Thursday, February 9, 2012

The form letter by Terry Burns


"That was a very nice letter you sent, very encouraging, even if it was a form letter."

Well, yeah, but he said it like a form letter was an evil thing that showed how little I cared. Quite the opposite. Instead of ripping off a fast "Sorry, not a fit for me," a form letter is something I have worked on for months if not years. I've taken the time to get words right, to say exactly what I want to say.

I have dozens of them, but that doesn't mean they aren't personal. I select the one that says the closest to what I want to convey, then I make whatever adjustments that I need to make to it to be exactly what I want. You see, the trick is to convey something a writer really needs to hear in order to continue to grow in their craft, or to have a better chance at success, but to do it without being discouraged. I'm not in the business of stepping on people's dreams any more than I have to.

It saves a lot of time, sure, but that isn't really the purpose. Just jotting off some note probably means some things are left unsaid, or maybe something is said that I wouldn't say if I thought on it enough. A really good letter takes time, more time than I have to spend if I am working hundreds of submissions a month.

There's a downside to it. When you take time to try and give someone some input like that a substantial number of them want to argue about it or explain to me the error of my way. Putting aside the fact that arguing with an editor or agent is not exactly the best way to interest them in working with you, if a person thinks I don't know my business and they have to explain it to me, why would they want me for an agent? If you have the answer to that on let me know, because I'm still working on how such arguing is a good strategy.

Taking the time to be helpful practically guarantees further communication. I've accepted that even if it does further fill my inbox. You see, I don't look on this as a job, I do this out of a genuine desire to help Christian writers get their words out there where they will serve the Lord. I gave up most of my own attempts at writing because I thought I could do more good that way.

So don't be insulted if you think some editor or agent sends you something you think is a form letter. Think of all the time and effort they have put into getting that message just exactly right.

7 comments:

Timothy Fish said...

From the standpoint of trying to convey the most and the most accurate information to writers who submit queries, your approach is a good one. But it is still a form letter. Funny, if you condense what I just said, didn’t I just say, “That was a very nice letter you sent, very encouraging, even if it was a form letter”?

Most people realize that form letters are necessary, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t wishing for something more. A few years ago, I sent some money to a college on behalf of an organization I the clerk for. The president of the college happens to be a longtime friend of my parents. I was just glad to have the check sent and one more task checked off my list, but small colleges are very good about sending thank you notes. A few days later, I received a letter on the college stationary. It was clearly a form letter. I assume a secretary had changed the relevant parts and printed off a stack of letters for the president to sign. But at the end of this letter, there was a handwritten note. It was just a short sentence, but it was enough to tell me that he knew who I was.

Of course, you have to actually know someone for something like that to have any meaning, but what people really want is someone to demonstrate that they see them as an individual, not just one of many authors who seeking representation.

Terry Burns said...

Thanks, Tim, I can always count on you to take the other side of an issue. >>>smile<<< I didn't say it was impersonal, I said the body of the letter had been carefully crafted. But I call people by name, specifically refer to their book, even tell them if I know they have contacted me before. A majority of people I respond to do not even think it is a form letter but thank me for taking that amount of time to respond. With the number I have to answer the alternative would be a couple of short sentences that basically said sorry, not a fit for me. But sometimes I do that too if it is somebody I don't want to open a dialogue with.

Jeanette Levellie said...

I think it's wonderful that you are responding to writers, Terry, and custom-making their letters. That is going the second mile. It's the perfect solution to not having to spend 23 hours a day writing individual letters, but still remaining approachable.

If I become an agent--which is one of my seeking God dreams--I will definitely use this method.

Thanks!

Meghan Carver said...

Thank you for sharing your perspective. I have received a couple of rejections which seemed to have some snippet of encouragement in them; I'm hanging onto those like a Titanic survivor hanging onto a lifesaving ring. I hadn't thought of a form letter like that before, and I now appreciate even more the time spent.

Timothy Fish said...

Terry,
As the potential recipient of such a letter, rather than the sender, I'm kind of naturally on "the other side."

Sharon A. Lavy said...

I totally understand the form letter that just needs to be tweaked to make it personal. I learned to do that when I was membership officer of ACFW. If I had not. . . I shudder to think of the mess I would have left for the one who took my place.

Thank you so much that you are willing to send a personalized letter. In this day and age when some get no reply at all.

I have been so blessed with the friendship of many agents, of whom you are one. Guiding me until I found a personal agent.

I hate to miss any of the Hartline posts. you are all very caring people.

Again, I say thank you.

Heather Marsten said...

Thanks for this - hadn't thought there could be targeted form letters - but that makes sense. I am so encouraged by what I'm reading here at Hartline - a group of agents that seem committed to authors and publishing good quality books. Thanks for sharing this.