How to Impress Editors & Get Published: Part 1

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.”

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ken's war coverIf you were to judge a book by its cover, what do you suppose Ken’s War is about? (I approved the cover art a few days ago. . . pub date getting closer…)

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Punch up your writing

Communications students from Wisconsin experimented with avoiding forms of the verb to be in their essays. The to be forms consist of am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

For instance, one student rewrote the sentence, “‘Independence Day’ is a great movie,” without the word is. She decided to explain what made the movie great, rather than simply stating her opinion. So, she wrote, “‘Independence Day kept my attention so much that I’ve seen the movie three times.”

Look at this example of another student’s revised sentence.

With to be: “I am a student.”

Without to be: “I study six subjects in high school, play on the soccer team and do homework every night.”

Which sentence tells what the person actually does? Which sentence interests you more? Which sentence provides more specific details? Which sentence includes facts rather than a label?

The Wisconsin students had this to say about writing without to be forms:

“It forced me to pay more attention to what I wanted to say. It’s easy to write, ‘I am a student,’ but what does that really mean?”

“I might develop my writing more if I had to fully explain myself. I know I should do this anyway, but if I write without to be, I can’t get around it.”

“After writing my paper, I think of myself as having more confidence and strength.”

“The most difficult part was getting out of the habit of labeling myself as being something. If I can eliminate some labeling, it will be easier for a reader to understand what I mean.”

“I don’t think I would have sounded as creative if I had used to be verbs.”

Writing without to be verbs encourages writers to pay attention to what they really want to say and explain otherwise unsupported labels, judgements and opinions. Using action verbs in favor of to be verbs punches up flat writing. Eliminating to be forms creates more powerful, crisp communications.

How about deciding for yourself if writing without to be verbs improves your normal style of writing.

Write about one of these topics, or one of your own, without using am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been.

• Write from the point of view of your nose.

• Write a letter to your future self.

• Write about the benefits of boredom.

• Write what you did this week to respect the environment.

• Write about what really makes you sad/jealous/angry/embarrassed.

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Ready for a break from stories about vampires, suicide, self-mutilation, and other bleak topics? Teens through adults also want books that entertain while exploring life’s important questions. Ken’s War, slated for publication this May by www.fireandiceya.com, does that.

Ken, the protagonist, takes a train trip in Japan. There’s no turning back from the consequences.

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(Student comments from Andrea Johnson, “Oh to be a Writer,” More E-Prime: To Be or Not To Be, ISGS, Concord, California)