Writing Myths…If it isn’t perfect…

Okay, friend and neighbors, it’s time to explode Aspiring Writer Myth No. 2 — “Agents and editors eagerly look for even the smallest typo, they want excuses to reject your manuscript. If it’s not 100% perfect, they won’t give it the time of day.”

Myth. ‘Tain’t so.

Agents and editors read slush piles much the way those enterprising treasure hunters comb beaches with metal detectors. We’ve all seen them. They walk along the beach, the metal detector swinging back and forth before them, and every so often it will let out a beep. Then they narrow down the location, and the next thing you see is the treasure-hunter down on their hands and knees, digging away. Probably 99 times out of a hundred, or 499 out of 500, what they’ve found is an old beer can, or pop top. But every so often, they find a gold ring, or a Spanish doubloon, or something else really valuable.

Agents and editors approach a slush pile the same way. They give every manuscript (every “beep”) a chance, unearthing it, evaluating it. They’re not surprised if the ms. proves to be worthless — that’s what they’ve learned to expect. But every time, they HOPE it’s going to be something wonderful.

So…editors and agents aren’t evil creatures, just paging through manuscripts looking for incorrect font styles, atypical heading styles, measuring margins with a ruler in hopes of disqualifying a ms. They don’t even pounce on typos with glee as an excuse to reject. They are human, too, and they know everyone makes typos from time to time.

Of course, if your manuscript is typed with purple ink on lime green paper, or every other word is spelled wrong, or the grammatical errors are thick as flies on a day-old milkshake spilt in the gutter, well…yeah. They spend just enough time on a manuscript with those kinds of problems to note that they don’t want to read it, and then they send it back or recycle it.

I’ve actually read an editor’s slush pile. (Long story, I’ll tell it sometime if you want.) I learned that you can usually determine within 5 minutes, often less, whether a manuscript is worth reading. I suspect my experience was pretty typical. Of the 50-60 slush mss I screened, I pulled two manuscripts out that I deemed worthy of the editor’s attention. I wrote up a little note on each, describing the project, and why I thought it might be worth checking out. One of the manuscripts wasn’t even the right genre, but it was pretty well-written. (I believe the editor passed it along to the women’s fiction dept. in the same publishing house.) The others, I didn’t bother to put post-it notes on. I just stacked them in a big pile, and put a sheet of paper saying “reject” in large letters on top of the piles. The secretaries were the ones who did the mailing back to the author. (This was in the days before computers.)

I assure you that during the three days it took me to go through that slushpile (I wasn’t working 8 hour days) that hope leaped in my heart every time I took a new ms. off the stack. I WANTED to find a good manuscript to pass along to the editor. As I’ve noted, I found 2. I asked the editor later on whether she’d acquired the one I suggested she read, and she said she’d read it, but decided to pass on it. So of the books I screened, as a first reader, none were bought.

In none of the cases where I put the manuscript on the “reject” pile did I do so because the margins were wrong, or there was one grammatical error, or a couple of typos. I put the manuscripts on the “reject” pile because they were: (1) poorly written, (2) dull, (3) the story didn’t make sense, (4) incorrect genre, (5) the story was fairly well written as to style, but the characterizations were flat, the plot hackneyed, (6) the writer made dreadful grammatical errors throughout. Sometimes I put the story on the reject pile for ALL of these reasons.

I never once cackled with glee when I put the ms on the “reject” pile. I put the story on the reject pile with a faint regret, and an impatience to get to the next one, hoping IT would be better. Hoping it would be GOOD.

So, my friends, please don’t obsess about things like margins, or font styles, or typos. As long as your story is black printing on white paper, in correct manuscript format (check the SFWA site, www.sfwa.org for a complete manuscript submission guide) and you proofread it and used spellcheck, your ms. is probably fine — at least as to format. FOLKS, IT’S THE WORDS ON THE PAGES THAT CAUSE BOOKS TO BE REJECTED.


Oh, and don’t try any cutesy tricks like turning pages upside down, or inserting 20 dollar bills every 100 pages as an incentive for the agent/editor to keep reading. (Yes, aspiring writers have done this. We have it on good authority.) Trust me, the agent/editor has seen every trick in the book, and will just sigh with weary irritation when he or she sees these little ploys.

Okay, now that we’ve exploded another aspiring writer myth, I’m going to wish all of you a great holiday, no matter what you’re celebrating. Victoria and I will probably be scarce until after Boxing Day. We’re both going to be with family over the holiday.

Have a great, and a safe, holiday.

-Ann C. Crispin


  1. Thanks for these blogs Ann, they are very educational.

    Certainly this one, while reassuring in one way, is very distressing in that an entire slush pile contained not even ONE ms of redeeming value. Certainly doesn’t speak well for our odds does it?

    Looking forward to the rest of your list…and praying there is some GOOD news ahead somewhere, LOL

    Happy New Year

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