are going to play less and less of a role as the book industry evolves. For authors, I can't help but think this will be a good thing.

KINGRPG said...

I like that you think. Thank you for share very much.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the tips--I was the anon who posted the "what can I do" question and really appreciate it.

I can totally understand that you never get a second chance at a first impression, Scott--but I do hope that in cases where an interviewee had a bucket of paint dropped on her interview suit on the way into the building or a query letter had its formatting eaten by the interweb that there's some understanding and latitude granted. Best laid plans and all that.