Thursday, January 05, 2006

Important Stuff: Disregard at Your Peril

For Newbies:

As a teacher, I see a lot of newbie writing. I also sometimes make myself available to new authors and critique their work (for free.) And I edited a book coming out this year called THESE GUNS FOR HIRE.

My point--I consider myself a pretty good editor.

But I never really understood what it is like to be an acquisitions editor, or an agent, until recently.

I'm a paid judge for a short story contest a magazine is holding, and I've had to read 2600 short stories.

I've learned a lot, much of it scary and bad. Namely: I can tell within ten seconds of looking at a story whether it will go on to the finals or not.

Ten freaking seconds.

This is not because I'm blessed with the ability to sniff out talent. It is not because I'm a pompous know-it-all who refuses to give anyone a chance. And it is not because I'm lazy and want to get this all over with quickly.

The writer tells me, subconsciously, whether or not their story is worth reading.

Did I say "worth reading?" Does that mean that as a PAID JUDGE I don't read every story cover to cover?

Shocking denouement: Yes. I don't read every story cover to cover. Sometimes I don't read past the first sentence.

And I know that if I'm doing this, so are professional agents and editors.

Have you ever thought that maybe the agent you submitted to didn't read your whole submission? You're probably correct.

And it is your fault why.

Here are some of the main reasons I disregard a manuscript. I'd bet good money that industry pros have the same criteria.

  1. Font. Sound silly? It's not. Read for ten hours straight, then try to squint at some joker who crammed 1000 words on a page using 8pt Helvecta. You wanted to save paper and postage. I want to save my eyes. This gets the round file. Use 12pt Times New Roman or Courier. ALWAYS!!!!!

  2. Paper. Cheap paper, thin paper, colored paper, multiple folds, stains of dubious origin, rips and tears, too many staples---999 times out of 1000, if the paper is crummy, the story is crummy. But whenever I see 24# ultra white paper (go for 104 bright) I perk right up. Sound silly? It's not. Use good paper, no folds, one paperclip. Show me the work is important.

  3. Ink. If it is dot matrix, or typewriter, or colored ink, or smeared ink, or ink that's running low, or has ballpoint pen or White Out ANYWHERE on it to make corrections, I can safely assume the story is bad. If you want to impress a date, wear expensive clothes. If you want to impress an editor, buy a decent printer.

  4. Spacing. If I see big blocky paragraphs, more than 25 lines per page, no indenting, indenting 3 spaces or less (rather than 5), line spacing between paragraphs, or a story that begins on the first line of the first page rather than halfway down the first page, my subconscious says, "I don't want to read this" and my subconscious is usually right.

    These first four criteria should tell you that the way the story looks on a page is incredibly important. Did you ever go to a website that was so hard to read you didn't bother? It's the same thing with submissions. Make it look professional, or it won't even get read.

  5. Typos. If I see a typo, grammar error, spelling mistake, or anything that says to me "The writer didn't proof read" it's in the round file. Sorry, but I have to read thousands more, and I can't waste my time. You obviously don't take this seriously, so why should I?

  6. First Sentence. If you don't draw me in at the first sentence, and you made any of the above mistakes, you're rejected. If you have a lousy first sentence (usually describing the weather, or telling instead of showing, or something awkward and confusing) I may read on if you didn't make any other mistakes, but I'm always proven correct. I haven't picked ANY finalists that didn't grab me with the first sentence.

  7. Dialog. So many submissions don't have any dialog. If there's no dialog, that's a good indicator the story is all telling, all exposition. Round file.

  8. Ending. Shocking as these stats are, I completely read only 1 out of every 40 or 50 stories. Nothing irks me more than reading an entire story, only to find a weak ending. Why did you waste my time? Don't you know I have thousands to read?

  9. Conflict. If I manage to get a page into the story, and nothing has happened yet, I don't get any further.

  10. Memoir. Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical. Sorry, but you just ain't interesting to anyone other than yourself.

