Anatomy of a Really Bad Query Letter

by | Feb 12, 2007 | Query Letters | 41 comments

Now, you probably read the title of this post and assumed that I’m about to be mean to some poor author who was unfortunate enough to send me a letter. But never fear! No authors were harmed in the making of this blog. I wrote this really bad query letter myself. I know, I know. You can save your applause until the end.

I thought it might be helpful to post a letter that includes some of the common mistakes people make in query letters so you can avoid them. Don’t do as this poor, hapless writer did. Er, I mean don’t do as I did. Do as I don’t.

rip pffffffffffffffffffffff cough cough cough cough oh god get it out of here [Since I can’t include smellovision in my blog posts, that is my reenactment of the experience of opening a query letter that smells like old, stale cigarette smoke. Let’s just say it’s not a happy smell.]

Dear Miss Snark, [As much as I enjoy seeing which agent you queried before me, it’s probably not the best strategy to forget to change the salutation.]

Have you ever wondered what it would be like if there was a race a heartless zombies who ate, nay enjoyed, human flesh? [Mayday mayday. My epic war against query letters beginning with rhetorical questions is not going well. Please send reinforcements.] In my 250,000 word novel, the first of a million word trilogy, a race of homicidal zombies target literary agents, gleefully spilling their vile literary agent blood all over their computers, enacting revenge on behalf of mankind for all of the query letters they have rejected over the years. [250,000 words is waaaay too long. Also you might want to avoid plot lines that involve literary agents dying at the hands of crazed zombies. I’m just saying.]

Drew Diggler was born in Denver, Colorado. His best friend was named Charlie. His dog was named Fred. He once had a crush on a girl named Susan. Susan dumped him. Then he went to high school. In high school he had a dream about zombies. But he didn’t meet any actual zombies until much later. He went to college. In college he saw a movie about zombies. Then after he graduated from college he actually met a zombie. The zombie told him it was his mission in life to stab every literary agent in the world with their staplers. [Too much information. Where is the plot? Also, I’m not a big fan of excessive gore. Especially gore that involves literary agents.]

Meanwhile, Drew Diggler realizes that he hates his corporate soul-sucking job, he has grown weary of his wife and their two children, he hates like, his existence, man, so he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree. [The whole man-suffering-crushing-ennui-and-subsequent-mid-life crisis plot is just a tad played out. Also, what happened to the zombie? He was kind of growing on me.]

And then after he quits his job/travels around the world/goes on a homicidal killing spree, he discovers Jesus’ DNA and decides to clone him while uncovering a centuries old plot that is protecting the hidden meaning of life just as he stumbles upon a government conspiracy concealing the existence of extraterrestrial life, all the while being chased by the bad guy, who is an evil albino. [You might want to avoid these plotlines as well. And this letter is going on too long.]

This is just one of seventeen unpublished projects I would like you to represent, all attached here. [Writes about more than one project, attaches a file]. I’m so so so so so so sorry I’m a first time writer, I know I’m not qualified, I genuflect before you, but see, at least I know the word genuflect so that has to count for something, right? I know there are better qualified writers out there than me, but I hope you will please give me a chance. Please? Will you? I hope you will. [Don’t apologize for being a first time writer — I like first time writers! They have that new author smell.]

My book is kind of like THE DA VINCI CODE mixed with THE LOVELY BONES meets THE HISTORIAN mixed with a dash of HARRY POTTER and ERAGON. Oh, and it’s also like FANCY NANCY and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN. Now that I think about it it’s exactly like a lot of other bestselling books out there, so it is guaranteed to be a #1 New York Times Bestseller. [Don’t compare your book to a bunch of other bestselling books — it’s ok to reference other books, but you probably want to avoid big bestsellers]. I did not include a SASE in my letter, nor did I include an e-mail address, in fact I’m also not going to include a phone number, just so you cannot possibly get in touch with me. [This actually happens — I have a file full of letters with absolutely no contact information. Sadly I was not even able to reach the authors using telepathy.]

Let’s make some money together. [Whenever people say this I always imagine that we’re starting a used car dealership.]

Nathan Bransford, Author

Hmmm….. on second thought, maybe there is a market for literary agent hunting zombies. I’m going to request a partial from myself.


  1. Scott

    I laughed…I cried…I went back and changed my query letters.

    But you forgot to tell us how much your mom likes your book and that your brother’s kids think it’s way better than Harry Potter.

  2. Stuart

    Ooooh… You got a request for a partial! Let us know how it goes. 🙂

    “New author smell”

    heh – I’ll have to remember that one.

  3. Anonymous

    Yeah, and where’s the paragraph where you talk about how that agent you met at that one conference who might have said something nice about the opening line or something has expressed “interest” in the form of a restraining order?

