By Beth Fowler
Editors acquire, improve and publish manuscripts. Although I had only 50 manuscripts to work on during my two-week stint as an editor, I developed sympathy for editors who’d rejected my work in the past. (Contact me for your free copy of Travelers’ Tales, the anthology I edited.)
While wielding the red pen, I learned how to make the best impression on editors. Here’s the scoop.
FOLLOW GUIDELINES (Yes, that again!)
When H.L. Mencken received a batch of Thomas Wolfe’s short stories, the critic yelled, “Take them out! They’re not even sanitary.” The future novelist had submitted dog-eared, greasy manuscripts.
That anecdote reminds us that good writing alone didn’t guarantee publication in the past, and it doesn’t now. During my stretch in the editor’s chair, otherwise talented authors submitted handwritten manuscripts without contact information, without margins, with pages secured by pins and with word counts too high by half. Standards for capitalization, spacing and punctuation fell by the wayside.
In addition to word count and format, guidelines provide other information if read closely. A magazine’s articles that are “highly referenced” means writers better quote big cheeses, if they want to see their bylines in this mag.
Deviations from guidelines sabotage or even kill your chance for publication and leave a sour taste in editors’ mouths. The editors at one large publishing house say, “We’re linear. Very linear.” Translation: If your submission doesn’t follow their guidelines, they’ll reject it.
Guidelines are provided so incoming manuscript formats and conventions are standardized, allowing editors to do their real job, discover and publish writers’ work.
CRAWL INTO THEIR HEADS
Paul McCarthy, author of Editing and the Ideal Editor, believes “It’s only by understanding totally your editor’s thinking that you make the best creative decisions about your manuscript.”
Understanding an editor’s thinking isn’t difficult if writers remember that an editor’s greatest dream is to publish crucial information and riveting entertainment that readers need and want. And then readers crave more! Editors need writers to turn the dream into reality.
Crawl into editorial heads by “reading the writer’s guidelines and back issues of the publication,” longtime e-zine editor Dan Case said. Scrutinize letters from the editor in magazines and newspapers, and dig into books the editor wrote or had a hand in. Study written communications (acceptance letters, contracts, suggestions, short e-mails and the like) from the editor.
In the early stages of works-in-progress, make sure you understand the editor’s ultimate vision for the piece. For example, does she envision the book splayed on coffee tables or shelved in university libraries? Does he envision illustrations, lists and sidebars or a dense article? The Better Homes & Gardens editorial team says that most of their articles undergo a lengthy development process involving both editor and writer. This “lengthy development process” gives authors opportunities to see the world through the editors’ eyes and revise along the way.
QUERY WITH STYLE
Let’s say you’ve studied Gentleman’s Quarterly guidelines and editorial vision. You have an idea for an article about custom-made shoes. A query to “Dear Editor” screams “Amateur!” So you flip GQ open and see 28 editors listed. Six handle fashion. To which editor should you pitch your bespoke shoes idea? Aim for the editor-in-chief, and you risk annoying this VIP who’d delegated portions of his editorial tasks to lighten his load, and you risk snubbing a fashion editor. Call, write or e-mail and ask who gets a shoe query. Staff might’ve departed since the magazine was last published, so verifying the recipient is a good idea in any case.
Submitting queries “on topics that are over-discussed, entirely general in nature or don’t apply to our targeted readership” is one of the most irritating thing writers do, according to Francesca Kelly, who edited Tales from a Small Planet.
Francesca’s colleague added, “Don’t think that because you’re submitting or querying by e-mail, you don’t have to be polite. ‘Hi! Thought you might like to read this!’ with a link to an essay on the writer’s website doesn’t inspire me to use my limited time to follow up. Even though I correspond with people by e-mail, I expect writers to present the same information they would in a written query letter: who they are, what they’ve written and why they think their work fits our publication.”
In her book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner wrote, “Nothing is more refreshing for an editor than to…read a query letter that takes him completely by surprise.”