Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Your Slip Is Showing: Making Your Writing Look Professional


Few freelance writers ever meet the editors who buy what they write. Your query letters or manuscript submissions thus become silent ambassadors that can speak volumes about you as a writer. Many editors scan the piles of incoming unsolicited manuscripts each morning looking for material worth a closer look. They also are looking for obvious errors in grammar, spelling or punctuation that can disqualify a manuscript or a writer. Even a few of these will cause your manuscript to be returned to you with dizzying swiftness, accompanied by an uninformative printed rejection slip.

An arbitrary way of screening submissions? Yes--but today's editorial offices are deluged with eminently publishable manuscripts. Writers who expect editors to clean up their errors never become published writers. Editors are looking for polished writers with professional skills. Other less obvious telltale clues in what you send also can subtly identify you as an inexperienced writer, inviting pitiless summary rejection. Your aim should be to make editors see you as a seasoned professional on the basis of what you submit. Here are some do's and don'ts to make this happen:

Manuscript Preparation
Don't use paper of an odd size or color. Use 8-1\2 by 11-inch white paper. And don't try to attract attention to your manuscript by using an exotic typeface. Editors who must read manuscripts all day don't relish having to decipher unusual fonts.

You can't go wrong if you print your manuscript in Courier, which resembles a typewriter face. A 12- or 10-point size is adequate; these are the approximate equivalents of the former typewriter designations of Pica and Elite type.Times Roman is a popular and easy-to-read newspaper typeface. Sans-serif faces--Helvetica or Arial--may be used for technical or engineering manuscripts. Avoid small-sized type (called by editors "mouse type").

Show paragraph indents. You should type or print your manuscript in flushed-left blocked paragraphs only if the targeted publication uses this style. Similarly, don't insert subheads in your copy unless the publication uses subheads. Use of improper paragraphing or subheads tells an editor that you haven't studied the magazine you're targeting.

Use double-line spacing between lines. Editors need space in which to write changes or corrections. Do not justify the lines in your manuscript on the right. This can introduce disconcerting unequal spaces between words and sentences.

Beware of overlong manuscript paragraphs of 15 or 20 lines. A paragraph that might be appropriate for a book page becomes annoyingly long and unattractive when set in the narrower measure of a magazine or newspaper. To make sure your paragraphs are of proper length, copy a few selected paragraphs from the targeted publication to the same width as your manuscript. The paragraphs in your copy should average the same number of lines as those you copied.

Don't ignore traditional formatting for your manuscript. Every page after the first page should show in an upper corner what editors call a "slug." (The word comes from the piece of lead cast by "hot-metal" typesetting machines.) The slug should include your last name, the title of the work or article, or a shortened tag line to identify it, and the manuscript page number.

Manuscripts are often passed from editor to editor for comment. On a desk crowded with manuscripts, pages from one manuscript can easily get mixed with others. A slug on every page makes it easy to identify the piece and to reassemble the pages in correct order.

Proofread your manuscript carefully--and always in hard copy rather than on a computer screen. The latter practice tends to cause subtle errors to be overlooked. Never submit a manuscript with uncorrected typographical errors. Editors cannot be blamed for thinking that writers who are careless about errors also may be careless with details or facts. Minor corrections in ink on manuscript copy are not only permissible but are desirable--they show that you read the manuscript before mailing it.

As a writer, you may be called upon to make corrections in proofs returned to you for checking--but don't create your own marks. Instead, study standard proofreaders' marks, a logical and easy-to-learn shorthand universally understood by editors and typesetters.

Finally, make sure your manuscript is neat and inviting to read, with adequate margins. An old-time vaudevillian once offered me some theatrical wisdom. "In show business," he said, "performers are often 'at liberty' and looking for a booking. Appearance was important. In fact, we used to say, 'When you're down to your last quarter, don't eat--get a shine.'" Inflation may have played hob with the value of a quarter, but it's still good advice for a writer. Give your manuscripts a shine.

Query Letters and Cover Letters
There's a difference between the two types of letters. The purpose of a query letter is to save writers the labor of writing an article or short story for which there is no market. But never write a query letter unless your research for the piece you are proposing to write is virtually complete. The purpose of a cover letter is merely to accompany a manuscript submitted in response to an editor's request or one submitted "on spec" (on speculation)--in the hope that it will find favor with an editor.

