Monday, September 5, 2016

Nix the Rhetorical Questions

Does anyone really like rhetorical questions? There's plenty of evidence that agents don't. I've seen them mentioned in rants on twitter, in blog posts, and on their submission pages where they list things to avoid in query letters. I think the rhetorical question ranks right up there with greeting lovely agents with "Dear Agent" instead of their name or sending to multiply agents with one query letter. It may not be as bad as failing to follow their submission instructions, but it won't win you any favors either.

I always thought this was very well-known knowledge in the writing community: Avoid a rhetorical question in a query letter. In fact, avoiding any sort of question at all is the safest way to go.

One agent explained it this way--you really don't want agents filling in their own answers to such questions in your query. If you end your query letter with Can Suzy-Q save the world from a deadly rain of lemon Popsicles? A tired or rushed agent is likely to say "no" and click delete. Don't give agents any reason to say no. 

I was super surprised then to find questions of a rhetorical nature in a large percentage of my Pitchwars query slush. Probably more than 10%. And it wasn't just me. Other mentors commented on the sudden reemergence of  question marks in their query slush also. 

I'm not here to say that ruined anyone's chances for becoming my mentee. Rhetorical questions in a query letter are easy enough to fix. Simply rephrase into a statement or drop them altogether. No big deal, right?


Um. Maybe.

Here's the problem: Besides annoying agents, they send a message. A message you don't really want sent. If it is general knowledge to avoid rhetorical questions and you have them, it suggests you make other newbie mistakes in your manuscript that might not be so easy to fix. It suggests you might not have done research on your craft. Think about that.

This may be your first manuscript, but that doesn't have to show. 

So it's one thing to use rhetorical questions in a letter sent to mentors who plan to help you improve your work, but it's another thing to hit send on them to agents. My friendly advice is to hold a seance and exorcism on those questions right now. Your query letter will thank you for it! 

1 comment:

  1. I wonder if so many new writers use rhetorical questions because there is actually a blog post online that offers advice and a "formula" for writing a great query . . . and the sample queries all end with a rhetorical question. I almost sent out a query or two I wrote based on the advice in that blog post but then I remembered how agents always say, We WANT to know what happens in your story." A rhetorical question wouldn't give them the info they are asking for so I changed it, thank goodness.