I remember learning years ago that the average short story is rejected 25 times before finding a home. (Now, I’m guessing this number is much higher.) This made me feel a lot better — some of my stories were above average in terms of how long it took to publish, some were below, and many were right on track.
Half the battle, I’ve come to learn, is just sticking with it — sending out that story over and over again even when the rejections keep coming in. But the other half of the battle is even more important: making sure you not only have a terrific story (or novel, or poem, or whatever it may be) but that you follow editorial guidelines and send a professional submission, whether you’re targeting a literary journal editor or an agent. Time-strapped editors and agents have little patience for sloppy work, and it’s worth paying a little extra attention to detail when it could mean the difference between getting a fair read or being tossed in the reject pile.
As both a writer and editor, I’ve learned (often the hard way) how to put together a submission that gets a fair read. While every editor is different, below are a few of the most common submission mistakes that writers make and how you can avoid them yourself.
Sending out work before it’s ready. Keep in mind that it’s the writing that is most important — always. If your story or novel isn’t ready, don’t send it out. Period. I’ve done this many times, of course — it’s hard not to be eager to send out something brand-new, especially if you’ve spent months or years working on it — but it never turns out well. What editors and agents look for more than anything else is great writing. So wait until your project reaches that level before you even consider sending it out.
Submitting a sloppy cover letter or query. If a cover letter is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, an editor will assume your writing is the same — this will not encourage a thoughtful read. Many writers have their manuscripts professionally copyedited before sending them out — and if you’re a writer who needs this, be sure your cover letter is edited as well, as it’s the first thing an editor/agent will see. By “sloppy” I also mean not researching the publication, agency, or publisher — writers who submit a literary novel to an agent who only reads mysteries, or a science fiction story to a poetry journal (and yes, these things happen all the time) will not get read; it’s simply a waste of everyone’s time. Be sure your submission is appropriate to where you’re submitting.
Overselling yourself. You do want to be confident about your work, but in a professional way, not a desperate-salesperson sort of way. Keep your cover letters and queries short and to the point, and if guidelines are available, follow them exactly. Don’t compare your work to that of other authors (unless the guidelines specifically require this); I’ve seen letters for everything from short stories to novels in which writers compare themselves to famous writers (often misspelling these famous writers’ names, no less), and it’s no surprise that there is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever. For a literary magazine submission, don’t describe the story, essay, or poem — let it speak for itself; your cover letter need only contain a bio, contact information, and whatever the guidelines may ask for. For an agent query, follow guidelines exactly (this usually means a one-page query with a little about the book and a little about you).
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Many writers include a copyright symbol with their work, or they include a dedication or acknowledgments page with a manuscript — unfortunately, including these things at such an early stage reveals a lack of awareness about publishing and may get in the way of your getting a fair read. If you’ve been writing and think you’re ready to submit but don’t know anything about publishing (whether you’re submitting to literary magazines or agents), take the time to learn before submitting — it will save you a lot of time, energy, and rejection. (For example, you’ll learn that your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you write it; there is no need to register it or do anything else — and you’ll also learn that you submit a dedication and acknowledgments to your editor only after you’re under contract, with the final version of your manuscript.)
Less is more. Simplicity is key here — again, it’s the writing that is important; let it speak for itself. The less you include with your submission, the more quickly the reader will get to your writing, and this is exactly what you want.