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No Jokes About It
In queries and stuff
I got a Q that was too good not to share with the whole class.
A asks: One of my writer friends recently gave me feedback on my query letter and his feedback was: No jokes, get serious. I might be bad at jokes but that's besides the point. I like to break down the walls of professionalism because it feels more genuine to who I am. Anyway, what are your thoughts on 'casual' query letters and/or jokes?
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Oh, A. I know you mean well. It is natural to want to be genuine and authentic in a query letter, so that the agent can see who you really are and connect with that person, instead of Professional Writing Person, so you don’t have to be Professional Writing Person for the rest of your writing life. But, writers, please, don’t joke in query letters. Do get serious.
Why? Not because jokes “aren’t allowed.” (They are.) Or that jokes will lead to automatic rejections. (They won’t.) It’s because agents are tired. We’ve heard ALL the jokes. Even jokes specific to your book—we’ve probably heard those or close to them before. Do you have a relative that says “hot enough for ya?” to people on the street in the middle of the summer? Or “Hi Hungry, I’m Dad?” when you say you’re hungry? This is the equivalent of query jokes.
I’m separating jokes here from more a casual tone in queries because you can be casual in your query letter in ways that do not involve jokes. You can address me as Kate, not Ms. McKean. You can say “Hi! I hope you had a great summer.” instead of “My sincerest salutations, Madame McKean.” You can sign off “Take care!” instead of “All Best Regards.” You can use LOL and emoji and slang and even curse words (maybe sparingly or judiciously? but either way I won’t clutch my pearls if you say shit or fuck). Maybe this is “breaking down the walls of professionalism” as A said, and maybe other agents don’t see a real difference between jokes and being causal, in a pro or con way. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Publishing is a rich tapestry.
But a query letter is still business correspondence and if you wouldn’t say it in a job application cover letter, maybe don’t say it in a query. I’m sure there are some jobs where it would be totally ok to say “LOL I totally want this job!!” If that’s the kind of job you’re applying for, you’ll know when it’s appropriate or not.
To further the job application/interview metaphor, think of it this way. You don’t have to wear a suit to every job interview. You can probably wear a blazer and slacks, maybe even sans tie. You don’t always have to wear a skirt and high heels. You can wear pants and flats. But that’s not the same thing as wearing jeans and a tshirt. Jokes might be the jeans and a tshirt in this scenario, if that makes sense.
To be clear, I don’t feel this way (and the agents who agree with me don’t either) that we’re being disrespected when we see jokes in queries. We’re just tired. We just want to read about your story. Are these jokes insurmountable obstacles that ruin our days? No. Will they make us hate your work? No. Are they doing you any favors? Probably not. I’m sure there are petty annoyances in your own job that you wish people knew no to do anymore. Now you know one about an agent’s job.
Let me say this again: jokes in queries aren’t forbidden. You won’t get automatically rejected for it. But also, an agent isn’t going to say wow that author told such a good joke I bet they are a wonderful person and will be a best seller. They’re probably going to skip over the joke and get to the meat of your query. You might be thinking well, if they’re just going to skip it then I’m going to do it because I like it and my jokes are good. And you know what? You can absolutely do that. But don’t rest your hopes on your joke being the thing that turns a maybe into a yes. It probably won’t. Remember the person reading your jokes is doing a job, and your goal is to make their job easier so they can see just how wonderful your book is.
Did you catch me on Catapult talking about the near impossible task of coming up with a title for your book? Check it out here!
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