5 Red Flags in Professional Communications


Vision 68


5 Red Flags in Professional Communications


Jennifer Blackstream



Copyright © 2012, Jennifer Blackstream, All Rights Reserved



The days of an author being a hermit living in isolation and interacting with the world only to mail their beloved manuscript to their editor are over (if indeed, such a time ever existed). Nowadays, authors need to communicate not just with their editors, but with their readers, reviewers, bloggers, and fellow writers. The internet has made this task easier, but it has also made social faux pas much more likely.


This article will discuss five of the most common communication mistakes that writers make and how and why to avoid them.


1. Shot-gunning Information: One Shot, Many Victims


Shot-gunning information is when you formulate a generic package of information and blast it off over the internet to a list of people as long as the Great Wall of China. Examples of shot-gunning information include:

  • A query letter addressed to "Dear Agent," "Dear Editor," or *shudder* "To whom it may concern."
  • A plea for a review sent to "Dear Sir or Madame."
  • An excerpt from your newest release addressed to "Dear Friends."

The type of information doesn't matter; what matters is the fact that the recipient does not feel special, or valued. They feel as if they are just one more name in the "To:" field, no different from any other. The only thing they know for sure right off the bat is that you didn't think enough of them (or their time) to formulate a correspondence just for them.


Now, I know some of you are thinking: "Dagnabit, Jennifer! I don't have TIME to formulate individual e-mails! If someone wants me to give them that much of my time, they have to commit to me first!"


Okay, Ms. Snarkypants, let me ask you this: Why are you shot-gunning this info? You want an agent? An editor? A review? A new fan? Know what all those things have it common? YOU want THEM. You are not special to any of these people just yet, and if you ever want to be special to them, you have to make them feel special first. Why them first and not you? Because they have the power. You have a want. They have a way to fill that want. Simple little equation.


If you want to be professional, and be recognized for it, you need to take the time to court people properly. "Dear Agent" has to become, "Dear Ms. Faust, I have been a huge fan of your blog for years. The fact that you care so much about aspiring writers, enough to share your wealth of experience and time just to help them, really touches me. I've learned so much from your blog. It is due in no small part to your advice that I've gotten far enough in my career to be sending you this query letter for my paranormal erotica, BURNED. Thank you for your consideration." And then of course, you would launch into the actual query letter.


See the difference? Jessica Faust now feels special. You don't just want any agent—you want her. She starts to read your query letter with a warm fuzzy feeling (and we all know how helpful that warm fuzzy feeling can be). Apply that same logic to a request to a reviewer to review your work. Or a sample chapter to someone you want to buy your book. Imagine how far warm fuzzy feelings in these people could get you. You've made very important connections, separated yourself from the pack. Good for you.


2. "Anonymous" a.k.a. "Knee-Jerk Reaction"


We all have them. Those little opinions that scream to be let out, despite the voice in our head that sounds like our mother saying "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all." It is during these times that not signing a correspondence, or using that handy little "Anonymous" feature on blogs, can look so tempting.




Why? Let's think this through. Why don't you want your name attached to what you've just said? After all, we're authors. We want people to recognize our names, that's a big part of being successful in this business. So why not sign everything (and include a link to your website and social media accounts)? Afraid someone might hold it against you? You should be, because they will. Afraid they will argue with you and you may be forced to defend your position? You should be ready to do that anyway.


Forcing yourself to sign your name is a blessing in disguise. Only when you will be held accountable for what you say will you consider these two things:


What purpose does my comment serve?


Are you telling this person that they are coming off as offensive in an effort to help them stop alienating potential readers/editors/agents? Or are you just mad and feel like putting them down? A lot of nasty comments would be left unsaid if we admitted that punching a pillow or ranting to a friend would be just as constructive.


Am I phrasing this in a professional, respectful, and helpful manner?


No matter what you want to say, there's a right way and a wrong way to say it. One way takes two seconds and feels really good. One way takes a few minutes and leaves you feeling . . . constipated. When in doubt, pretend your dream agent/editor is reading over your shoulder as you type.


Note: There are some emotional people out there who have nothing better to do than plague you with nasty e-mails because they feel you insulted them. Your choices: Walk away and don't leave the comment in the first place OR make the comment as pleasant as you can and then respond to their e-mails calmly and with compassion. Remember, you can always block them if they become abusive. Ultimately the bottom line is, if your opinion is that inflammatory maybe it shouldn't be said.


3. To Trim or Not to Trim: Well, it's both, actually . . .


Ah, here's a tricky one. If we are talking about a message board, yes, for the love of God, trim. If we're talking about e-mails to agents/editors, no, leave previous correspondence in.


