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Manuscript Submissions: Surviving the Slushpile

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As the managing editor of a historical fiction imprint, lately I’ve been seeing it all when it comes to manuscript submissions. Editors are busy people — especially ones like me who are trying to juggle editing with another full-time job like writing — so it’s in the author’s interest to make their job as easy as possible. Why, you ask?

Because if you make it hard for them, they’re going to be less inclined to accept your manuscript. Trust me.

The most important part of this process is to FOLLOW THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES. I can’t stress this enough. Don’t get creative; don’t think those guidelines apply to everyone BUT you. They don’t. If the guidelines ask for a query letter and the first chapter embedded in the email, don’t send a blank email with no letter and the whole manuscript as an attachment. Those submissions hit the auto-reject pile as fast as I open the email.

Don’t send a first draft. Ever. Seriously. All you’ll do is burn the opportunity for publication with that editor forever. If I open a manuscript that’s riddled with grammatical and spelling errors, where pet constructions are used to death and the story begins with a BIG infodump, flashback, or dream sequence, I know it’s not been properly edited or proofed. That manuscript also hits the auto-reject pile pretty darn fast.

Edit and proof your manuscript by hand, going line by line with a good style book like the Chicago Manual of Style. Spell check is not a substitute for proofing your work yourself. Most people don’t realize that spell check can’t catch common mistakes — like homonym errors. Your/you’re errors or to/two/too errors turn this editor off quickly. Here again, I know the manuscript hasn’t been properly edited or proofed. And every such error means more work and time on the part of my staff, sometimes to the point where it’s insurmountable. Proofing is part of a writer’s job, a part that’s all too often ignored. Why take a chance?

These guidelines are the most basic rules for you to follow. The rest depends on your story and if it catches my interest. Unfortunately, good storytelling isn’t something that can be taught. But the core requirements for surviving the slushpile are all here — following submission guidelines, sending a properly edited and proofed manuscript and not relying on spell check to catch your mistakes. Don’t give an editor a reason to reject your story right off the bat. Make them read your work; make them think about your story, your characters, your plot and not your mistakes.

A bit of effort and care before you hit send will help keep emails that start off “I’m sorry, but…” out of your inbox. Good luck and happy writing!

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About Celina Summers

Celina Summers is a speculative fiction author who mashes all kinds of genres into one giant fantasy amalgamation. Her first fantasy series, The Asphodel Cycle, was honored with multiple awards--including top ten finishes for all four books in the P&E Readers' Poll, multiple review site awards, as well as a prestigious Golden Rose nomination. Celina also writes contemporary literary fantasy under the pseudonym CA Chevault. Celina has worked as an editor for over a decade, including managing editor at two publishing houses. Celina blogs about publishing, sports, and politics regularly. A well-known caller on the Paul Finebaum Show and passionate football fan, when Celina takes times off it's usually on Saturdays in the fall. You can read her personal blog at www.kaantira.blogspot.com and her website is at www.cachevault.org
  • Amen, Celina, especially the proofreading bit. As a member of an online writing community I see a lot of what you’re talking about. A lot of people have great story ideas, but have no clue as to presentation.

    How people expect to make a career out of writing when they lack basic command of the language they’re writing in is beyond me.

  • It’s easy for anyone to make mistakes when they’re writing a first draft. I’m a full time writer and editor and I still catch embarassing typos–like the infamous ‘ewe of water on the table’ glitch my crit group still harasses me about. But by the time an editor sees your manuscript, you should be sending a late, finalized proofed version of your novel or story and NOT a first draft.


    And yet, that’s why it’s so important to MANUALLY go through your manuscript line by line and check everything. Spell check won’t work. Grammar check won’t work. Only time, attention and lots of red ink will catch those mistakes. It’s distressing how many query letters I receive with spelling errors.

    As a writer, it is part of your JOB to make sure your submitted materials are as clean, tight and professional as possible. If you want to be considered a pro, you have to present yourself as one.

  • Luanne Stevenson

    Terrific article. I’m an editor for a small publishing company in NY City and I see it all. People need to research how to write a great book proposal and (as you stated in your article)follow the publishing house guidelines. It’s more work, but it is worth the effort if your serious about having your manuscript considered. Thanks for sharing!

  • Luanne Stevenson

    oops!; typos in my comment to you!…should have proofed it:)

  • Thanks for your comment!

    Writing a good book proposal is hard, almost harder than writing a book. It’s difficult to sum up 400 pages of novel with a paragraph-long synopsis that creates interest in the story. BUT, why make it harder? Invest the time and effort to make the agent/editor’s job easier. Not only will they appreciate it, but they’ll look upon your submission with a favorable eye from the outset.

  • Luanne Stevenson

    Very true. There is also some literature out their for someone who has no idea on “how to” write a killer proposal. One given to me by a published author (Simon $ Schuster)who used a NY City Literary Agent is called:
    “Publish Your Non-Fiction Book” (Chapter 5: The Nine Essential Elements To a Book Proposal”).
    But there are other great resources out there. If the author is really stuck, there are professional writers who write book proposals for a living–check out guru.com or Mediabistro as two sites that feature the services for freelancers.

  • Luanne Stevenson

    Did it again! “their” should be “there” in sentence 2—guess I’m a lousy editor of my own emails!
    Have a great day Celina!

  • truthisgod

    This was a really informative article. I wonder whether a new author should write on something (s)he is passionate about or something that is in demand. As for instance, many publishers returned my ms with the note that currently they are not accepting “this” genres.