  11. Adjectives and Adverbs, Exclamation Points, Repeating the same words, using the passive 'was' a lot, onomatopoeia, dialects, a first paragraph of nothing but setting, explanations, preaching, and anecdotes. Attempt at your own risk.

Now I want to defend myself a little. I started off reading every story, begining to end. I really wanted to find a diamond in the coal mine.

But I soon learned that if it looks like a lemon, it's sour.

Did I perhaps judge unfairly? Did I maybe pass up something brilliant because it didn't meet one of my criteria? I doubt it. But if I did, too bad. Out of 2600 stories, 50 were decent. And of those, only 15 were real contenders.

I have a newfound respect for those on the other side of the submissions desk who wade through the slush pile. I understand why they are looking to reject---there's so much to read, and so much of it is bad. And these were 1500 word stories, not 100k word novels.

I wouldn't want to do this for a living, that's for damn sure. And you know what the irony is? I made many of these same mistakes when I was starting out.

Learn from my pain.


Anonymous said...

#4, starting halfway down the page.

I did not know that. Seriously. I've sold three books and always start bright and cheery right on top.


Otherwise, yes on all counts. And it's not that hard. Why do so many aspiring authors think it's hard to use the right font on good paper double spaced?

Thanks for the tips!

=^..^= said...

This is more of a reminder because which serious writer wouldn't know these rules by now? But a useful reminder it is! :)

~5-Cat Style

Adam Hurtubise said...

I didn't know about rule #4 until another writer friend told me to start my first page halfway down the page.

On the very next submission, I had 3 agents request the entire MS, and I signed with my dream agents as a result. Joe has the same agents.

Joe speaks the truth. It matters.


mapletree7 said...

What contest is it?

Anonymous said...

A story that begins on the first line of the first page rather than halfway down the first page, my subconscious says, "I don't want to read this" and my subconscious is usually right. -- What do you mean? Do we leave the first half of the page blank?

JA Konrath said...

"What contest is it?"

A magazine short story contest.

"What do you mean? Do we leave the first half of the page blank?"

Yes. Except for your name, address, phone, email, and title.

Google "manuscript format."

Mindy Tarquini said...

Joe has good format tips on his site, also. Have to admit, it took me a while to learn these basics. Now, the first thing I do is format my manuscripts properly. Makes me believe my story is real and worthy of writing.

Anonymous said...

this goes for any cover letters for any job. i once had to read 5000 letters for a computer job. in addition to rejecting badly written letters and resumes right away, i also rejected those with scary email addresses, ie. or

Anonymous said...

"Cheap paper, thin paper, colored paper, multiple folds, stains of dubious origin, rips and tears, too many staples---999 times out of 1000, if the paper is crummy, the story is crummy. But whenever I see 24# ultra white paper (go for 104 bright) I perk right up."

So 20# paper with a brightness of 92 isn't good enough? I guess I'll be heading out to the office supply store ASAP. (I'm not under the delusion that it will make my writing any better--my stories were rightly rejected by various markets for other reasons--but I'll do almost anything to make an editor or judge's job a little easier. I’m the one imposing on them by adding to their slush pile.)

Thanks for all the great information you provide, Mr. Konrath. Blogs and websites such as yours should be required reading.

JA Konrath said...

"So 20# paper with a brightness of 92 isn't good enough?"

That's fine. But do a test.

Print a letter using 20# with 92 brightness, and print the same letter usinf 24# and 104 brightness.

Which looks better? Which feels better? Which does your writing deserve?

Anonymous said...

All good, Joe, and I'm happy to say I do all of them, except maybe the really expensive paper, though I use good paper and I've been using a laser printer for quite a few years. (They're worth the expense, folks. I bought an HP this summer to replace my old one, it was less than $400 and the toner cartridge, which costs about $60 can print out about 4000 pages. My wife has a dot matrix and the cartridge costs $30 and seems to print out about 100 pages).

