You’ve finished your story, edited it until your eyes almost bleed, put it through a couple rounds of beta readers, and then edited it again while blinking away the blood. It’s time to submit it. And whether you’ve got a novel or a short story, it’s pretty common to be terrified of the menacing, blood-thirsty, vindictive editors. Those evil gatekeepers whose sabre-teeth drip with red ink and whose eyes burn with the fire of a thousand grammar nazis.
Except that’s not what editors are like at all.
The submission process is scary because you’re vulnerable, and you’re afraid of someone stomping on a thing you made. It’s understandable. Over the years, editors have become the face of rejection and the symbol of your doom. In reality, we’re humans who love stories, just like you. We just have the responsibility to sift the best stuff from a vast pool of stories. We want you to write great stuff just as much as you do.
To help you get over your fear of editors, and to increase the chances that they’ll take your submission seriously, here are a few tips for interacting with us without fear.
No editor likes to see a query or cover letter where someone apologizes profusely for their writing. If you don’t even like your own story, it’s a huge red flag.
On the other end of the spectrum is the author who completed an MFA, attended three prestigious workshops, and once shook hands with J.D. Salinger. Cue eye-roll. We know you’ve worked hard, but you also have to understand that even the best stories won’t appeal to every editor, and they aren’t right for every publication.
Get in and get out. This goes for cover letters, queries, and every other communication with an editor. It’s not about being blunt; it’s about efficiency. Editors are already out of time to read your story, let alone long explanations about your process and your background. We’re not humorless, anti-social robots that detest human interaction (well, most of us aren’t, anyway), but we have a billion things to read, and we need to get through them all by Monday. So spending too much time cajoling or attempting to be funny will often come off as annoying. If you work with an editor for a little while, and you gain their trust, then you can start to open up.
Use Standard Manuscript Format
Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this: Standard Manuscript Format. It’s a little antiquated, and some of it obviously doesn’t apply to electronic submissions, but most editors appreciate when you use it.
Follow the [Bleeping] Guidelines
I cannot stress this enough. In fact, let me say it again: Follow the guidelines. Wait, not memorable enough? Let me scream it into a bullhorn, then. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES!!!
Every publication has guidelines. Find them, and read them. Then read them again. Doesn’t matter how similar they are to another publication’s; read each one. There’s a reason publications have them: to give editors and slush readers the information they need to streamline the editorial process. If you don’t do it, we automatically assume you don’t take us or the publication seriously. And we get annoyed. Then we get angry. Then we punch walls. And if our hands are bandaged, we have a hard time spelling things correctly in the rejection letter. Which in turn makes us angry again. You see where this is going.
Fortunately, you have the power to stop this vicious cycle.
Some authors think the guidelines are negotiable, or that they’re more like suggestions, or that good stories don’t need to bother with them. False. False. False. You’re not an exception, and ignoring the guidelines only makes you look unprofessional, unprepared, or both.
Furthermore, following the guidelines is an indication of how you work. If we’re going to publish your story, we’ll be entering into a professional relationship with you, one where we need you to follow careful instructions and work with us, not against us. If you don’t follow the guidelines, we wonder if you’ll be equally unhelpful if we decide to publish your story. Don’t give us that impression.
Don’t Respond to Rejections
Some people respond to rejection letters because they’re completely offended that we couldn’t see the genius in their 50 Shades of Grey fanfic (complete with sparkle vampires, a wooly mammoth, and a visit from Zombie Einstein). Others respond because they want to show how unruffled they are by rejection. Still others respond because they are genuinely grateful to be considered for publication. Obviously, some are more valid than others, but all are equally unnecessary.
Don’t get me wrong, we sure like to be thanked, but ultimately it’s just one more email to read and we don’t have time to respond with (respectively) laughter/ambivalence/gratitude.
Obviously, if you get an acceptance letter, you should respond as fast as your carpal-tunneled fingers can fly across that coffee-stained keyboard.
Don’t Think We Hate You
I know when rejections come, it’s impossible not to feel deflated at best and despondent at worst. But you have to believe me when I say, we don’t like sending them out. We’re not here to make you feel bad about your writing. Most of the time, we feel genuinely bad about rejections, but it’s also part of the job. And don’t think that getting a form rejection means we hated your story. It just means that we don’t have time (sensing a pattern here?) to get specific.
Ask any editor you meet and they will tell you they want you to keep at it. Use the rejection as fuel to improve yourself. We want to see more and better from you because better stories make us happy, and everyone loves an author who doesn’t give up.
Save Editors Time
This is the final and most important tip I can give you. You’ll also notice that it seems to be a summary of all the previous points. Do what you can to save an editor time. Everyone loves it when someone makes their life easy. We’re not spiteful literary snobs who want nothing more than to tell you how horrible and untalented you are. We’re just normal people with a mountain of work to do, and a sincere love for the written word. Doesn’t sound that much different than the average author, right?
If you want an editor to like you (not a guarantee they’ll like your work, but it helps), then do everything you can to give them what they ask for quickly, and without fuss. Leave your ego out, keep the anecdotes to a minimum, and follow the guidelines. You’ll find that editors appreciate the help, and it will save you time and frustration in the long run, too.
Oh, did I mention you should follow the guidelines? I did? Okay, well, do it.
Dan Hope co-founded Fiction Vortex, an online magazine dedicated to publishing great science fiction and fantasy short stories, and now serves as Managing Editor. His muted pessimism has been generously characterized as the Voice of Reason by the rest of the Fiction Vortex staff. What it really means is they wish he would stop worrying all the time. He thinks they should stop smiling so much. Dan lives in California with his wife and two kids. He periodically feels pangs of regret that he doesn’t write as fast as he used to, but he consoles himself with beaches and fantastic weather. He recently published a science fiction novel called The Inevitable. You can find more about him on his site: Speculative Intent, or on Twitter: @Endovert.