I grew up in California, which means I called my friends’ parents by their first names and no matter where I am and what I’m wearing, I’d rather be wearing jeans. And as you can tell by the way I write the blog, I don’t really worry about formality.
But lately people have been pushing informality in query letters just a tad too far. At the end of the day, while I’m really not a wild and crazy guy, I don’t think of myself as a stickler. Don’t worry about calling me “Mr. Bransford,” even if we’ve never met (“Nathan” is fine). Don’t sweat a typo. And by all means, crack a joke or two.
With your query letter you are proposing that we enter into a business relationship, and breeziness can be taken too far, particularly when it interferes with conveying the tone and spirit of your project. Yes, be funny and cool, but don’t give the impression that you’re taking the query lightly. With me and with other agents, err on the side of formality.
So for instance, do not call me “Nate,” “Nat,” or “Nate Dogg” (and yes, people do this). Don’t use your language casually, unless you’re specifically trying to convey the tone of your project. And if we’ve corresponded before, please don’t assume that I will definitely remember you — include the backup correspondence so I can refresh my memory.
As always, the goal of a query is to give the impression that you are talented and professional. Don’t lose sight of professionalism as you show your talent.
Nate Dogg signing off.
Adaora A, George Clinton used it first.
Michelle- My husband is British as well and also calls my mother Mrs! Maybe it’s a British thing!
Nate Dogg? NATE DOGG?
I really like Ms. for the fact that 1) it’s correct in terms of etiquette and 2) it’s appropriate regardless of marital status.
Of course, if you want to err on the side of over-titling, you could always address the recipient as “Dr.” You’d be amazed at how infrequently people are offended if you call them Dr.
I’m with you, Colleen. I have always disliked being addressed as a ‘Ms.’ both when I was unmarried and married. I understand why other women prefer ‘Ms’ and I respect their decision. For me, I don’t feel I have to hide my marital status.
I notice that in the U.S. ‘Ms.’ seems to be the default. I like that, here in the U.K., I am usually asked for my preferences when in a new situation.
Chris Redding says
You’ll hate Ms until the first time you get called Ma’am. Unless yoiu’re from down south and then that’s pretty common I think. A sure sign of respect.
WitLiz Today says
With all due respect to Mr. Bransford and other blogging agents, if you want a query letter to reflect a more businesslike tone, then perhaps your blog should reflect this tone. You are, after all, setting an example. If however, you prefer to have your natural personality shine, as it seems to be the case with Mr. Bransford, that’s ok, but then cut the damn writer some slack if he falls on his ass. Which we will. Why? Because most likely we are all reading multi-agent blogs giving conflicting advice.
That means when a lurker or a regular commenter, anonymous or otherwise, gets a rejection from a blogging agent because they broke rule number 101, it stings a lot more than some newbie writer who queries out of the blue, and blithely sends off a query letter without a clue in their head about what’s appropriate or not.
Hell, if I wanted to be born a ping pong ball instead of a writer, I would’ve put my application in way before I was born.
When did writing query letters become such an act of torture for a writer? When Literary Agents started to blog.
I guess my patience is running thin, because I’m reading so many comments from countless writers who agonize over these letters like they’re a Mercedes Benz with expensive tires about to drive over a spike strip.
Literary agents need to realize that many gifted writers have to write under extraordinarily difficult circumstances, be it financial, mental, or physical. They would do well to keep that in mind and be a little more compassionate when they read query letters that didn’t make the grade or that offended them. Bearing in mind too, that the offended is more often the offender.
But, I also realize there are two sides to the equation. Inasmuch as these same literary agents generously donate their time to educate a writer, it’s important I cut them some slack when they cause a 50 car writer pileup. It works both ways.
WitLiz, while I appreciate your rage at this and think you make some good points, it’s important to understand what the agents go through with slush.
Every year I sit on a judging committee to award a lot of money to nonprofits where people volunteer. We get between 700 and 1,000 nomination forms, which we have to read (in our off hours) in a few weeks. Each nomination form is anywhere from 1-3 pages, single spaced, answering a number of questions.
There are quite a few that are astonishingly good stories, so when we run across the ones where the applicants clearly have not put in any effort, or clearly have taken liberties, we just put them into the “no” pile.
Nathan is not being nitpicky here. He is simply pointing out his triggers that cause something to go into the “no” pile without serious consideration. It’s not, “If this person doesn’t use Mr. Bransford, they’re done” so much as, “Oh, geez, Nate Dogg? Forget it.”
