Urban Writing Myth Is Real
Many years ago as a young writer, my Indiana journalism professors taught me about manuscript submissions. For example, my magazine writing class professor, Floyd Arpan had a rule with our articles for class. If he found two errors, spelling or grammar, then we received an “F”, on our assignment. Talk about frightening. The redeeming factor was the grace which Mr. Arpan built into his class. If you received an “F”, you got a second chance to revise your work and turn it in a second time then he erased the first grade. He had this type of system in place before computers so we produced our ten-page magazine articles on a typewriter. If you made a mistake or error, you had to retype the entire page. This type of training for a young journalist was invaluable to me.
For about ten years after college, I left my writing and went into linguistics. When I came back to it about twenty years ago, I had to learn the system for manuscript submissions. What does it mean to have your material in manuscript format for a magazine? What in the world is a query letter and how do you write a successful one?
In this electronic age, I’ve learned my interaction with editors even via email is important. As my wife likes to remind me, you only get one chance to make a first impression. With an email message, it’s almost too easy to fire off a missive or an email with typos and spelling errors. It’s important for any writer to think about such issues with their communication—and reminder to myself as well. It makes me work hard at my email query letters or my nonfiction book proposals or any other type of writing. Your craft shows in every bit of communications.
And the urban writing myth I mentioned in the beginning?
Our professors told that some people sent in handwritten manuscripts then they warned us about the folly of such a submission. I learned to type in high school and in college journalism, I was taught to compose my thoughts at the typewriter and pour them on paper. I’ve used this skill every day for over 30 years. It would never cross my mind to submit a handwritten manuscript and appeared like an urban myth.
During the last five years, I’ve reviewed and evaluated hundreds of book manuscripts. Working on the inside of a publishing house, you receive a lot of material and have to learn to deal with it quickly and efficiently—or it will consume you. Decisions are made quickly and first impressions often become important. Yesterday it came—my first handwritten submission. It’s a full-length novel—over 100 handwritten pages in a bound notebook and with return postage. I have to commend this writer—for the courage to submit her manuscript in the first place. I did read a chunk of it—but from my perspective, I see little to publish here. I plan to write a short personal note and return it—today—before I spill any coffee on it or lose it or any number of other possibilities.
For terrific insight into the manuscript evaluation process, I suggest you read Noah Lukeman’s how-to book, First Five Pages: A Writer's Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.
To many people, it sounds cruel that in the first five pages you can determine if you want to read the rest of the manuscript. It’s true. If you stood in my place, you would be able to glean a great deal of information about the author and their manuscript—and be able to determine if it’s right for your publishing situation. I’m returning this submission with the standard rejection note. I have no time to critique manuscripts and it’s not my role. Critique services are available for such matters. The publishing world is subjective.
I love a manuscript and another editor can’t use it. It’s a matter of continuing to search for a connection and someone to champion your manuscript and get it published. They are good lessons about first impressions to consider in a new year or anytime.
On a personal note, I'm almost ready to send the January issue of Right Writing News. If you aren't a subscriber, go to this page and sign up. Subscribers have access to all of the material in the 14 back issues of the publication--and some of those issues are over 20 single-spaced pages of content. This wealth of how-to articles could be a great beginning for your writing life in the year ahead. I've certainly learned a great deal putting it together.