Think Like an Editor: Tips for Getting Your Submission Noticed
When you’re a struggling writer, it’s common to develop almost a mythological view of editors. Because editors are the people who control the fate of your work, they may seem elusive, powerful, and difficult to relate to—almost a whole different species whose daily activities and thought patterns are shrouded in mystery.
In reality, editors are people like you and me (literally me!) and they share the same wants and needs we all have in this fast-paced modern world. Just like you, editors are hardworking, overworked, often underpaid, and gradually losing patience with the little signs of idiocy and incompetence they have to face every day in the grocery store line, at the Department of Motor Vehicles, and—most of all—at work.
To increase the odds that your submission to a publisher will be read and eventually printed, you have to break through the mists of mythology to expose the real person who is “The Editor”—and learn to think like he or she does.
Make sure you’re sending your work to the right place.
If you worked in a bank and a customer came in and tried to get you to sell him a pound of ham, you’d probably think he was crazy. That’s because he’s bringing his request to the wrong place.
It’s the same way in the literary world. Editors want the writers who send in their work to make sure their writing fits into the general category of material that the publishing house puts out.
It’s easy to find detailed information about publishing lists in Writers Market or at the publishers’ individual websites. For example, here at Blydyn Square Books, you can see exactly what kinds of submissions we’re looking for on the Submissions page of this site.
Even with all this information readily available, few writers take the time to do this simple research. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe people can be so stupid or lazy.
In my career, I’ve had a writer send me a rather sexually graphic how-to book on dating through personal ads while I was working at a children’s book publisher. And I’ve had writers send me preschool-level picture books when I was editing college-level science texts.
Needless to say, I didn’t sign up these writers.
So, do your homework. Your editor will appreciate the extra effort it takes you to find just the right place to send your work.
Understand that editors are not all-powerful.
Often, writers think all they need to do to become wildly successful is to get their work into the hands of an editor. Any editor. To many people who aren’t publishing-industry “insiders,” editors represent the last stop on the road to publication. But this is just not true.
Acquisitions editors do have the job of finding new works to publish. However, they don’t just find something they like and ship it off to the printer.
Deciding whether to publish a writer’s work is a long, tedious process in which many people have a hand. And acquisitions editors are frequently low on the literary totem pole.
In fact, many publishing houses hire very inexperienced, low-level assistants to read the piles of submissions writers send in. Although the job of these “readers” is to pick out potentially publishable work from the mountain of submissions, these people have almost no real influence or power.
Even higher-level editors rarely get to make the final decision about what happens to your work. Above the editor are teams of marketing, accounting, and administrative personnel who all get a say in whether you will get a contract.
It’s important to be aware of this, because too many authors hound editors, lobbying on behalf of their work, when in fact the editor is only one small cog in the publishing machine.
The point I’m trying to make is that you should expect delays—even if it’s just to receive a rejection letter—and you should avoid hassling the editor. In all likelihood, even if the editor loves your work, there is little that he or she can do if the other members of the publishing team don’t think your work is marketable.
Realize that editors have other projects.
How do you feel when people keep dumping project after project into your inbox? When your desk is groaning under the weight of a month’s worth of work, how happy are you when your coworkers keep calling or emailing every few hours to check on your progress? You don’t like to be rushed or browbeaten when you’ve got a lot to do, and neither do editors.
It’s fine to be curious about whether your submission has been read, especially if weeks or months have gone by without any word, but before you call to follow up, take a couple of things into consideration.
First, editors are busy people, and they are notorious for being overworked. If your submission was unsolicited, it most likely ended up in a slush pile—that is, a stack of manuscripts that sits around waiting for someone to have time to flip through it. (It’s kind of like girls at a middle school dance waiting for a boy to ask them to dance. And if you attended middle school, you probably know that it almost never happens.)
Editors, who often have to take work home and read manuscripts well into the night, don’t usually have a lot of free time for perusing random submissions. Expect long delays and try to limit your status check to an email or letter after around six months or so.
Yes, I do realize this sounds harsh. After all, you’ve written the Great American Novel. You deserve to have your literary genius acknowledged and sent forth into the market so you can finally receive the accolades you have coming to you. But remember: Patience is a virtue. And so is not irritating an editor.
Second, editors are not only busy; they’re busy reading. This means you should avoid calling editors with follow-up questions. As a general rule, most editors hate—I repeat, HATE—the telephone.
There are many days when I am so caught up in reading manuscripts for ongoing projects that I ignore the phone entirely—even when I know the calls are from important colleagues or authors.
An editor certainly doesn’t want to break his or her momentum to talk to a complete stranger whose submission probably hasn’t even found its way onto the editor’s desk yet.
Remember that editors are trying to read—and the more peace and quiet you give them to finish their current projects, the better the chance you have that they’ll eventually find some time to look at yours.
Don’t lie to impress the editor.
Have you ever had somebody approach you, saying they’re a friend of someone you know and asking for a favor? If the person really is a friend of a friend, you’re more likely to grant the favor or trust the person. But what would you do if it turned out that the person had lied about knowing your friend just to get something from you? You’d be angry—and so would an editor.
Although it can help to be recommended as a good writer by someone the editor knows, too many authors claim to know people they don’t actually know just to impress editors. I’ve had people tell me they knew famous authors when their relationship with the person was actually limited to (at best) hearing the author speak at a bookstore.
Another common lie we editors hear from would-be writers is the claim that they’ve been “published” when, in fact, their work has only appeared in their annual Christmas newsletter or maybe the local church bulletin—or if they’ve self-published.
I know it can be tempting to puff up your resume so you’ll stand out when you approach an editor, but it’s always a bad idea. Believe me—the truth will always come out eventually, and you don’t want to end up with a reputation as a manipulative person. You’re much better off being an unknown writer than one tainted by dishonest dealings.
Let your writing and your talent speak for themselves—if you’re good, you don’t need to pretend to be anything you’re not.
Many publishers have preferences about what kinds of materials they like to receive and from whom. If you check their listings in Writers Market or the submission guidelines on their websites, you’ll be able to see which publishers, for example, accept unsolicited manuscripts and which deal only with agents. You’ll find out which ones want a full manuscript and which will only consider query letters.
As more and more online publications get started every day, submission guidelines are becoming even more specific. Many publishers that accept digital submissions have very strict rules about format and style, from what font they want you to use to how wide the margins should be set.
Don’t think your writing is so unique that you can ignore these guidelines. Not paying attention to submission guidelines will make your piece stand out. The editor will notice it enough to throw it directly into the recycle bin instead of into an inbox.
Editors want to work with authors who are willing to take notes and revise their writing to make it better. If you can’t even follow instructions about what size type to use, how can the editor believe you’ll be able to handle making complex changes regarding plot and character?
Take a tip from your kindergarten teacher: Follow directions.
To get published, you need to get your work read. To get your work read, you need to get it to an editor. To get your work into the right hands, you need to stop thinking like a writer and start thinking like an editor. Following these simple suggestions will help your work get noticed—in a good way!