Joe, your story reminds me of David Morrell's in his book on writing. He was a judge for the Edgars and he started out planning to read every book, and he shortly afterward bought three laundry baskets, labeled them junk, maybe junk and check it out, and noted that he could toss most of them--and these were PUBLISHED novels--in the junk basket without reading them, sometimes as early as one sentence. And, of course, he was talking hundreds of books.

2000+ short stories? I can't imagine plowing through that.

Stacey Cochran said...

I've said it before elsewhere. Being a writer and being a singer are very similar in many, many ways.

You can tell whether someone is going to stink as a singer within a few notes, usually within seconds. Sometimes you can tell before they even open their mouths.

Writing is no different.

Good writers earn it from the start because they've learned through years of rejection how to earn it from the start.

All of this is golden. Good stuff, Joe.

I wonder if you've found that good marketing, too, can be detected in a matter of seconds. You can tell the pros withing seconds on the phone, just as you can tell who is going to be whiny and difficult.


Unknown said...

I agree with anonymous... I had to climb my way out of 300 resumes (versus 2k+ stories YAK) and cover letters. Nothing sucks more than a lot of big paragraphs... it was for a copyediting position though, so I felt no guilt trashing the letters with grammar and spelling errors... for god sakes, do your job and give a shit about what you do!

PS: Can you link to me? I'll mos def link to you!

JA Konrath said...

Mark is right. Get a lazer printer.

I've got a Brother hl-5140. Cost me $17, and so far it's printed over 30,000 pages, all perfect.

I refil the toner myself, and replace my own drum, so it works out to about 2 cents a page.

Confessions of a Starving Mystery Writer said...

When you look at the massive quantity of work agents and editors must review - why give them a reason to dislike your work right out of the envelope?

Great tips, as always. It's a business. Presentation is marketing. Perception seems to be reality in the publishing world...

Steven said...

Just out of curiosity, was there a word limit to the stories? And would that have made a difference to your approach to the first sentence/paragraph/page?

Sherrill Quinn said...

Joe, I've been a lurker most of the time, but you've consistently shared such great information that I linked my site to yours awhile ago. That said, I spent the last 20 years in Human Resources, and pretty much can say that if I got a letter/resume with typos, misspellings, and if the cover letter misspelled my name (or used my predecessor's name who'd been gone from the company for five years)... well, it shows a complete lack of effort, in my opinion, on the part of the applicant.

The same thing applies to writers. Understand that editors are seeing hundreds of queries and partials every week. They can't take the time to read every word. If you haven't hooked them in, what, the first one or two pages? Forget it.

Thanks so much for sharing.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Tambo. I've never heard about starting halfway down the damn page.

And if you rejected me for that, yeah, I'd be pissed. Unless it SPECIFICALLY says in the guidelines that it MUST start halfway down the page...then I'm sorry, you really ARE being an arrogant jerk to reject it.

As for the rest, well, totally with you there :)

Anonymous said...

"Mark is right. Get a lazer printer."

I'm sorry JA, I will have to reject your comment on the basis of a spelling mistake.

So sorry!

Anonymous said...

JAK: If I see a typo, grammar error, spelling mistake, or anything that says to me "The writer didn't proof read" it's in the round file.

FYI: "Proof read" should be one word. ;-)

Peter L. Winkler said...

" Why did you waste my time? Don't you know I have thousands to read?"

You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, so quit complaining about your time being wasted. Nobody coerced you to do the job.

These writers may be incompetent, and certainly the formatting errors are something they should know enough to avoid, but when it comes to the quality of their writing, they're probably doing the best they can. They shouldn't be excoriated because they don't write as well as you do, dear Joe.

Jude Hardin said...


Starting halfway down the damn page has been standard format for short stories since I started paying attention to such things (about 25 years ago). Also, blog posts and comments are allowed to be a little sloppy; submissions are NOT. Listen to Joe. And whatever you do, don't let your bad attitude show in your query letters.


The writers who submit poorly formatted or incompetent work should learn the craft before ever submitting. Contest judges, editors and agents get more first-rate work than they can take on, so it's understandable that they toss aside manuscripts that prejudice them right off the bat. Joe's right: Professionalism shows; sloppiness goes. You only get one chance at a first impression. Make the best of it.


