That’s a nice, attention-grabbing headline, but if course it’s nearly impossible to write a post that will fulfill this promise. That’s because every agent and every editor has his or her own interests, tastes, and moods — and a writer can never in a million years predict what those might be. As published writers know, what may be rejected by one editor is another’s dream novel, and vice versa.
I have noticed, however, over the years I’ve been an editor, that there are several reasons writers get rejected that have nothing to do with the writer or the writing, and these haven’t changed in the almost two decades I’ve been in publishing. I often find that among the best ways to learn about how to get published is to learn what not to do.
So here’s a handy list of what to avoid when you’re ready to seek an agent or publisher.
1. Inappropriate submissions. This may seem all too obvious, but it happens all the time. The number-one reason writers get rejected, whether by literary magazines or literary agents, is that they submit inappropriate material, such as sending fiction to a poetry magazine or a children’s book to an agent who doesn’t represent children’s books. Always do your research — it takes time, but in the end, it saves time. Even a quick visit to the Ashland Creek Press website reveals we seek work on the themes of the environment, ecology, and wildlife. Yet we still receive submissions that have nothing to do with our niche — including children’s books and poetry, which we specifically note we don’t publish. What this means is that a writer has spent a lot of time sending us something that will never get read — and this is time much better spent researching and sending work to someone who is actually able to consider it. (For some great advice from a literary agent’s POV, check out this interview with agent Lucy Carson.)
2. Not following guidelines. As writers ourselves, we know that guidelines can be extremely frustrating…it seems that every editor wants a different format (name on the first page only, name omitted from manuscript, numbers in the upper right corner, numbers on the lower left, and on and on). But guidelines exist for a reason, not just to drive writers insane. For example, our guidelines for the Among Animals short fiction anthology are pretty simple — we ask for stories within a specific theme and word count, and we aren’t fussy about the font or where your page numbers appear — and these guidelines aren’t random. We ask for short stories featuring animal-human interactions because that’s what the anthology is about. We ask for a certain word count because that fulfills our vision of the book. Still, we get emails from writers asking if they can submit nonfiction instead (to which we must say no — not to be difficult but because it’s an anthology of fiction), or if stories can be longer or shorter than our guidelines (to which we say yes — we’re glad to read your very short story or your very long one, but we will warn you that it may not be the right fit, given what our vision is).
3. Being unprofessional. Don’t, for example, address an editor with “Yo” (yes, this has actually happened to us). We’re actually pretty easily amused, so stuff like this doesn’t bother us much — but I’m guessing this would cause a great many busy editors and agents to hit the delete button automatically (and who can blame them?). Take the extra thirty seconds to find an editor’s or agent’s name, and use it rather than “Dear Editor” or “Yo.” It shows us that you’ve taken the time to figure out who we are, and this makes us want to spend the time getting to know who you are.
4. Sloppy work. The best submissions are a writer’s best work — and this is something that’s always obvious right off the bat. It’s easy to tell when a writer has submitted a first draft; it reads like one. So be sure that your project is not only complete but edited, polished, and represents the very best you have to offer. Many editors and agents are happy to read another draft, if they’re intrigued enough by what you submit, but often you only have one chance to make a good impression, so take your time.
5. Impatience. Again, as writers ourselves, we submit to journals, agents, and editors — and then we wait. And wait. And often wait some more. It’s what writers do. Please try to understand that editors and agents often receive thousands of submissions every week, and imagine trying to stay on top of that amount of email (or regular mail). It’s overwhelming. As a very small press, we are always overwhelmed, which is why we warn writers that submissions often several months to review. So when you submit, always check to see if editors or agents indicate response times in their guidelines, and then be patient. Don’t send follow-up emails unless you’ve waited well past the normal response time, and if you do follow up, be kind and polite and understanding when you inquire about the status of your work. Publishing is, in so many ways, a business based on relationships, and as a writer you’ll want to be known as someone who’s not only professional but personable.
There are so many other factors that go in to getting published — among them great writing, the right market, a good platform, and pure luck — and writers only have control of some of these things. But one thing we all have the power to do is to respect the time of those who are reading our work … and this can take you a good part of the way.