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HOW TO LOOK LIKE AN AMATEUR

© Marg Gilks

How can I reject thee? Let me count the ways!

Who reads your manuscript? A "first reader"; an editorial intern; an agent or editor who, having put in a full day at the office, has brought your manuscript home with a stack of others to look through. Most are overworked and underpaid, and, most importantly to you, all are looking at your manuscript with an eye to rejecting it as quickly as possible. That stack of unreviewed manuscripts is huge — and if you've ever worked in a job where you were not paid what you're worth, you'll know just how precious time becomes...and how resentfully you dole it out.

We won't go into the why here; nor will we discuss the fairness of such practices. What we will talk about is how not to be rejected in record time.

To do that, we'll look at the red flags that scream "amateur" and no doubt garner your manuscript a thankful good-bye kiss as it's chucked into the rejection pile. To avoid being rejected, you have to know what those being rejected are doing to bias agents and editors against viewing the manuscript favorably, what the agents and editors have learned to look for right away, because they see the same mistakes time and time again.

Here then, are some first-glance ways to look like an amateur:

DON'T DO ANY MARKET RESEARCH — Send your story, article or book manuscript to a publisher or magazine that does not print the type of material you've submitted.

Let's face it, this isn't just amateur, it's plain dumb. There's no point in sending fiction to a scholastic press, or a romance story to a mystery magazine. You're only wasting postage, money, and everyone's time. It doesn't matter if what you've submitted is the greatest love story ever told; if the publisher or agency doesn't do romance, they just won't do it, no matter how much their representative may enjoy the piece personally. They're thinking of the magazine's or the house's image, its format — the target audience. Agents are thinking of expertise. If they have no experience marketing the type of writing you've sent, they will be ineffective, and they know it, even if you don't.

Likewise, choose the specific recipient of your submission package with care. If a literary agency, magazine, or publisher has a number of agents or editors under its roof and each one specializes in a different type or genre, address your submission directly to the person who is most likely to look at your submission favorably. Its chances are better.

In order to find a suitable market for your piece and the name of the person most likely to consider it, you have to research your market.


MAKE YOUR MANUSCRIPT LOOK PRETTY

Manuscripts aren't supposed to look pretty. They're not supposed to look like the finished product. They're not a school project. Publishers request that manuscripts be formatted according to specific criteria for good reasons, the most important one (for both of you) being ease of reading.

Consider how many hundreds of manuscripts an agent or editor receives in just one week, and how many of those manuscripts must be looked at in a day, to prevent the slush pile from turning into a slush mountain. Consider how distracting colored paper can be to a reader, or how difficult it may make the reading, or how impossible it may be to photocopy an accepted manuscript for the typesetters or copyeditors — or to send to publishers — if the color of the paper is too dark.

Don't care about that? Okay, consider this: in that great, white pile of manuscripts, your colored paper is going to be doing a kaleidoscopic "I'm an amateur!" dance visible from twenty paces. They won't even look. They'll just yank yours out of the pile and do a happy dance straight over to the rejection pile.

Use plain white 20 lb. paper, 8 1/2 inches by 11 inches.


SAVE PAPER BY USING A SMALL FONT, OR EXPERIMENT WITH SOME OF THOSE FANCY FONTS THAT CAME WITH YOUR WORD PROCESSOR

The name of the game is to be read, not rejected. Why would you make your manuscript hard to read? Why would you strain a tired reader's eyes?

There are even more practical reasons for using a standard nonproportional font like Courier, at ten to twelve characters per inch. One is translation across platforms. Sure, your word processor program includes American Uncial as a standard font, but will the publisher be using exactly the same program? Different versions of Word come with different font packages; what makes you think the editor using WordPerfect will have the font you used?

"That's okay," you say, "I'm not submitting electronically, so it doesn't matter what font I use."

Let me give you two examples of what can happen to that hard copy submission in that lovely Chianti font. The first scenario: the manuscript, if accepted, is scanned rather than typeset. As a proofreader, I have worked on material scanned from a nonstandard original, and it is not a pretty sight. If the scanner program doesn't recognize a character, it guesses, until the copy resembles something written in hieroglyphics. I send the copy back so red-marked, it looks like a casualty of war.

Failing success with the scanner and lacking an electronic copy of the manuscript, the typesetter will have to type the manuscript in from scratch. Here we have the potential for a whole new set of typos to be introduced into your manuscript.

Another practical reason for requesting a standard font is space. How much space will be required for your article or story in a magazine? How much paper will it use? Publishers need to know how many pages the book will run — how much paper will be required to print it, and consequently, how much it will cost to produce. They need to know not just the word count, but the character count. It's easy to "castoff" or count characters if a familiar, standard font has been used. It's easy to look at a properly formatted page in Courier and know how many words are on that page, and thus how much space the piece will use.

Make it easy for them.


DON'T PROPERLY FORMAT YOUR MANUSCRIPT

What is proper format? Double-spacing. Margins of at least one inch all around. One side of the page only. The title or a key portion of the title and your last name in the upper left corner on every page, like this:

Look Like an Amateur/Gilks

and the pages numbered consecutively in the opposite upper corner. Drop ten spaces, or about halfway down the page, to start the short piece or each new chapter. And don't bind or staple the pages together.

Why? Double spacing makes for easier reading. That and the one inch margins and generous new chapter pages also provide lots of space for the editor to make notes, or for the copyeditor to properly edit the manuscript. One side of the page because if the ink shows through from the other side in any way, we again have difficult reading, not to mention having to keep track of which way to lay read pages down. And the identification and numbering on each page? Imagine this: your manuscript is dropped. Worse, yours and two others are dropped at the same time.

"If I bound the pages together, or stapled them, then dropping the manuscript wouldn't be a problem," you reply. Screenwriters bind their pages. Authors don't. If you can't resist the urge to attach everything, then use a paper clip or a rubber band, and let the recipients use something more permanent, if they want to.


PUT "COPYRIGHT" OR THE COPYRIGHT SYMBOL ON YOUR MANUSCRIPT

Don't. To agents and editors, this is a sure sign of an amateur. The legitimate ones don't want to steal your piece, and slapping "copyright" on each page won't stop a pirate.

What makes "copyright" unnecessary, however, is the simple fact that the act of writing it automatically makes the work yours. If you think you may have to prove you wrote the piece at some point in time, then put a copy in an envelope and mail it to yourself, then put the unopened envelope in a safe place. The postdate on the envelope will be your proof. Or copy the file to a disc and put the disc in a safe place. Many programs record access and/or creation dates with files.

[Note: some have questioned these techniques for establishing sufficient proof. However, the fact that copyright belongs to the author is not in question, only the means of proving it. Rather than resorting to paranoia, concentrate on documenting your creation of the piece — keep dated research notes, draft copies, lists of those who read and/or critiqued drafts, published clips, and so on.]

(Likewise, don't put your Social Security number on your manuscript. I can think of no reason why any recipient merely considering a manuscript would have need of this personal information.)

You put a lot of time into that manuscript you've sent out. Give it every chance you can. Don't make it easy for an agent or editor to reject your hard work "at a glance."


Marg Gilks is a writer and professional editor specializing in fiction. She's been working one-on-one with authors to help them prepare their work for publication for over ten years. Visit http://www.scripta-word-services.com/ to learn more about her editing services, manuscript evaluations, and FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION, her 8-week e-mail course covering fiction-writing basics including point of view, showing instead of telling...all the way through to putting the final polish on your manuscript.

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This article may be reprinted in its entirety (including bio) if you e-mail me for permission.

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