How Not To Get Published

This past week, I started work as an editor for an online academic journal. One of the first things to do was go through recent submissions, and as I did, I came across one that was addressed not "To the editors," or "To whom it may concern," or "Dear so-and-so," but that, instead, began, "Hey guys!"

"Hey guys"? Last I checked, that wasn't how you'd begin a cover letter to people you a) don't know and b) want to impress. Perhaps, someone suggested, the online factor makes people feel less formal - e-mails generally are more informal than paper letters, and maybe the guy assumed that people who do web stuff don't really care about form and such. Which, you know, would be a correct assumption if he was, say, writing to me here to say something about this website. But he wasn't. He was submitting an academic paper to a peer-reviewed journal and hoping to get published. And that's just not the way to go about it.

Not that we won't review his essay - we will. But if you can't even write a decent cover letter, I'm going to be skeptical about your ability to write anything else. You can convince me otherwise, but a bad cover letter is points against you that you're going to have to recover.

And to be honest, I think the online aspect probably has nothing to do with it. Because as cover letters go, the way-too-informal address is hardly even worth noting as an error. When I worked as an editor at a regional literary journal - not too well known, but we still got about 800 submissions every year and only had room for about 50 - I used to keep a file of really bad submissions. Not poorly written stories - though lord knows we had more than our share of those - but submissions whose form, for one reason or another, simply sucked ass.

Want examples?

The post-it note as cover letter. This is one of my absolute favorites. Since we didn't require cover letters, we'd get the occasional post-it note in lieu of letter, which really didn't bother me. Using a post-it note indicates a kind of spontaneity, it says "I'm dashing this off to the post office right now and just wanted to let you know what this is." Unless, of course, the post-it note is typed. Yes, that's right. Typed. And not a standard-sized post-it note, either. I borrowed a similar post-it note yesterday in order to measure it (thanks Susan!): 2 inches wide, 1 ½ inches long. The tiny kind. Someone went through the trouble of threading that into a typewriter and then typing, "Here is my submission for your review. I hope you enjoy it. John Doe." First of all, we could've figured out on our own that this was John Doe's submission - his name and address were on the story, after all. And if you're going to go through the trouble of typing in the first place, why the hell not just type on a standard sheet of paper? I mean, the guy actually thought about this, planned it - wasn't just dashing off a note on the way to the post office but gave it consideration and decided, "Hey, this seems like a good idea." And it wasn't - but it did provide lots of conversation material when pasted to the wall of my office.

The angry cover letter. Apparently, we'd rejected this guy's story the previous year, and he wasn't happy about it. Apparently, he thought our response was rude. (We had a form letter we send out to rejections, since no one wants to write 750 individual rejections. The form letter was, well, a form letter: impersonal, but not rude.) Apparently, he'd then called us about it and had found the person he spoke to rude as well. He was pissed. He told us this in no uncertain terms. And then he asked us to please consider the story he was attaching for this year's issue.

Maybe you won't notice the other people's comments on my story? This one wasn't so much a cover letter problem. The problem was that she'd obviously submitted her story somewhere else, or had had a friend comment on it, and rather than printing out another copy, she'd simply erased the comments before sending it to us. The problem? Well, they didn't erase well. So on her title page, right underneath her title, you could clearly see that someone had written, "Boring title!" And the rest of the comments were equally visible, and equally uncomplimentary. But they were right on, which saved our editorial board a lot of time...

Proofreading, Schmoofreading. The cover letter is the first thing anyone reads - whether you're submitting a short story, a resume, or anything else. Stands to reason that you'd want to make your best impression, right? And, you know, say, proofread it? Apparently, no. I counted 15 errors in one cover letter once - that's fifteen errors in one page, two paragraphs. And these were folks who wanted me to what? Yep: publish their writing.

I know you want legible, but... What on earth would possess anyone to think that a single-spaced, boldface, 10-point cursive font would be legible? Not just for the cover letter, but for the thirty-page story she submitted with it? This one got rejected out of hand. Our formatting guidelines clearly specified "standard 12-point font, double-spaced." If you're gonna go to the trouble to send something in, why not just make it readable?

I've never ever read your magazine in my life, but... We got plenty of these; again, not so much a cover letter problem, but it's something like applying for an engineering job because you have a degree in sociology. "Sure, you're a literary magazine that publishes short stories and poetry, but how about considering my 150-page novel?" "Hey, I know you don't publish children's stories, but here's mine. It's about a very angry and vengeful turtle. And there's some nifty violence in it too." "Hey, here's my story. It's my porn fantasy." Um, no.

True stories. All of them. And while they're really poor form, they did at least afford me some entertainment. If you have to read through hundreds of submissions - or even, for that matter, ten or twenty - you'll take any entertainment you can get.

August 21, 2002


Freshman English Classics

As many of you know, I've taught composition for some years. Along the same vein, here are a few of my favorite errors from student essays. And yes, they're all real. I couldn't make this up.

This one is from a final portfolio which counted for 50% of the final grade and which, well, should have been proofread. Because there are some things spellcheck simply doesn't catch. "People need to realize that in America, everyone is equal and has the right to get head." Yep. Not "get ahead." "Get head." Verrry embarrassing. However, I have to say that, had the essay followed through and argued that point, it would've been a hell of a lot more interesting.

The following came from an essay that was, for reasons lost in the mists of time, arguing something about the health benefits of certain vegetables. It was not very effective. And parts of it read like a drug advertisement. "The potato in its natural state is a vegetable. Then it gets baked." Huh?

We read an essay by bell hooks where she talks about the women in her family doing their hair together when she was a kid. One of my students thought this was "a perfect example of female bondage."

And before you think that students are merely accidentally writing about sex and drugs, one student was kind enough to assure anyone who read her essay, "Don't get me wrong - I'm no goody tissue."

The following are courtesy of a friend. I love this one. It gives you a whole new perspective on punctuation. "They immediately rushed him to the hospital where he slipped into an alcohol-related comma."

And just in case you were under the impression people think about what they're writing... "In Native American culture, the role of a woman is very different than that of a woman from America." Somehow, this student wrote "Native American" and yet did not make the connection that, perhaps, "Native American" would mean someone, well, you know, native to America?

And finally, a different kind of error: The One And Only tells me that a friend of his had a student turn in a paper he'd purchased from a paper mill - with the paper mill's fax cover sheet still attached...

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last updated 21. August 2002