Everybody knows the best way to get an acceptance letter is to write well (duh!) and target submissions well. But did you ever stop to wonder what red flags professional readers look for when they’re slogging through piles and piles of manuscripts?
Red flags are like shortcuts for exhausted readers. What red flags are you waving?
Think of it this way: When you’re deciding whether or not you want to eat at a particular restaurant, you’re going to glance at the menu quickly before you make the decision about whether or not to read deeper into the individual appetizers, entrees, and desserts.
If you’re a hardcore carnivore, you’re probably going to pick out tofu, tempeh, and seitan as red flags. No need to spend any more time looking at this menu! Now it’s off to the Steak House!
People who are reading submissions (reading them until their eyes cross) also have short cuts. They look for red flags. They use them as signposts that can mean “this might end up being a rejection.”
You know we love writers, and it is our commitment to help not only those writers who become our clients, but ALL writers. Every writer is a new writer at some point: That’s why we offer these kinds of articles. We hope this will help YOU make better submissions and get positive results.
Here are the MOST COMMON red flags we see in the submissions that our Review Board (usually but not necessarily always) ends up rejecting.
1. Did not follow submission guidelines. When a writer’s submission is way outside of our submission guidelines, he or she may be (inadvertently) proclaiming:
- I don’t feel like following guidelines.
- I am not taking this seriously.
- I am not able to follow the directions (this could be for any number of reasons, some of which are legit).
Some red flags are like the ones that kids wave around at parades. But blatantly ignoring submission guidelines is a red flag the size of a parachute. HINT: If you are going to break the “rules” when making a submission, it may help to explain why you’re doing it. Readers are forgiving when they know what to forgive!
2. Formatting. You know, when a font is bold or cartoony, and the margins are set to 2.5. Just submit in a simple, common font with your name and page numbers on each page. The story should stand out; the formatting should not.
3. Typos. Time and time again, we find typos in the first line of submissions. Even if it’s just an out of place comma, those little faux pas are annoying to a reader who still has 90 more submissions to get through. Sure, we’ll forgive typos here and there. Nobody’s prefect (get it?)! But one can only take so many misuses of the word “there” before starting to feel discouraged.
4. Project isn’t suitable for submission. We’ve had people submit 285,000-word doorstops…er…novels, 50,000-word “short stories,” and 150,000-word “novellas.” Inappropriate word counts are easy-to-spot red flags.
5. Lack of supplemental materials. At Writer’s Relief, we like to get a sense of a writer’s personality because we need to work closely with our clients. We like to cultivate good energy here in our office, and we prefer to work with writers who are as enthusiastic about what they do as we are about helping them do it!
BUT some writers will skip the bio section. Or they’ll write “I’m a writer” and leave it at that. Imagine if you were excited to learn about a writer’s goals, interests, and history, but all he or she told you was “I like to write.” Already the reader suffers negative influence even before he/she cracks open the actual writing.
6. Writers who send us long, bitter diatribes. We see a number of writers who complain about how literary agents won’t take them seriously, about how poetry editors hate rhyming poems, about how nobody understands, about how somebody who helped them self-publish a project jerked them around and now are entirely to blame for the failure of said project (never mind the writer’s allergy to doing research before signing a contract).
Said writers wonder why they’re getting rejected at every turn. It breaks our hearts. Seriously. We get it; it’s a tough biz. ALL writers have it tough at some point. It’s the ones who don’t consider themselves victims who persevere and succeed.
The Green Light for Red Flags
Now, we’re not a bunch of negative nellies over here—rubbing our hands together, twisting our waxy handlebar moustaches, and devising new ways to kick writers to the curb.
We LOVE writers and we love our clients. That’s why we regularly offer these kinds of articles—so that writers have a truly good shot at getting a positive, optimistic, open-minded “read” of their work.
Sometimes we come across a really, truly great writer who means well but just makes a few errors when submitting. Or we find a submission that is so compelling, the writer could have submitted in crayon and we wouldn’t care (NOTE: This is an imaginary scenario. We do not accept submissions in crayon—at least not from anyone over the age of three.).
At Writer’s Relief, we help our clients master the etiquette of making strong submissions, and that means we strive to be a little forgiving of occasional blunders and honest mistakes. We love helping writers navigate the ins and outs of publishing, and we understand when a new writer posts a red flag or two when sending work to us. That’s what we’re here for—to help!
But if you want to increase your chances of getting an acceptance letter from us (or anyone else!), consider the way that readers use shortcuts to weed through submissions, and avoid hoisting your own red flags.
If you’re the kind of writer who tackles your craft (and your etiquette) with passion, then our Review Board welcomes your submissions!
Thanks for the reminder that bitterness never plays well!
Thanks for the concise, clear article!
Helpful article. By the way, I think you are prefect!
It always surprises me how often I see editors adjuring writers to follow submission guidelines. It just doesn’t seem like such a hard thing to do (at least, I’ve always been able to do it relatively easily).
One thing I have noticed is that preferences for a writer’s bio vary pretty widely. Of course, no one wants anything longer than a paragraph, but I hear some saying they want a good bio while others say to leave it off completely. When in doubt, I keep it down to a single sentence.
I never thought much about submission guidelines–heck I could probably type them off with my eyes closed and be 98% right for most reviewers, but recently I got into a tangle with them: I was writing a story formatted like a comments/forum. Getting this to read in a .txt document necessitated unorthodox separators and made it EXTREMELY sensitive to spacing. It was rejected, but it was also accompanied by a comment that I hadn’t followed submission guidelines by double-spacing my file. Format-wise, it was closer to poetry, which often allows single-spacing because it can be difficult to spot breaks between verses and other “phrasing” that is often necessary to follow the intent of the poet. Well, if I had double-spaced what I’d single-spaced, then I would have had to quadruple-space what I had double-spaced and sextuple-spaced what I’d triple-spaced (hey, I wouldn’t be able to read it that way, and I wrote the darn thing!), because “standard manuscript format” has not evolved to convey such a writing form, even though it requires no special typesetting to render in the publication.
I have concluded that if it were feasible to go directly to named publishers instead of a middle man (literary agents) more good books would get published. The literary agents cut their own throats (so to speak) by wanting the authors to present the perfect scenario to them so their work will be easier. They forget they are dependent on new authors; not vice versa.
I found this article to be great. Why? Because I am now so relieved to know that I have been moving in the right direction with getting my book published. I will cross the t’s and dot the I’s so that if my story is rejected I’ll know it wasn’t for lack of following directions or any other thing that makes me think “mea culpa.”