Regarding a certain title starting with "O": I'm sure you took care of all that before submitting. Right?

Jean said...

I believe you.

We have two international students per seminar in our school, but we always seem to have more non-native English speakers than that when we're grading their written essay exams (and these are Masters' students).

JA Konrath said...

Some random thoughts:

My laser printer cost $175, not $17...

I haven't rejected any stores for starting at the top of the page. In fact, I haven't rejected any stories for any single problem I mentioned.

But the funny thing is, if they have one of the problems, they ALWAYS have more than one.

The winners I've picked are decent stories, and coincidentally, NONE of them start their stories att he top of the page.

Is there a connection? I dunno. But I find the observation interesting enough to mention.

Everyone has typos. I'm sure I've had them on stories I've submitted, on my website, on my blog, etc. That's human.

But if you submit a story in single spaced 8pt Eyestrain font, don't have a single paragraph break for the first 45 lines, and then slip in the typo---sorry, you're in the round file.

And here's the thing--sometimes I'll force myself to keep reading anyway, and it NEVER GETS BETTER. I'm ALWAYS right.

I wish there were a way to show you guys what I'm saying. I never would have believed it myself, had I not been a judge. And as I said, I made many of these mistakes myself in the past.

"They shouldn't be excoriated because they don't write as well as you do, dear Joe."

But I'm not criticizing them, Peter. They're not even getting a rejection letter from me. They're simply losing the contest.

I'm mentioning it to show writers here what happens when the submit their stories to publications, agents, editors, or contests.

And as I mentioned in a previous blog: Don't enter paying contests.

Everyone has to start somewhere. And with effort and attention to craft, I'm sure many of these writers can get published someday.

But just because I can microwave a can of soup doesn't mean I'm ready to open a restuarant. And just because a person can write a letter doesn't mean they're able to win a short story contest.

You want to enter contests? Learn some basics first. Proper manuscript formatting. Story structure. Hooks. Conflict. Characterization. Etc.

"Regarding a certain title starting with "O": I'm sure you took care of all that before submitting. Right?"

Yup. ORIGIN went out in practically perfect shape. Still waiting to hear if it sells--there's a good chance. I've gotten several rejections, and in a future blog I'll post them and go through the whole process with you guys.

After all, a guy who professes to understand the book biz should be able to sell one little book, right?


Daniel Hatadi said...

It makes perfect sense to me, Joe.

Anyone that takes the trouble to make sure the paper is clean, well printed and formatted correctly, will probably also make sure the characterisation, plot, and conflict is up there too.

That attention to detail is a HABIT.

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Thanks Joe for the sage advice! I take everything you say to heart....Why?...'cause you're published and I'm not!!

In this day and age where the competition is stiff for the few slots that there are, being above and beyond reproach seems like the smart thing to do if you want to be a contender!

Thanks again Joe. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

The passive voice is horrible. Hearing people say things like "that needs to be done" is irritating to no end.

Alphabeter said...

Confess, you're Miss Snark's client--aren't you?

You two both have such great advice, that it amazes me you give it away for free.

PS I got my prize. It will not end up on eBay. But I can be bribed for the title name. ;)

Author-Gerald said...

I was asked to judge an 'opening chapter' contest once. Only small stuff - around a dozen or a dozen and a hald entrants.

I could not believe the way people submitted to a paying competition like this. Yup, the single spacing, the italic fonts, and even one in a blue font - which changed to black two paragraphs before the end.

Since there were not many entrants, I read them all. And yes, the poorly-presented ones were very, very poor in writing quality.

Great advice, as always, Joe. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Dear God I just became paranoid about submitting again.

(head falls onto desk) Thanks for that.

Brett Battles said...

Thanks for this, Joe. I actually printed it out and shared with my writing group last night.

JA Konrath said...

"Dear God I just became paranoid about submitting again."

We fear what we can't control.

The more you control your environment, the less you need to fear.

Write a good story, research the markets, submit it using proper manuscript format, and there's nothing to fear at all.

