Sunday, September 16, 2012

Little Things That Editors Hate

A while back, I talked in this blog about that moment when an editor is sitting there looking at two good poems or stories, but she only has room in the journal or anthology for one. She likes them both, but one of them has to get stuffed into its SASE and sent back to the minors. That’s a time when a few polished touches in your submission, like a straightforward bio and a non-scary cover letter, can tip the scale in your favor.

But there’s a dark side to this, and that’s where we’re going now. In my years as an editor, I’ve seen writers shoot themselves in the foot countless times with a bit of attitude or carelessness that probably seemed harmless when they did it, but turned into a deal-breaker when that submission was pitted against another. So, to give your work its best fighting chance out there in the literary trenches, here are a few little submission boners to avoid.

1. Don’t provide the editor with “helpful hints” on how to deal with your submission.
Cover letters can go so wrong, so fast. Sometimes writers get mixed up about who’s doing the writing and who’s doing the editing, and they feel compelled to tell the editor how to do her job. Even a hint of this sort of attitude can scare off an editor. Here are some examples, paraphrased from actual cover letters I’ve seen over the years.

“I think your readers will enjoy these poems.”
A lot of writers use this seemingly innocent phrase. It’s the equivalent of small talk at a cocktail party—I mean, you’ve got to say something to be polite, right? But this line instantly undermines the author’s credibility because it sounds both insincere and slightly arrogant. And it doesn’t say the writer has read the journal; in fact, it makes me suspect that he hasn’t. This writer is better off saying what he admires about the journal—the overall tone, or a poem he liked in a recent issue—proving he’s done his homework. If he hasn’t seen the journal (I don’t condone that, but I know it happens), he might mention something about its website or blog that he liked (because he probably looked at those when he was getting the guidelines). But if you can’t pull that off with honesty, just go the direct route: Avoid the chitchat, and wow the editor with your excellent poem or story.

“Please consider my story and, if you like it, feel free to edit it.”
This is another phrase that sounds sort of polite. But it implies that the author knows the story isn’t quite there—and also implants that idea in the editor’s head. Even worse: “Feel free to edit it down to your maximum length.” That just makes me scratch my head. I start thinking about those ballpoint pen refills that you can cut with a pair of scissors so they fit all kinds of different pens. Remember those? Messy. Inky. And what am I supposed to cut out of this story? The bad parts?

“I have not included an SASE because most publishers respond via e-mail and you should too.”
This is code for “Publish my piece, you stupid Luddite.”

“I have made my story just long enough to fit on three pages of your publication.”
OK, this one’s pretty rare, but it happens. And it’s sort of endearing. I mean, this author has counted up how many words (or, in my OCD fantasies, characters) fit on a page in my journal. And he’s done me the favor of editing it so I won’t have to touch it—it already fits! This puts me in mind of those “starving artist” sales, where you can buy an oil painting for that weird little phone alcove in your hallway, and another for the spot next to the bathroom sink—all for 50 bucks. Who cares what’s on them? They fit perfectly!

2. Don’t scatter your contact information all over your submission.
This one happens a lot. Keep in mind that, at some literary journals, the person who opens the mail is also the person who reads the submissions, at least in the first round. And while a good story or poem will trump any number of gaffes, it’s wise not to piss off this first reader by putting your name at the top of the cover letter, your phone number in the middle, and your e-mail address at the end. That poor editor is probably logging hundreds of entries into a database, and you’ll gum up the works by not making it easy for him. One time when I was logging in several hundred submissions, I found myself frequently barking the m—f word when people didn’t put their name and contact info in the upper left corner and the genre in the upper right, as they were asked to do in the guidelines. I spent hours logging those things in, and I got tired. Tired and mean. I’m just sayin’.

3. If there’s a postmark deadline, don’t mail your submission by Priority Mail, which costs a couple bucks more than First Class.
This is money down the drain. If it’s a postmark deadline, the journal or contest will build in a few extra days for the stragglers to come in—the envelopes that got wedged in the door of the mail truck or delayed by that storm in the Midwest. As long as your letter is postmarked by their deadline, you’re good. Priority Mail and its overnight kin—Express Mail, FedEx, etc.—all carry a hint of desperation and wastefulness that will make your editor a little uncomfortable right off the bat.

4. Don’t forget to include an SASE, or at least an e-mail address and phone number.
I know—who in the world forgets all of these things? It always surprises me, but it does happen sometimes. I can only assume it’s an accident, and I can’t get on my high horse about how stupid it is, because I’ve done some careless things when I was cranking out submissions in a hurry, like sending out simultaneous submissions when I didn’t mean to, and addressing letters to the wrong editor. But this gaffe is a heartbreaker because even if I love your work, I’ll have a hard time contacting you. And you’ll think I’m the world’s worst editor for not even having the decency to send you a rejection. Unhappy faces all around. When I used to kayak a lot, I kept a bonehead checklist by the door—paddle, life vest, and even boat—to keep me from arriving at the lake without the kayak or drowning myself out there. If you’re as forgetful as I am, a Post-It note next to your computer can save you a disaster or two.

5. Don’t use those big Tyvek, polyester, or spun-bonded envelopes that have to be cut open with a pair of scissors.
This is actually my number-one pet peeve about submissions. I hate, hate, hate those big, rip-resistant envelopes and their lumpy cousins, the yellow bubble envelopes. These inventions from hell make me put down the letter opener and sort through all the junk on my desk to find the scissors—which are always far, far away—just to open that one damned submission. You’d think this would only factor into the early envelope-opening, logging-in part of the process. But oh, no—I will remember that submission.

Honorable mentions:

6. Cigarette smell wafting out of the envelope.

7. Not putting enough postage on your submission so it arrives at the publisher with postage due.

8. “I wasn’t sure how many poems we could submit, so I sent both of mine.”
(I actually sort of love this one.)