Saturday, October 6, 2007

Minding Your P's and Q's

When I was a kid, struggling to break into the "bigs" (which meant getting a by-line anywhere for anything), I regularly abused the time-honored etiquette of author-editor relations. Oh, sure, I knew from reading Writer's Digest that I was supposed to enclose an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope) with all of my submissions. But when you're fourteen and cranking out a short story and a few dozen poems a week, that return postage mounts up! While other kids raided their mothers' purses for cigarette money, I launched periodic assaults on the family desk for postage stamps. (It's hell to be poor.) And when that avenue dried up, I began "forgetting" to enclose an SASE, knowing that, once an editor got a look at my work, no return postage would be necessary, anyway.

Sometimes, I would include the SA and leave out the SE, making it look as though I were merely absent-minded, instead of outright larcenous. Or (and this is the one I thought to be the slickest of all), I would enclose an SASE but would fail to place enough postage on the package for its guaranteed return. I assumed, of course, that the publisher, if dumb enough not to know great literature when he saw it, would at least be smart enough to know how much additional postage the package required for its return.

I did all these things, as I say, out of necessity. By the time I was all grown up and working as an assistant editor for a national magazine, I had enough money of my own to insure a continuing supply of postage for those SASE's.

Imagine my surprise when an editor returned my submission one day as not being right for him, then actually suggested that I submit something else without bothering to enclose an SASE!

That, I soon enough came to understand, is an editor's prerogative--bending the rules--not a writer's. Before long, I instituted the same policy with writers submitting their work to me. It's a small touch, but one that says, "Hey, even though I may not use everything you submit, I like your style, want to give you a break, and encourage you to submit more."

There are other writer-editor rules I learned about from that first editorial job. Most are common sense, written on an understanding instead of carved in stone. Still, they are as important for a writer to know and follow as is the SASE rule.

Submitting to the wrong market

As an editor, I was responsible for creating all those writer's market listings you see popping up everywhere (you didn't really think they wrote themselves, did you?). I would specify in them that I wanted to see a short, succinct query letter (enclose SASE) and that we weren't interested in poetry, fiction, travel, humor, controversial material, or off-color stuff. I expected, after going through all the trouble of updating those listings several times a year, that a writer would check them out before submitting.

It took me just three seconds to eliminate those who didn't (and to label them mentally as rank amateurs). "I read your magazine all the time and have a great fiction piece about a woman torturing a man until he falls in love with her" rated an immediate trip to the out basket. Market listings are there for a reason. Usually, they relate strongly to a publisher's time-tested editorial policy. Don't think you're going to change that policy by offering something the publisher doesn't want, no matter how good it is.

Revising a turned-down piece

One editor I know used to complain constantly about authors whose work he rejected revising and resubmitting the work. "If I wanted a revision, I would have asked for it," he told me.

By voluntarily reading between the editor's lines and resubmitting a piece without being asked to do so, you're essentially telling the editor that you're desperate for a sale and you don't believe there's anything else of value within you, waiting to come out. Few editors are interested in developing a working relationship with a one-shot author. They're looking for writers they can depend upon, who come through for them on time, and upon whom they can call for future work.


It may seem hard to believe, but I occasionally came across writers who would outright lie in an attempt to get their material read. "Here's that piece you asked to see on stock-car racing." That might work with a few absent-minded editors, but most know what they've asked to see and what they haven't. Even if I were looking for a piece on stock-car racing, I wouldn't buy from a writer who was trying to con his way in through the back door. If a writer is that lacking in moral integrity, how can I possibly assume the "facts" in his article are legitimate or that the piece is even his?

The "buddy" system

As an articles editor, I had a job to do. It consisted of developing ideas and procuring editorial content, editing raw manuscripts to fit the magazine's editorial style, reviewing and returning unsolicited manuscripts not right for our pages, sending manuscripts out for typesetting, proofing the galleys returned from the typesetter, sending those galleys back to typesetting for corrections, proofing the corrected galleys returned from typesetting, laying out each magazine issue, developing a stable of reliable and professional freelance writers, coordinating editorial copy with our art director, and justifying everything I did to our magazine's publisher. And that's only the stuff I remember off the top of my head!

The last thing in the world I needed or could afford was a freelancer into long, chatty relationships in an effort to buddy-up to me so that I'd be more receptive to his material. Telephone calls, chatty letters, unannounced visits ("I was just in the neighborhood and thought I'd drop by"), and invitations to his baby's barmitzvah were not high on my list of things I wanted to experience on any given day. Whenever I came across a writer who insisted on doing business the "buddy-system" way, I made it clear that the deal was off.


I'm something of a perfectionist. I believe most editors are ... at least, they are if their pages are any good. Whenever I came across a writer who forgot to enclosed page three or who didn't proofread his material for proper spelling or who switched verb tenses mid-stream, I bailed out on the work. My rationale? If the writer didn't think his own work was good enough to merit the extra effort to make it "perfect," why should I?

That's not to say that an occasional slip-up can't happen. I'm sometimes amazed that, even in this era of spell-checking word processing programs, a typo will get by me and make it all the way to an editor's desk before I find out about it. But when a writer submits a 10-page article complete with 47 typos, 17 errors in syntax, half a dozen erasures, and marinara-sauce stains on the accompanying cover letter (as actually happened once), it's a sure bet I'm not going to work at developing a continuing relationship with him!

So get smart. Learn the rules of writer-editor etiquette and follow them. You'll be better off for it, and your work will get more (and more serious) attention on account of it.

On second thought, maybe the stain was grape jelly ...

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