In my judging, the triggers are different, but they exist nonetheless. And nearly 100% of the time the correlate with an application that would have gotten a “no” anyway. That’s a conclusion based on experience.
I get where the above commentor, Witliz Today, is coming from. Agent blogs complicate everything, it seems.
Reading agent blogs (I won’t name names) has significantly decreased the respect I have for agents. I’ve been horrified by how they refer to/treat their clients in their posts. Recently one agent bragged about finally getting around to reading some partials she’s had for 6 months and then proceeded to tell in a blog post how she only read 1-2 pages of EACH partial before saying nah, and sending a form reject. This agent also excitedly announced she’s writing a book. I thought, hell, let’s hope editors give your book more than a ONE page read after a six month wait. Or better yet, let’s hope they don’t.
Unless you are a best-seller, writers have no power in this business. Or respect. At all.
I’m agented and published, so it’s not sour grapes, but lemme tell ya, if a writer actually told you the crap that they’ve had to take from agents/editors it would pale in comparison to someone calling you NATE DOG.
Dear Mr. Bransford,
Really? Strangers have actually called you “Nate-Doggy-Dog” or some such inappropriate informality? I believe that it’s a symptom of the erosion of respect for others, made worse by perceived barriers of anonymity like emails, text messaging, and the like.
And what’s up with automatically shortening people’s names? I have the name Christian, which invariably gets shortened to “Chris,” which, I might add, is NOT the root word, but rather Christ…though when I suggest that as a viable option, it gets met with looks of horror and furtive glances at the sky, surely awaiting heavenly lightning bolts.
I say: if they don’t respect your position in the industry enough to show that in a query, then may said lightning bolt visit them whilst they’re performing some unmentionable function in their bathrooms. so there. :~)
Nathan Bransford says
WizLit and Anon-
Well, I confess I didn’t anticipate that a suggestion to not call me “Nate Dogg” would touch a nerve.
I’d just like to point out that 1) I never blog about my clients and 2) trust me, I take far more abuse from aspiring authors than I dish out.
Anonymous 7:01. I think I know which agent you are referring to, and IMHO there are many reasons not to like this agent from what she writes in her blog.
But I have to disagree with you about the reading 1 or 2 pages of a partial being disrespectful. Many, many times you can tell in this amount (or even far less) that a person can’t write. That’s just the way it is. Why waste time reading more?
La Gringa says
I tend to address people with the same name they have used to sign a letter to me. I don’t shorten names. But I do find it difficult sometimes when an author (and a lot of them do this) use their initials only when writing to me. I feel silly addressing someone as “T.L.” in a response to a query.
As for the use of Ms. – I certainly don’t penalize anyone for using it in addressing me. They don’t know I hate it, and it’s a commonly accepted form of address. But once enter into a business relation with someone, I always tell them that I prefer that they not to use any honorific with me.
As for whether Nathan’s blog is formal or informal, well – here’s the thing – that has absolutely no bearing upon how someone should present themselves in a query letter.
Richard Branson at Virgin is a huge hippie, but I doubt very much that people write him business letters that start “Yo, wussup, dude!”
Don’t blame the agents for your own bad instincts and poorly written queries.
*shrugs* I liked “Miss” just fine before I was married, and now that I am married I resent having that status taken away from me by the use of “Ms.”, just as I object to having my husband referred to as my “partner”.
It doesn’t bother me in business, because I know Ms. is generally considered business form. But socially, I get very irked when people take away my “r”.
Scott MacHaffie says
I just looked it up in Miss Manners.
“Nate Dogg” is definitely incorrect.
It should be
“Nate Dogg Baby”.
That Nate Dogg, he’s a real cool cat!
I’m Anon 7:01 —
Nathan, I wasn’t referring to YOU! For pete’s sake your one of the good ones! (and no, people shouldn’t adress you as Nate Dog).
But sometimes, good agents like yourself assume that all of the OTHER agents/editors treat people the same way you do. It isn’t so. At all. Trust me. Whether or not you follow their rules, meet their deadlines, and offer nothing but professionalism you get disrespect. I’d prefer someone calling me Nate Dog, in comparison. I’ve got stories to tell. But I won’t.
Nathan Bransford says
Oh! Sorry I misunderstood, and thanks for the kind words.
I’m sure there’s a whole load of reasons why queries come out the way they do. First and foremost, we all forget that as personable as we can be, writers are generally an introverted bunch, so social etiquette might be a foreign concept to the more withdrawn. Formality becomes an analytical puzzle. And what about sheer desperation? Hundreds of queries later, maybe they’re just trying too hard.
