E-mail query hazards (the Invisible Goofies)

I got a rejection back yesterday, the normal polite variety, but the editor added a friendly and cautionary note about the screwed-up formatting of my e-mail.

My original query was copied on the bottom of her reply, and boy, was it ever screwed up. I’ve had issues in the past with e-mail queries, usually involving line spacing problems at the other end. This time not only was the line spacing wrong, but all the apostrophes and quote marks in the query and writing sample had magically transformed into spaces, which was a new one on me. The result was almost indecipherable, especially the dialogue sequences.

I’m aware that most agents and editors don’t have the time to pass friendly corrections back to authors. This one was a welcome exception, thank goodness. I have six queries out now. How many of them ended up at the other end looking like they were typed by archy the cockroach? For all I know, half a dozen agents are out there now looking at gibberish and not telling me!

Well, nothing to be done about that now, but I’ll be more careful in the future. My own fault–I got lazy, and didn’t rigorously follow my own rules.

Formatting E-mails:

Almost all agents want to see e-mail queries now. This is almost a complete reversal of what things were like only a few short years ago when hard copy was the rule, and only a few agents took e-mail. When you write a letter and print it on paper, you can be pretty sure it’s going to show up on the agents desk without all the spacing and fonts mysteriously changed. Not so for e-mail.

Formatting is tricky. If you copy something into an outgoing e-mail from a word processor, almost certainly something invisible and goofy is going to be copied over too. Even if you compose the e-mail directly in your e-mail program, if you get too fancy about formatting the same kind of “Invisible Goofy” errors can sneak in. Sending test mails to yourself is a good idea, but not foolproof. The gibberish e-mail I sent to the editor transmitted just fine to my own address in tests, and still looks perfectly normal sitting in my “Sent” file.

Here’s how you go about making sure you have a “clean” e-mail, or at least as clean as possible (my example uses Microsoft Outlook, but most e-mail programs should have similar functions):

– Compose the e-mail, query, synopsis, writing sample and all into one e-mail. Almost all agents will want to see these things in the body of the e-mail itself, not an attached document. There are very few exceptions, and they’ll mention it on their websites.

– If you must import text from another application, use “import as plain text” when you can. In Outlook, this is done under the “Paste Special” function, which has a line called “unformatted text.” This will take any complex formatting and fancy fonts and paste it in as plain text.

– When you like the look of what you’ve got in the composition window, play it extra safe by converting the entire e-mail to “plain text” format.  This will strip any remaining Invisible Goofies out. Yeah, your nice formatting, including italics and boldface, will disappear with them. In Outlook there are three format options in my New Mail composition window under, well, “Options.” They are “Plain Text,” “HTML,” and “Rich Text.” Picking Plain Text on this menu does the stripping job.

– Now switch the e-mail format to HTML, or whatever the simplest step above Plain Text is in your particular e-mail program that allows access to things like italics and boldface.  I don’t like “Rich Text,” which has the highest level of formatting flexibility, but in my experience also has the highest probability of slipping Invisible Goofies into your e-mail query.

– Edit your e-mail inside the composition window to restore things like italics and boldface that were stripped out. Refer to another copy of your query, synopsis and writing sample to make sure everything you really need gets back in there. If an agent likes the writing sample double-spaced, you can fix that in the composition window too if the format command to do it is available. Be careful restoring your basic formatting, but it’s better to have an italicized word sneak through as plain text than to have all your apostrophes turn into spaces.

The resulting e-mail should be okay to send.

Yeah, it’s a pain to strip a long e-mail down to Plain Text and then go to HTML (or whatever) and rebuild just the few format bits you need. Remember I said I’d gotten lazy–I’ve just been copying old queries from previously-sent e-mails into new ones, and it seemed to work just fine, but that’s just what I did to create the recent Mystery Mess, so there you go.

When in doubt, do it the hard way. Twenty minutes more of your time may save you from looking like a dork at that big agency you’re trying to impress.

Invisible Goofy