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How Polished Does It Need to Be?

In the many views about the importance of polishing a manuscript, there are two opposite ends of the spectrum. First are the writers whose work is filled with serious (and repeated) grammar, punctuation, and spelling errors. These folks sniff and say, “Readers don’t care about things like that. They just care about the story.” If pressed, they’ll also grump that fixing all that stuff is what editors are for. They see themselves as storytellers and leave all the nuts and bolts for the “less creative” folks. These writers get a lot of rejections and rarely accept that the reason for those rejections might be all the errors they’ve left in the manuscript.

On the other end are the perfectionists, the ones who won’t send a manuscript until they feel completely certain of every comma, word use, and margin size. These folks hold onto manuscripts long past the time they’re ready to go because they simply don’t feel comfortable sending something that isn’t absolutely perfect. This causes manuscripts to lay idle for months (if not years) as they wait to feel certain of perfection. Some writers will tinker forever and never actually submit. They don’t get rejections because they don’t send anything out, but they don’t get published either since publishers can’t accept what they never get to read.

Somewhere in the middle are the rest of us. We make mistakes, and we try really hard to catch them, but we know mistakes are lurking inside the manuscript. Somewhere, there lies a typo that results in the wrong word in the wrong place. Somewhere in there, a comma has gone astray. Somewhere we’ve used the wrong verb form. And that makes it scary every time we send off a submission. No one likes to show off their mistakes (even the folks who keep telling themselves that it doesn’t matter). But there comes a time when a submission simply must be sent. So when does that happen? How polished does it need to be?

The Place for Perfect

Sometimes perfection does matter, and there are places where you must make sure you get it absolutely right if you want the best chance of publication. Among these are:

  • the spelling of the publisher,
  • the spelling of the name of the editor or agent,
  • the cover letter,
  • the first five pages of the manuscript.

These are the places where errors jump out, and that’s a big thing you don’t want. You don’t want your errors to grab the attention of the person you’re hoping to entice into buying your work. Errors in the spelling of the publisher or in the spelling of the name of the person you’re contacting will reflect on you as careless. No one likes to have their name spelled wrong. Trust me. I’ve been called Jane, Janet, James, and Jonas, and I actually get annoyed every time. So check and recheck to be sure you get the name right. For instance, did you know that Boy’s Life is not the title of the boy scout magazine? Right, it’s Boys’ Life, and the editor notices when you get it wrong. It’s annoying, and it’s more than that, it reflects a lack of precision in your research skills. It’s also a really easy mistake to make. So be super careful when contacting publishers and get that stuff right.

The next thing on this you-must-get-it-perfect list are cover letter and first five pages of your submission. A cover letter is short. Only a few paragraphs. So it’s worth the time to get it right. This is actually surprisingly tough. There’s something scary about the cover letter for many of us, and we tend to feel awkward about them. Does it sound too formal? Too casual? Is it reflecting well on my story? All that stuff is swirling around in my head, and that can make it easy to miss a typo because my head is focused on content rather than minutia. I’ve sold things with flawed cover letters (sometimes deeply flawed), so a flawed cover letter doesn’t automatically kill the sale, but it does give a bad first impression. You can overcome a bad first impression with a really impressive submission, but it’s better not to have to overcome a mistake. So take the time to get the cover letter right.

The first five pages are a bit like the cover letter. By the end of the first five pages, really good writing can make it hard for a reader to notice the rare typo later because you’ve cast a reading spell. When you make glaring errors, you run the risk of pulling the reader out of your world. But before you’ve hypnotized your audience, typos and mistakes will jump out, especially if they’re jarring errors like misspellings of your own main character or big picture errors (like having two characters chatting out in the rain without ever mentioning how very wet and miserable they are getting). The first five pages are where you convince the reader that this is a story or article worth reading. So it’s worth the time to get everything right, because errors are a distraction.

But What If You Made a Mistake?

I’m often asked things about mistakes. What if you sent an email and you know there was an error in it, what do you do? Should you just ignore it? Should you send a second email apologizing for the mistake? Are you doomed? Yeah, I’ve known that panic. First, never send an email JUST to apologize for a mistake. Editors and agents are super busy and extra, unneeded emails are not really appreciated. Once we’ve become friends (well, business friends anyway), I’ve sometimes sent social emails when I hear of an editor getting a promotion or getting married or whatever, but mostly I try not to add to email clutter for editors. They suffer enough.

So how do I handle a mistake? (And I do make them.) I note it, and when I next have REAL communication with the editor, I will mention the mistake and apologize for it. I’ve also made HUGE mistakes that irritated editors enough to get a scolding email. To that, I simply take responsibility for the error and send an apology. Surprisingly, this has sometimes resulted in positive relationships where I would have thought the door was firmly shut by my mistake. Editors are pretty terrific people, and they appreciate a true apology that takes responsibility. They make mistakes too.

The Bottom Line

Perfection is a dance we never get right, but it’s worthwhile to do the best we can as long as we’re not using it to stall sending out submissions. We will make mistakes. All of us will. People do notice mistakes so make as few as you reasonably can, but understand that your mistakes make you just like every other writer. We all blow it sometimes, but don’t dwell on the mistakes. See them as a challenge to do better next time and proof that you’re part of the huge fellowship of writers who are doing their best. Be kind to yourself. It’ll make all of this much easier. I promise.

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