Remember---fate is simply a future we didn't try to change.

Lynn Raye Harris said...

*sigh* Been there, done that. The very first contest I submitted to, many moons ago, I committed so many formatting faux pas it's amazing I was not only a finalist, but that I got 2nd place. I started on the top of the page, had line and a half spacing, Courier 11, and a dot matrix printer that was running out of ribbon. The printing was so light, without actually being invisible, that it was ridiculous. This was in the mid-90s, btw, and the contest was judged by John Scognamiglio at Kensington.

I just didn't know better, though I got politely told. I like to think the writing trumped the errors, but probably John didn't read my whole entry. Bet he did the first page or two test on all 5 finalists, and mine wasn't as bad as the 3 below me. It's embarassing now, but that's how we learn. :)

Mindy Tarquini said...

PS I got my prize. It will not end up on eBay. But I can be bribed for the title name. ;)

How much, Alphabeter?

Anonymous said...

Pilots use checklists, and check off each item before they take off. If a writer wants her manuscript to fly, it's good to have a checklist to go through before each submission.

I admire your ability to read that many stories. I used to go through resumes before hiring people, and those would make my eyes glaze over after a reading one tenth the number of entries you read for this contest. Obviously you have to narrow down to a smaller number as quickly as you can, or you'd never get through them.

Anonymous said...

Joe, I used to submit all my stuff on 24# paper. But once Jenny Bent's assistant (at Trident) lost my submission and I had to get another to her fast. I handed it to her, saying something like, sorry, didn't have time to get thicker paper - and she told me, that's OK, this is better anyway. So I've been using 20# ever since - and I've got an ms. all printed and ready to go. Do you really think this issue is important enough to toss the printed ms?

JA Konrath said...

20# paper is see-through--you can read the page beneath it.

Will the paper be the difference between sale or rejection? No.

But I prefer to read things on 24#, so that's what I submit on.

Anonymous said...

Howdy All,

I'm a little perplexed when people get defensive of their improper formatting. Or seem incapable of following it. I just started reading slush at The Town Drunk, and it hasn't ceased to amaze me at how many people get it wrong. Holy crap, we have a LINK to a site that demonstrates proper formatting on our submissions page.

It's a template, nothing more, folks. You don't write right to left, bottom to top, because there is a proper fashion for communicating English.

Manuscripts should be considered a dialect of English (for our purposes) with a strict set of rules governing presentation.

Editors don't make this up to be difficult, but because it is a business, and businesses like standardization When you fill out a job application, do you follow their form and use the boxes provided, or do you flip it over and jam your work history onto the back? How is subbing a story any different? It's a freelance job.

Spend the five minutes to do it right, and you _will_ start off with a friendlier editor.

-David Reagan

PS Don't start your story with an adverb!

JA Konrath said...

"PS Don't start your story with an adverb!"

Admittedly, he's right. :)

More things that have been bugging me as I wade through short story entries:

A 'surprise' ending where the protagonist turns out to be a cat, a murderer, dead, or a vampire.

Semi-autobigraphical accounts of abuse, childhood bullies, a loved one dying, military experiences, or stories that take place in bars. I can't tell you how many of these I've slogged through.

Stories that announce themselves as stories (Once upon a time, You'll never believe what happened, It all started when, In all my years I've never seen, This is a story about, etc)

Stories where absolutely nothing happens.

And I'm not exaggerating when I say I've read over 500 stories that began with "It was 85 degrees" or "The wind was strong that day" or "The sun was shining" or "The crecent moon was so beautiful" or "It's raining."

It's raining, all right. Raining bad stories. Don't start with weather!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

Joe, thanks for all your comments. I sent out a partial today with 24# paper and 97 brightness (the brightest I could find)- and boy, was it gorgeous! The feeling I had about it and the vibe I had delivering it has to account for something. If I get a request for a full, I will definitely NOT send the old ms. That's going to be for friends, I've decided. From now on, it's the best I can give, all the way. Thanks for your inspiration.