For New Writers, Following Direction May be the Hardest Lesson of All

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If writer/publisher Julie Ann Dawson could teach new writers one lesson, it would be the importance of following writer guidelines. She offers some advice to avoid the most common errors.

When writer Julie Ann Dawson launched her publishing company Bards and Sages (http://www.bardsandsages.com) in 2002, she wanted to make sure she provided opportunities to young talents just starting out. Many of the company’s projects have been geared toward offering young artists and writers the chance to get their work published. But according to Dawson, the one thing that has prevented many new writers from getting into print has nothing to due with talent, style, or creativity.

It’s a simple inability to follow directions.

“The amazing thing you notice when you find yourself on the other side of the process is the amount of writers who don’t see the value in following editor guidelines,” says Dawson. “It’s like going to a corporate job interview in a pair of greasy blue jeans and a tank top. They eliminate themselves before a word of their work is even read.”

Dawson, who serves as a regional representative for the International Women’s Writing Guild (IWWG.com) and is a member of the Small Publishers, Artists, and Writers Network (SPAWN.org), feels this is a part of the writing education that gets lost in most books and classes. She offers some advice to young writers who want to avoid the most common mistakes.

1. Read the guidelines before asking questions. Large publishing houses are inundated with hundreds of queries a day. Small presses tend to run on skeleton crews of less than a dozen employees. In either case, reading countless queries asking questions that are already defined in their writer’s guidelines only seeks to sour their opinion of the writer. When Dawson launched the 2005 Bards and Sages Writing Contest, she received dozens of e-mails a week asking what the prizes were…even though the prizes were listed on the guidelines page of the website.

“One editor told me about a woman who insisted on submitting a 20,000 word story to his magazine that only accepted work up to 5,000 words. When he sent her the rejection because the submission was too long, her reply was ‘Oh, well, you could always divide it in quarters and use it then,’ and RESUBMITTED the same story,” relates Dawson. “And she actually got mad at him for rejecting it. He added her e-mail address to his junk sender’s list.”

2. Make sure your work actually fits the market. Dawson explains how a friend was accepting submissions for a children’s story anthology. She received three erotic submissions and a political mystery. The works were returned unread. “I’ve put out calls for horror submissions and received love poems,” says Dawson. “That’s just laziness, and editors don’t want to work with lazy writers.”

3. Submit the work the way the editor wants it submitted. If the editor wants hard copies, send hard copies. If the editor wants electronic submissions, send electronic submissions. While the way a work is submitted may not seem important to you, it is important to the editor, whose submission guidelines are based on the way they produce their books and magazines. Many small presses prefer to download or cut and paste a submission into their software and edit from there, simply because the amount of time retyping long submissions can double production time. Other editors still prefer to mark their comments directly on the hard copy and hand off to a copywriter to prepare for printing.

“I received a very irate e-mail from one writer who demanded to know why I never responded to his submissions,” says Dawson. “He said he send in three separate submissions and received no answer. Eventually, we figured out why. He was sending the submissions with blank subject lines, when the guidelines explained to type ‘fiction submission’. My anti-spam filter blocks e-mails with no subject line, so his submissions kept getting deleted unseen.”

4. Pay attention to what the editor DOESN’T want. Many guidelines include the types of works the editor is not interested in. This may be because they already have in-house projects using those ideas, or have simply received too many of the same idea to want to see another one. For Dawson’s newest project, Dead Men (and Women) Walking, the guidelines specify that no vampire romances will be considered. In the last week, the company has received 3 such submissions. All have been deleted, unread.

5. Assume there are no exceptions, not vice versa. The number one reason people give for not following guidelines is that they figure the editor might make an exception, because their work is so good. When Dawson put out a call for artwork for her RPG book Neiyar: Land of Heaven and the Abyss, she received e-mails almost daily from artists wanting her to agree to pay them a better rate before they would submit any art. While they were waiting for a better offer, Dawson found what she was looking for from artists who followed the guidelines.

Unless you’re already a bestselling author, or the editor says something is negotiable, do not assume the editor will change the rules just for you. The editor does not know you, and has no reason to make an exception for you. In fact, she has every reason not to because of time, budget, and other restraints. For every one story you hear about an editor making an exception, there are two dozen who simply rejected the submission unread. Following the guidelines, instead of fighting against or ignoring them, increases your chances of publication. After all, no matter how good your work is, if no editor reads it, it will never see print.

For more information about Bards and Sages projects, visit http://www.bardsandsages.com.

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