  4. brian_ohio

    Welp, thanks a lot, Nathan.

    I had just typed word number 123,615 of that exact idea. Now what?

    Regarding book comparisons, in my query I simply mention two books that my work is similiar to in tone and shelf placement. Would that be considered meaningful to an agent, or would they simply skip over that sentence?

    Other than the Shroud of Turin, where would they get Jesus DNA?

  5. Nathan Bransford


    I think a comparison title or two is fine to give the agent a sense of your work, but I don’t think you want to compare yourself to any mega-bestseller.

  6. Anonymous

    Darn it. I had just typed in that my novel was the next HARRY POTTER with a sort of PLUM LOVIN’ plot and feel.

  7. brian_ohio

    Note to self – do not compare my work to The Bible:)

    Thanks, Nathan

  8. Demon Hunter

    Is it necessary to make comparisons at all? I read that some agetns like references but that some don’t. What do we do?
    I did in my first round of queries, and received 3 partial requests, so they must have liked something. Requests for 3 partials out of 10 queries sent out is pretty good, right?

  9. Nathan Bransford

    Demon Hunter —

    It’s up to you, really, I know some agents like them and some don’t. But yeah — 3 out of 10 is good, congratulations!

  10. Demon Hunter

    Thanks, Nathan. I’ll let you know what happens…

  11. Anonymous

    Now I see why my letter got rejected! Here it is:

    wuzzup ned?

    yo i just finished my first draft of this thingy… my wife she is smart you know… she clicked on that whatchava call it and it says that my book is 9000 words 3 paragraphs 2000 lines… i was like wow!

    hey… let’s meet in china town i know this place noodles are like you wanna come back for more you know… i’m buying…

    call me dude!

  12. Nathan Bransford

    ^If free noodles were involved I probably would have requested at least a partial.

  13. Anonymous

    I see where the misunderstanding crept up. I meant to say that I was buying my own noodles. I don’t usually do that.

    I also forgot to mention that English was my first human language. I was raised by turtles.

    Sorry about giving you false hopes. I don’t know though what would you do with a partial noodle.

  14. BernardL

    Do you prefer the 250 word query/hook length?

  15. Nathan Bransford


    I just ran a Word count on the query that I used as an example of a good query in an earlier post and it’s 241 words, so yes, I think 250 is a very good ballpark.

  16. Me

    If free noodles were involved I probably would have requested at least a partial.

    Oh, I see… It’s all about bribes. THAT’S where I was going wrong.

    How about a Disney DVD? I own them all. I think I may be able to part with one. Would that get me a partial read? 🙂

  17. Tori Scott

    This was hilarious.

    But you forgot to mention that you sell used cars, and your antagonist is a brain surgeon, so you have lots in common with him. You’re really able to get into his head and make him real.

    What about using a tagline, like The Matrix meets Ren and Stimpy? Do you want to see those or not?

    Love this blog. Thanks for all the info.

  18. Nathan Bransford


    I’m afraid I already own Duck Tales on DVD and that is probably the only Disney DVD I would read a partial for.

    I really shouldn’t be admitting these things in public. At least no one is on the Internet.

  19. sex scenes at starbucks

    Sounds like we should just skip this whole query letter thing and just call you instead.

  20. Simon Haynes

    Another one you might like to add to the Query Letter Of Death:

    “I can’t explain my novel fully in writing, so I’ll call you at 9:15 AM sharp on Friday the 13th. Please be sure to wait by the phone, because my parole officer …”

  21. David Greene

    Ah Nathan, you get wittier with encouragement! LOL, as they say.

  22. B.E. Sanderson

    There was a bad query letter thread over at Absolute Write you’d probably get a kick out of. We wrote some real stinkers.

    The ‘new author smell’ thing had me rolling. Thanks.

  23. Kim Stagliano

    Please tell me your letter was typed in wingdings, with three spaces after each period, and an oily smear at the bottom from where your Nutter Butter crumbs dribbled out of your mouth while you licked the envelope. And I’ve heard it helps if the smell of Jade East permeates the room when you open the envelope too. A small black hair tumbling onto the agent’s desk (a la Clarence Thomas) often seals the deal.
    Why yes, I am unagented. Why do you ask?

    scary word ver: xdxdull

  24. Miri

    Hold on! You forgot to describe your book as a 250,000-word fiction novel and the beginning of a million-word, three-book trilogy.

    And I would say something snappy about title comparisons, but the instant you mention Eragon I point and laugh. I can’t improve on that.

    Thanks for this blog. Wildly funny and wildly helpful – you gotta love that.

  25. Anonymous

    Guilty of the 250,000 words, but I like long books. Oh well, his rejection was kind.

    And, this is one good blog.