Anyone who belongs to a message board knows how incredibly annoying it is to be interested in a thread only to have to skim through the same posts over and over and over because every person responding just adds their two cents to the million dollars already there. When I see three giant paragraphs, but the only part of it that's new are the two sentences that come after it, my annoyance has images of sharp hedging spears dancing through my mind. If you are replying to something specific from a previous comment, quote it (SMALL quote) and format it to look different than your comment. Trust me, people will not only appreciate the gesture, they will remember your input more and your name will go on their "warm fuzzy" list.


The reason it is different when corresponding with agents/editors is that these very very busy professionals often need the reminder of who you are and how they know you, especially if you are in the early stages of getting to know one another (follow up for a query, or requested materials). As a matter of fact, many agents specifically request that you include your original query and any other previous communication when you e-mail them. Don't be offended, or use the extraction of previous correspondence to "test" them. No one likes to be put on the spot and that ire will come back to bite you.


4. Respect Other People's Time: Deep Breath, One, Two . . .


Waiting sucks. Really. But here's a little secret: You're not the only one waiting for that agent/editor you're waiting for to get back to you. As a matter of fact, that's why they put their response times on their websites. Want to know how they feel about writers who send them e-mails after two, five, fourteen days? When they have already specified their response time is 6-8 weeks? A lot like I felt while I was watching Sleeping Beauty with my nephew, who continued to ask me:

"Is she going to die now?"




"In a little bit?"



Good Lord, I was praying for that princess to die long before she touched the blasted spindle.


According to Rachel Kent, agent at Books & Such Literary Agency, it's okay to follow up after a week or so to see if your manuscript has been received (Note: In this case materials have already been requested, this isn't a query). It is NOT okay, to follow up after two weeks to see if they've read your materials. Jessica Faust, agent at BookEnds LLC, says she is frustrated by people who "follow up" after only two weeks, when her website clearly says her response time is 6-8 weeks. My advice? Wait until a month (yes, I said a month, MINIMUM) AFTER their response time has passed before you follow up. In other words, if an agent says "We hope to get back to you on requested materials within 6-8 weeks" wait 12 weeks before following up.



5. TMI: Emotional Blackmail


Picture this: Agent Jenny opens a query letter. It reads: "My family is starving. The recession hit us hard and since my husband and I have six children, I have to stay home with them while he works and he just doesn't make enough money to support all of us. Ever since I was five years old, I've been writing stories. Everyone says I'm good and I've decided to use these God-given skills to support my wonderful family. I've attached the full manuscript, please, please, please, take a chance on me. My family is depending on you."


Agent Jenny sits back in her chair. Mouth slightly open, she shakes her head and whispers: TMI (Too Much Information).


Okay, this was an extreme example, but just stay with me a moment. I have taken every line of that query from real anecdotes shared by agents whose blogs I follow (not verbatim, I'm not a plagiarist, but the gist is the same). Now some of you may feel sympathetic for the author. My sympathy is for the agent. This author is using TMI as emotional blackmail. She is not sending a query and asking the agent to judge it on its merits. She's sending a query loaded with very personal information that paints her as the victim, in essence, telling the agent that ignoring her manuscript is sentencing her children to starve. What do we call that? Emotional blackmail. Very unprofessional and a big bright red flag.


TMI exists in all sorts of forms. I'm not saying you can't share personal information; it's human to connect with people you work with. What I am saying, is that before you share any personal information, ask yourself how you want the recipient to feel when she reads it. Are you sharing the fact that your grandma just passed away to explain why you won't make your deadline (perfectly acceptable) or are you sharing the fact that your dear old grandma, whose dream was to see you published, is on her deathbed and you are desperate to be published before she dies (emotional blackmail—unacceptable)? Personal information should be used to make you seem human—not to make you seem like a victim.


As anyone who has run into an old rival from high school in the grocery store while wearing oversized sweatpants and no makeup will tell you, it's a small world. In these days of instant communication and social media overload, every comment you make and every e-mail you send has the potential to boomerang around and come back to make you sorry. You can't avoid annoying/aggravating everyone (trust me, some people go out of their way to be offended). However, you can do your level best to be perceived as professional and personable by avoided the five communication errors I've discussed here.


I'm sure we all have war stories (and also warm fuzzy stories) about communication they've received that has abided by or broken one of these five guidelines. Feel free to share your stories in the comments.


Jennifer Blackstream

Paranormal erotica author with Skeleton Key Publishing