10 common writing mistakes

What sounds like a good idea can sometimes be a major mistake, and mistakes in submission may be merely embarassing or may be early career-wreckers. Before you make your first submission, study this list. While these may not be the most common errors, they are common enough and can be damaging. Some may waste your time and money, while others can send your submission straight to the “reject” pile, if not the trash bin!

1. Do NOT EVER pay ANYONE to “publish” your work unless you really, really want to get into the self-publishing business. If you do want to self-publish, you must read as much literature as you can on self-publishing, choose a good printer, learn about filing for copyright and getting an ISBN number, and develop a business, marketing, and distribution plan. Otherwise, remember that publishers are supposed to pay YOU for the privilege of making your work public. For more on this topic, see our article, How not to get burned.

2. Do NOT file for copyright on manuscripts that you are submitting to publishers. U.S. copyright laws protect works of U.S. writers the moment they are put into some tangible form. If your work is accepted by a publisher, the publisher will file for official copyright on your behalf. If you file ahead of time, you’re sending a clear message to the editor: “I don’t trust you. I think you might steal my work.” Stealing manuscripts and ideas is so rare it’s not worth worrying about (read The Sobering Saga of Myrtle the Manuscript, by Tappan King to see why editors never have to steal manuscripts). Filing for copyright “just in case” can actually hurt your chances of selling the manuscript because 1) it immediately dates your work and 2) it makes for legal complications if the work is accepted. For a deeper explanation, see “Copyrights and Meteorites” by Chuck Rothman on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America site, as well as our article, “The three questions beginners ask most frequently.” For more on copyrighting, see the U.S. Copyright Office site. (One more point: if you are self-publishing, you can get a copyright directly from the copyright office for a very reasonable price. You don’t need anyone to file on your behalf, as some scammers will tell you.)

3. Do NOT make a mailing list of every publisher in the U.S. and send out enormous blanket submissions. Untargeted submissions are what make the slush piles so huge. You will also doubtless be sending your manuscript to many, many publishers that don’t want it, publishers that don’t publish anything like what you’ve written. Why send a children’s picture book to a house that only publishes literary fiction for adults, or travel books, or hobby and how-to books? It’s a waste of everyone’s time and resources.

4. Do NOT send the same manuscript to multiple publishers at the same time if the publishers specifically state that they do not accept multiple submissions. Some do and some do not, so read their guidelines carefully. You can, however, state in your cover letter that you are giving the publisher an exclusive submission for a reasonable period of time (something close the usual length of their response time), and then you will send the work on to another publisher. You can also send out multiple queries, though it is best to let the publisher know that you are doing so.

5. Do NOT send unsolicited manuscripts to publishers that do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. Send a query if they will accept one. If they only accept agented submissions, honor their wishes. Find an agent, or send your manuscript elsewhere.

6. Do NOT print your manuscript on anything other than standard 8 1/2″ x 11″ plain white paper (in the U.S. — other countries have a slightly different standard size), nor in any fancy font. Times or Courier are fine (some houses, especially science fiction publishers, insist on monospaced fonts such as Courier). Use 1″ margins and double spacing throughout. Colored paper, amusing fonts, single spacing, and narrow margins are all no-no’s, and extremely hard on tired editors’ eyes. Editors are professionals, and they expect writers to be professional as well. Remember, when you send in your manuscript, you are making a business proposition. You wouldn’t expect top middle-level managers in a major corporation to send business propositions typed up on teddy bear stationery, would you?

7. Do NOT send bribes of any sort, especially food. Manuscripts may sit unread for weeks on end, and the state of your edible bribe by the end of that time may be indescribable. Your manuscript will end up in the trash bin, unopened — if its ripening odor doesn’t cause a major evacuation in the meantime. If you’re thinking that cash would be better — don’t. Receipt of a cash bribe can get an editor into serious trouble, and even if the editor returns it, office gossip alone could do the damage. Bribes in general are unprofessional. Don’t give in to the temptation.

8. Do NOT beg, plead, whine, tell your sad life story and why getting published is your last hope, etc. Editors have their own problems, some of which may be greater than yours, yet they still drag themselves to work and sift through slush every day. Your work must stand on its own merits, not on the depth of your needs. Most importantly, do not threaten, or you may end up in serious legal trouble. Likewise, don’t be cute. You may be writing for children, but editors are not children. Do not draw stick figures or cartoons on your letter. Do not write the letter as though your character is writing to the editor, asking to be published. Do not be anything other than utterly professional.

9. Do NOT tell the editor how much your children/ grandchildren/ students/ kids you cornered in the park etc. loved your story. Editors have heard this over and over, and they know very well that the kids you know will naturally love their story, because they like you. Will kids you don’t know and that you’ve never met like your story? Will their parents? Librarians? Bookstore owners? Those are the material questions for the editor. The material question for you is, “Will an editor like this story?”

10. Do NOT send illustrations unless 1) you are already a professional, published illustrator in the field of children’s literature and 2) you know that the publisher accepts story/illustration packages or you’ve already talked the idea over with the editor you’re submitting to. Publishers prefer to choose their own illustrators whose styles fit their publishing program and whose reliability is known. Illustrating children’s books is a respectable art and can take years to learn. You can’t just churn out a few wobbly cartoons and call it good.

Have your say