Mr. Nathan Bransford, sir–
I always try to err on the side of formality, but . . . when an agent writes you back and signs the email with their first name only, are they trying to signal that they’d like to be called by their first name?
Being the chicken that I am, I still end up calling them “Mr. So-and-so,” just in case they didn’t really mean it. But if they do it more than once, I might be likely to shoot my next reply back addressed to “Joe” or whatever they signed with. And sign off with my first name, too.
Nathan Bransford says
I’m probably the wrong person to ask because I feel like people should feel free to call me by my first name even if we haven’t met. But yes — I’d say that if the agent signs with just their first name you’ve moved to a first name basis.
Anyone else a manners specialist? What’s the protocol on this?
I’m no manners specialist, but I think it’s pretty obvious that if someone signs their mail “Bob,” they mean for you to call them “Bob.”
Nathan, you’re completely within your rights to say that addressing you as “Nate Dogg” or other similar name isn’t approprate -it isn’t. It seems that having the wonderful privilege of these agent blogs has blurred some people’s sense of propriety, and they feel that they have the right to be as chummy with agents as with their friends. Yet an agent/writer relationship *is* first and foremost a business relationship, and I think it’s good you reminded us of that -the internet does have the tendency to informalise communication, and that seeps easily into other formats of communication, too.
Yours is my favourite agent blog, and I love your humorous style. Please keep at it! 🙂
Dear Ms. La Gringa,
I’m not sure why that was addressed to me, but thank you for making my day a little bit more surreal! ;~)
When you’re sending someone a letter for the first time, you might not know his or her preferred form of address. In that case, erring on the side of formal is good. When you get a letter back signed “Nathan,” or “Nate Dogg,” then you know how to address the next letter.
When I am meeting someone for the first time in a business setting, I always start with a “Mr.” or “Ms.” or “Dr.” and then when they wave that away and say, “Call me Nate Dogg, everyone else does,” I say thanks and then use Nate Dogg from then on.
Well, sometimes I don’t have any idea whether a person is male or female in a business letter.
I have, in the past, chosen either:
Dear Jan Areyouamanorawoman,
full name, no title
Dear M. Areyouawomanoraman,
Using “M.” means I am trying to be polite but I don’t know what sex they are really.
What do you think of that?
Anon @ 11:08,
In French, “M.” is short for “Monsieur,” the masculine honorific (like “Mister”).
That may not be your best choice, really.
I wasn’t going to comment on this; to me, the formality – it’s sort of obligatory. My thinking is similarly alined with pjd, below.
Still, I did want to comment briefly on your mention of casual, Mr. Bransford. I feel fortunate to have found this ‘blog: in the few days I’ve been visiting, taking away with me the wisdom of your merry band of sages here, I’ve found great encouragement. With your open discussions and jeans-and-T-shirt approachability, you’ve managed to provide a dress-down Friday everyday for those of us neophytes (okay… maybe it’s just me) otherwise reluctant to don Sketchers in your presence.
Kudos. And, thanks.
La Gringa says
Only the first paragraph was meant for you. My bad!
Miss La Gringa:
It is thrilling to some of us *ahem* older women that Miss/Mrs. is now a choice for form of address — not a flag flown to announce we had bagged a man, not a hankie to wave one down. I was “Ms.” years ago in order to ensure my marital status was not part of my name and/or identity — especially professionally. Once I was married (not a Miss) and did not take my husband’s name (not a Mrs.) I remained a Ms. and that works for me. Brava, Miss La Gringa! It is progress when we may decide for our own reasons how we shall be known.
maybe just Mms.
But you said it was okay to sign our queries with ‘Snuggles’.
Well, you said you’d notice it. That’s almost the same as it being okay.
I know this post is old news now, but I’m dying to know: Has is set off a spate of people querying Dear Nate Dogg because they think it’ll be funny or cute or that will personalize the query and make you more likely to accept it because it shows how closely they read your blog?
Ms. is simply short for both rather than neither. There is an ‘s’ in both Miss and Mistress.
The thing about Ms. is, it’s not all about you. It’s about a larger social issue, parity with men in the workplace and society in general. Ask yourself why it is that women have titles indicating their marital status in the first place, while men do not and never have done.
It is my understanding that M. may apply to both men and women. I used to use it, but in the US, too often I found myself wondering if the recipient would think I had their name wrong and it was an incorrect initial, so I now use first and last name.