A few weeks back, I wrote a blog on why it was important for us to read, both in our own field of endeavor and a wide range of other topics. Today, I want to discuss another type of reading. Please, bear with me while I plod my circuitous route around the subject, and, I promise, I'll make my point clear.
So you are a writer. You have given much time and thought to the story you want to write. If you are a pantser, you finally sat down and wrote it. If you are an out-liner, you carefully wrote out all of your major plot points, moved them around on whatever surface you work on until you were satisfied that you had them just right. At this point, you probably thought that you had put in a good day's work on your project, and trotted off to work on something else, chat with friends on Facebook, read a book, watch TV or just go to bed. The next morning, you pull out your plotting board and … nothing looks right. You go through the whole process again, second-guessing every decision you made yesterday, until if finally looks right. Quickly, before anything else can go wrong, you sit down to begin getting it on paper.
Are you with me so far? Good. Now, for our purposes, let's assume that the piece you are writing is a short story of a couple thousand words. It's nothing major like a novel or even a novelette, just a simple short story. You whip it out in a single afternoon, morning, evening or whenever you do your writing.
Like a seasoned professional, you set it aside for a few days to ferment. Then you whip out your trusty red pen and attack. You run spellcheck. You put it through Grammarly. You run searches for every passive voice word you can imagine. You hack and slash at your “little darlings” like Don Quixote charging a windmill, until you are certain that you have cut all of the fat, and that what remains is your very best work. Then, you run all of your searches again. You imagine a publisher falling in love with this story, and writing to tell you that they lust for more.
You're too much the pro, to fall for that. You contact two or three of your favorite Beta Readers and inquire if they can find the time. When they agree, you fire off your baby and wait for the admiring oohs and ahhs. Instead, after a few hours … or days, they send your baby back with these horrid red scratches all over it. It looks like it's been clawed by a bobcat, and is rapidly bleeding to death. You are horrified. You bang your head on the wall, don your best burlap and rub ashes on your face in mourning the death of your fine little jewel.
After an appropriate time, and the equally appropriate amount of your favorite beverage, sanity returns, and you begin the arduous task of reading the scarred pieces of your dream. Some of this sage advice you have been given, you will discard. Most, hopefully, will astound you with its incisive merit and you will make the appropriate changes. Now, you do the right thing. You send it to one or two of those very special Beta Readers whose judgment you trust the most.
You no longer wait for the accolades. That part has been bled out of you. Now, you can only hope that their judgment will not be too harsh. Just in case, you drop by the store for a fresh bottle. In due course, your story comes back to you, and with trembling fingers, you open it up. Wonder of wonders, it is hardly bleeding at all. You haven't felt this kind of joy since you escaped from High School, or when you finished your last piece, whichever the case might be.
But wait, there's one more step here. You put the final polishing changes to your manuscript and fire it off to a professional editor (with the appropriate fees), and wait some more. Now, the nerves kick in. What if he/she finds a major plot hole? What if they tell you it needs a complete rewrite? They wouldn't tell you that your ending sucks – would they? What about your hook? Could it be better?
Calm down. Have another drink (People wonder why so many writers drink). I'll give you a hint. It isn't because we're trying to be just like Papa Hemingway. You pull out another old project or start a new one just to take your mind off of it. That works. Before you know it, you get a response.
Your editor, almost certainly, has a few final changes and corrections for you to make. Thank God, you took all the previous steps to make his/her job easier rather than be told, his rates have increased or he is suddenly too busy to take on your jobs anymore. You make the changes and corrections, check one last time to be sure that your story is in proper short-story format.
Now, for a market. You open up Duotrope, Writer's Market, or whatever source you use to find a market for your work. You whip out a targeted cover letter and include your short, humorous bio, and you fire your baby off to the best paying market it would fit. A few moments later, you receive a confirmation email that they have it. At last, you can pour yourself a drink and relax.
A day or two, or sometimes a month or two later, you have an email back from them. You eagerly open it.
Thank you for sending us your story, XXXXXX. We did not read it. As indicated in the submission guidelines, all identifying information must be included ONLY in your cover letter.
Thank you for thinking of us.
The editorial staff
A friend of mine received a letter very similar to this one a while back. It happens. The story she sent in was amazing. It was perfect for the contest she sent it to and had a great shot a winning. It wasn't even read.
This is where we get into the reading that this has all been about. Every contest, magazine, agent and book publisher you will deal with throughout your career has guidelines. These guidelines are invariably unique in one way or another. It is imperative that you read them carefully and follow them TO THE LETTER. They have these guidelines for a reason. Do you know what that reason is? It is to cut their workload. Sure, it is helpful to them if all of the entries are in the same format, with the same headers, the same typeface and size. But that is not why they publish guidelines. The guidelines are so that they can quite literally throw away a large portion of their workload.
Look at it from their point of view. Some of these publications and contests get over 1,000 submissions/entries a day. That's right, A DAY. No one has the staff to read that many. I repeat, no one has the staff to read that many. The cost would be prohibitive. Besides, they don't have to. That's why they have Guidelines. If you can't follow their guidelines or don't care enough to even read them, and believe me, there are thousands of “writers” out there who don't, then they don't want to work with you.
Surprise. Why would they? At best, it tells them that your work will be sloppy, probably not on deadline or even conforming to the requested theme. After all, you go your own way. You write what you want, when you want, and you will probably be difficult to work with in any number of other ways as well.
Now, don't get me wrong. My friend who received the above response is a consummate professional and takes her craft very seriously. She simply made a mistake and forgot to remove the offending information before she hit send. The publisher she sent it to had no way of knowing that, nor should they have taken it into consideration if they had. That would be unfair to the hundreds of other writers who had taken just a minute to double check everything, and as a result, had gotten it right the first time. Trust me. She will NEVER make that mistake again.
I spend a fair amount of time in on-line writer's groups. I presume that the vast majority view their craft seriously. Yet, daily I see a writer post a question, various other writers give responses, and about ten to twenty responses down the thread, the answers begin to repeat themselves. Why? Because, serious, professional writers are not taking the time to read the entire thread before they respond. As a result, the threads which should only have 10-20 responses, end up with dozens and hundreds and stay active for days beyond their useful life cycle. The same thing would happen at an agent's or publisher's office if it weren't for guidelines. With guidelines, they can cut out all of the non-responsive, irrelevant and redundant responses without bothering to even read them.
You may have the most beautiful baby in the world, but if they don't have the proper dress on, they aren't going to win the Baby Beauty Contest. Make sure this doesn't happen to your baby.