A supply of tastefully printed letterheads and envelopes is a good investment for a writer. But don't describe yourself in your letterhead as a "Writer," "Freelance Writer" or "Author," even if you have already been published. This is the mark of an amateur and elicits smiles in editorial offices. Good writing will earn you recognition as a writer, not a self-applied label.

Don't write a three-page query letter with lengthy synopses of your proposed piece and wordy biographical information. Show your ability to organize and convey information by being concise. A good query letter shouldn't exceed one page. After all, you're only seeking to encourage an answer.

Remember to give the word count of your proposed article in round numbers--but strictly adhere to any word limit an editor may set. No editor can squeeze a 2500-word article into space set aside for a 1200-word piece. Be sure to mention whether photos, illustrations, diagrams, graphs, tables or sidebars will be included.

Add a stamped and self-addressed envelope with every query to encourage response, but don't fold a standard No. 10 envelope for this purpose. An unfolded No. 9 envelope fits neatly inside a No. 10 envelope. A harried editor may scribble the words "Send it" on your query letter and return it in your envelope. With manuscript submissions, it's O.K. to include a self-addressed postcard reading, "Your manuscript submission has been received" and lines for a date and a signature.

Propose seasonal pieces well before pub dates. Suggesting a skiing article in October tells an editor that you are unaware of magazine lead times. Turn the seasons around--an article about swimming pool safety should be proposed with the first frost for use early next summer.

In a cover letter, don't waste an editor's time with long paragraphs extolling the merits of your submission. A publishable manuscript slanted to the targeted publication will sell itself every time. The cover letter's basic purpose is really only to identify and accompany the submitted manuscript.

Above all, don't phone the editor to ask whether your query or submission was received or to chat about it. Most editors work on tight deadlines and don't have time to chat with aspiring writers.

Submission as Hard Copy or E-mail?
The first question a writer must decide is whether to submit manuscripts as hard copy or via e-mail. My vote goes to hard-copy submission.Some publications invite manuscript submissions via e-mail. Submissions via e-mail should only be made to publications that refuse to accept manuscript submissions. Unfortunately, e-mail gives the writer little control of the submission's appearance at the receiving end, and most publications refuse to accept manuscripts sent as attachments. In my experience, hard copy is always more desirable, since it commands more attention, if only by its physical presence. With a manuscript at hand, an editor can only read it, jettison it or return it; e-mail can too easily be overlooked or even accidentally deleted.

Mail manuscripts flat. Don't fold a bulky manuscript and try to cram it in a No. 10 envelope. Send all manuscripts loose, although a paper clip on article manuscript pages is permissible. Never submit a manuscript in a three-ring binder, presentation binder, or with pages stapled together. Send bulky book manuscripts in nesting manuscript boxes. The inner box with your return address and proper postage applied will bring your book manuscript back to you.

It never hurts to make unsolicited submissions appear important by including a postage-paid return envelope. Some writers have the notion that inclusion of a traditional return envelope is tantamount to an invitation for an editor to return the unread manuscript to the writer.

Omission of a return envelope, however, also may say to an editor that you have no desire to see your manuscript again, that it has little value in your eyes. Thus, failure to include a return envelope may invite disposal in the nearest wastebasket, often without a reading. My vote is for a postage-paid return envelope.

A self-inking rubber stamp with your name and address in large capital letters for your return address also will add to the look of professionalism on your return envelopes. Alternatively, you can print return labels on your computer printer. select a readable typeface and follow USPS preferences: Capitalize all words, omit periods and commas, and use your two-letter state abbreviation. Add your 9-digit Zip Code.

On large return envelopes, avoid using those tiny gummed return-address labels distributed by charitable organizations; postal workers dislike them. Such labels are not intended for primary addresses--only for the return of undeliverable letters. Large-size envelopes, called "flats" by the USPS, are not machine-read but are hand-sorted.

Whether you are sending a query letter, a cover letter or a manuscript, always remember that you'll never get a second chance to make a first impression with an editor.

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