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slushpile climberI recently began an editorial internship at a small nonprofit literary press. I’m now getting my publishing feet wet with manuscript submissions. I’ll probably feel differently after a few months of reviewing manuscript submissions, but right now I’m really enjoying this part of the publishing process. Each week I look forward to reading a new stack of novel manuscripts.

They run the gamut of the literary spectrum, from realism to mixed genres. I truly admire these authors who had the perseverance to write entire novels and the courage to send them out to publishers.

Writers rarely get to know the reasons behind their manuscripts landing in the slush pile, so getting a glimpse of the publishing side has been enlightening for me. Part of our role as editorial interns is to discuss these manuscript submissions, elaborating on what aspects we liked or disliked in each piece and why we either want to reject or move forward with the novel.

After several weeks of reading novel manuscripts, I compiled a few ideas on how writers can improve their manuscript submissions, and perhaps, avoid the the slush pile. Before you hit that submit button or drop that manuscript in the mailbox, here are eight simple strategies to consider before sending your novel out to a publisher or agent:

  1. Proper formatting is important. It wasn’t until I had to read several manuscripts at one time that I realized how important this facet of the submission is. Some publishers will state their preferred formatting, in which case you should follow their guidelines closely. It could mean the difference in getting through the first round of submission reviews. If formatting preferences aren’t provided, stick with the standard: Double spaced, 12 pt. font, 1″ to 1 ¼” margins on all sides, and page numbers. This manuscript format makes it easier for the editorial staff to read and make notes. format blocksI had one professor who was adamant about proper formatting and made us type our stories in 12 pt. Courier font, which isn’t required by all publishers, but it’s a good habit in general. I recently read a couple of submissions (both from the same individual) that were single spaced and in a smaller font. Before starting the first page, I was already turned off because I knew I’d have to struggle to read these submissions. (My eyes just aren’t what they used to be.) Although I ended up passing on them for other reasons, I wondered how much the lack of proper formatting affected the way other editorial interns approached these manuscripts. It may seem trivial, but anything you can do to remove possible obstacles to your story – including a simple, visual issue like formatting – can only help.
  2. Be meticulous about typos and grammatical errors. This sounds like a no-brainer, but you would be surprised at the number of manuscripts that come in with obvious typos and grammar issues. I don’t, nor do my fellow editorial interns, pass on a manuscript solely because of typos, but it is one of the first things we’ll notice. Like formatting, typos and grammatical errors can influence our decision if we’re on the fence on whether or not to go forward (at least to the next editorial round) with a manuscript.
  3. Be conscious of clichés, and replace them wherever you can. Clichés are overused tropes, descriptions and actions. They’ll undermine your story in the worst way. They’ll pull the reader out of the story and create doubt in your skills as a writer. You’ve read or heard these phrases before, a million times over, so it’s an easy habit to use them to shortcut characterization or emotional context. A teacher once told me, clichés are only marginally acceptable if a character says it in dialogue, and even then, you should try to avoid it. However, I do believe clichés are fine in the draft process. When I’m first constructing a story, I’ll insert a cliché if I can’t think of something more specific and meaningful at the time. Then, while revising, I’ll use those clichés as markers to let me know which areas of the narrative need attention, replacing or removing them in the process.manuscript editing
  4. Avoid prologues or intros if you can. They’re often used to provide background and context to the story before the story starts. It’s like going up a hill with the brakes on. As a reader, I want to get into the story as soon as possible. I don’t want to have to wade through pages of background information before I get to the action. This also works as a general guideline for your first chapter. Often I’ll read first chapters that are really disguised prologues. They start with a brief, insignificant moment in the present action, followed by pages of exposition which do nothing to move the story forward. Instead of a using prologue, try to artfully weave this information into the actual story. There is a shapeliness in the narrative that occurs when you layer background and other expository information with the present action. It should inform on the present action, providing context for your character’s actions.
  5. Don’t sacrifice clarity for ambiguity. We all like some amount of ambiguity in a story, enough to make us curious, to ask the questions and to come to conclusions based not only on what is shown on the page but what we don’t see on the page. It is part of our engagement with the story. However, this ambiguity, the one that strategically creates questions within the reader and are answered as the story unfolds, should not be confused with withholding fundamental information. As a reader, I need to know the where, what and who in order to sink into the story. I find it hard to connect with a character that is just a talking head on the page. Show me what he is doing, seeing, and feeling. What does he look like? Where is he exactly? What is around him, or rather, what around this character makes him take note, because what he notices can inform his character. I’m impressed with writers who can make elements in their narrative do double-duty, such as using setting, imagery, sense and physical details to also reveal characterization, create objective correlatives and provide emotional context.writing-a-book
  6. Think twice before using present tense as your primary verb tense. Or consider shifting verb tense between chapters. Believe it or not, present tense doesn’t come off as “hip” or “edgy” as you might think. You might also think it’s a shortcut to creating immediacy within the narrative. While it can be an effective strategy in short stories, in long form fiction, you actually risk disengagement with the reader. I find it more interesting when a story is told in past tense, and the writer uses craft strategies to show the difference between the past and present. Unless the use of present tense actually enhances the story itself, it gets pretty annoying after 30 or 40 pages.
  7. Avoid being experimental for experiment’s sake. What I find remarkable about writing and reading fiction is that there are infinite ways to tell a story. Experimental writing can create a fresh take on age-old themes, and it can certainly make your manuscript submission stand out. Some of my favorite stories are experimental (Jennifer Egan‘s PowerPoint short story comes to mind). I’ll start reading a manuscript with experimental structure, language, POV, etc. with great enthusiasm and hope, only to leave the story confused, disorientated and disappointed. If the experimental strategy you’re thinking of using doesn’t actually tell your story better, your narrative will come off contrived and amateurish.
  8. Use grand, sweeping statements or metaphors sparingly. You may think they sound poetic and impactful, but in truth, by themselves, they actually come off vague and melodramatic. You can, however, remedy this by including specific and unique details that show the emotional impact and then follow with your poetic statement or metaphor.

These suggestions come from my personal experience in the editorial review process. Other editors, assistants or interns may have different opinions or ideas. Also, using these craft strategies are not a guarantee to publication; writing a good story always comes first and foremost, but they may help to keep your manuscript on top of the reading pile rather than at the bottom of the slush pile.

I’m interested in what other suggestions editors out there have for writers who are getting ready to submit their novel manuscripts. Are there aspects of a submission that either turn you on or off about it? What might you look for in a manuscript submission that tells you it’s worth your time in editing? And if you are a writer that has gone through the submission and editing process, I would love to hear about your experience and any insights you have.

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