  26. A Paperback Writer

    Geez, what is it with this Jesus’ DNA thing? Other than DaVinci Code, which didn’t even claim the DNA, what book has it? This is the second agent blog where I’ve seen complaints about it.
    I might just have to write something entitled Harry Potter and Indiana Jones in the Time Machine of Doom to settle for myself just where the heck one gets Jesus’ DNA.
    Brian_Ohio, sorry, dude. The Shroud of Turin is one of the West’s earliest tourist scams. You could get DNA, but it wouldn’t be Jesus’. (Hey wait — unless the shroud belonged to one of his g-g-g-grandkids! Wow! A Plot twist!) Maybe this’ll be a best seller!

  27. Nathan Bransford

    A paperback writer-

    I don’t think the cloning Jesus plotline has made its way into a published book that I know of, but I’ve received quite a few queries with this plot — can’t explain it.

    The global warming inspired post-environmental-apocalypse is the only plotline that is similarly common, but at least that has given us Oryx & Crake.

  28. Jen

    Okay. I’m slinking off into a corner to grind my teeth, since I’ve used the rhetorical question. *gnash gnash*.
    Does that new author smell wear off? Or does the stale cigarette smell kill it?

  29. The Breeze

    That was funny…especially the miss snark part…I hate when I do that, but you can only drink so much coffee in an ten hour query letter session without getting staples in you stomach or stomach staples or run on sentences ahhhhhh!!!!!! or too much or not enough punctuation?


  30. Roxan

    Trust me, there are smells worse than old cigarettes. Ask any hotel housekeeper who has been knocked backwards by the smell of a guest’s room. They would rather go into a smoker’s room than one with bad breath who sleeps with his mouth open.
    Reading your query was pretty funny and makes me feel so much better about mine.

  31. Bernita

    Dear Guy, you didn’t mention your publishing credits: the story prize in Grade Seven or the letter to the editor in Grade Ten.

  32. Michele Lee

    Too funny, man it sucks that you don’t rep. my genre. You’d be tops on my list 🙂

  33. Dayna_Hart

    Thank you, Nathan.
    I needed a laugh tonight. You gave me a few.

    The query letter forgot to mention the sparkly sticker you got in the third grade for your stellar adaptation of the Three Little Pigs, which you titled Zombie Bacon.

    Or that one of your pomes got you to third base in high school…

    Or some equally irrelevant award/achievement.

  34. PattiTheWicked

    Nathan, you forgot to include half a pound of pink glitter in your query letter.

    Agents love that, I hear.

  35. rosemerry

    Haven’t had the chance to query an agent yet because well, I have yet to finish a novel.

    I’m learning a lot from your blog though.

  36. Sarah

    Okay, here it goes:

    Dear Ms. Brainsford,

    My family loves my book! They say I should try and get it published. They are really nice people, you should meet them sometime.

    My story is about a vampire that not only drinks people’s blood, but decaptiates them. It’s really cool and way, way better than any vampire book ever written!

    I had an agent who was my brother’s friend’s cousin tell me that my book had promise and she should know, she’s an agent.

    My book is 200,000 words and took me a whole three months to complete. I worked really hard. Don’t believe me, ask my husband!

    I will be sending the full shortly. Thank you for your time.


    That was fun! I liked writing that better than a real query.

  37. Gonna be a writer

    I read this three times just to make sure I’d not missed any bits while I’d been laughing out loud as i read. Thanks for the advice, I’ll bear it in mind next time I write a query letter.

  38. Aaron Stump

    What about plastering my letter with scratch and sniff stickers and including a couple benjamins in the envelope to help get the ball rolling?

    I think I’m doing this query letter thing all wrong…

  39. Demon of the Cavern of the Black Mountain

    Good…er, I mean bad…but in a good way. Here's my take at an atrocious query letter:

    Dear Literary Agent:

    What would happen if Frodo Baggins was inspired by the Eat This Not That series of books? You would have my debut novel, LORD OF THE RING DINGS, an ambitious fusion of the Fantasy-Adventure genre with a Healthy Diet book!

    It all begins when the Evil Sourbun bakes up a host of evil delights to fatten his enemies to the point where they are incapable of defending themselves. Now, Middle Girth stands helpless before the lumbering armies of Morebun as they sing:

    Three Cupcakes for the Fairy Pigs in their sty,
    Seven Twinkies for the Couch-Potatoes lazy to the bone,
    Nine Devil Dogs for Junkfood Junkies doomed to die,
    One Ring Ding for the Beefy Lord on his beefy throne
    In the Land of Lardor where tasty cakes lie.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

My blog has everything you need to know to write, edit, and publish a book. Can’t find what you need or want personalized help? Reach out.


I’m available for consultations, edits, query critiques, brainstorming, and more.



Need help with your query? Want to talk books? Check out the Nathan Bransford Forums!