Query Their Skill Sets
It’s something of a “quiet provocation” I bring to you today—a point that lies deep within the industry: A lot of professional publishing people couldn’t write their way through a two-sentence blurb if their P&Ls depended on it.
Don’t worry, no names will appear here, I’m on a bloodless warpath.
But I was struck recently when a literary agent of considerable visibility in the industry contributed a blog post on query letter writing. Not that the world needs another word said, spoken, or thought about query writing, of course. Can’t we gather all the books, posts, and articles written on the tired, tortured, tedious topic of query letters and just yell, “Read Number 4,622!” when someone asks us for something special?
For our purposes here, never mind that the thing was about queries.
The problem is that the article was woefully badly written. Any agent worth her web site would have rejected the article along with the day’s query letters.
- Subjects didn’t agree with verbs. And some of the verbs didn’t agree with life as we know it.
- The entire article lived in Preposition Purgatory. (Your plane really does not “arrive into” London Heathrow.)
- Human beings were reduced to inanimate objects. (We all know self-described writers that don’t know the word who, don’t we?)
- Wooden? Stilted? Victorian? I’m still searching for an adequate term to describe the creaking formality with which this thing was written. This is a great sign of amateurism, by the way, as I’m sure you know. Good writers are able to communicate in a conversational English that gets out of its own way. This piece was in everyone’s way, a refrigerator fallen from the truck of author instruction.
And remember that in many cases—maybe most cases—a literary agent is an author’s first editor. Some agents do deep developmental work on manuscripts. More do multiple copy-edit jobs on their clients’ texts.
As a journalist covering publishing, I probably see examples of bad writing from industry people more frequently than most do. Maybe I approach a publisher with a series of questions for an article or I ask an agent to give me a few paragraphs of descriptive commentary about a special book that he or she is keen to promote at a trade show. What comes back frequently needs a lot of work.
So there’s my provocation for you today.
If you go to a doctor, you assume that he or she knows the difference between ibuprofen and penicillin. So why, when you turn to a publishing professional, should that person not know the difference in its and it’s?