Grammar Matters by Melissa Heiselt

Language is constantly evolving. New words are rising up and taking the world by storm. “Google” is a verb in the dictionary and pronouns such as “they” are now an accepted gender-neutral third person singular option. Even spelling evolves as what was once okay is now also OK. Yet incorrect grammar, spelling, and punctuation can be as off-putting as bad breath on a first date. Especially in the world of online business (and who doesn’t do at least some portion of their business online anymore?) your primary contact with customers will come via the written word. Think only Grammar Nazis care about that stuff? Think again.

In 2017, Global Lingo conducted a study to see how much impact poor grammar and spelling would have on a business. The result? Fifty-nine percent of participants were less likely to patronize a company whose materials contained obvious errors. Obvious to whom? Well, over half of their prospective customers, clearly. Failing to fully vet marketing and communications shows a lack of attention to detail and professionalism, which leads customers to question the quality of the product or service at stake.

The folks at Grammarly proved that good grammar was a decent predictor of success; participants in their study who were promoted just four times in ten years made 45% more grammar errors than their counterparts who were promoted six to nine times in that same period. A 2014 study found that freelancers on eLance (now Upworks) with the fewest grammatical slip-ups on their profiles land higher-paying jobs than their competitors with flawed profiles.

It’s not just in corporate matters that grammar can be a problem. A pair of studies conducted by two linguistics professors found that 100% of the time, emails from strangers containing typos and common grammar mistakes resulted in a lower opinion of the email sender. Need a new housemate? Updating your profile on a dating site? Check your grammar. When it’s a friend or associate we may overlook substituting “their” for “they’re” but when it’s a first impression, it’s one of the few things we have to use in forming a judgment. The jury has spoken: Grammar matters.

So, spelling and punctuation are not your strong suit? Have someone with stellar word sense look things over. Grammarly is a popular option for people who want a filter for casual online communication, emails, twitter posts, and the like. Unfortunately, it can’t catch everything. You need an actual human to catch things like a wrong word (not just a misspelled one) or to edit for clarity. As Canadian communications giants Bell Aliant and Rogers Communications discovered, a misplaced comma can cost you two million dollars. For more enduring output that will be an official reflection of you or your company, think contracts, advertising brochures, web content and consider hiring an actual editor. The LetterWorks staff can look over everything from menus and marketing materials to a resume and cover letter. Truly. It’s worth it.

Organizing Your Creative Chaos by Melissa Heiselt

Authors tend to be creative people, and creativity tends to be messy. Everyone has different ways of bringing order to that chaos, and finding the way that suits you is an endeavor well worth the effort. In “The Wand and the Word,” Leonard Marcus interviews various fantasy authors revealing their path to success, and their methods. The most fascinating thing about these interviews is how incredibly varied their responses are. There is no hard and fast rule about how to successfully organize information, but there are a few main categories that encompass different personalities and styles of organization.

Highly Structured

Brandon Sanderson has mentioned in his podcast, Writing Excuses, that he organizes everything from characters and their motivations and network of connections to world-building details in spreadsheets. He finds it a useful way to track and cross-reference those crucial story points. I am a very visual person, and that is so not for me. I can say this with confidence because I tried it, and it was miserable. For me it took so much effort to think about how to arrange things in an unfamiliar terrain, and I didn’t have enough room to see what was in each box. For people who love organizing things so they are neat and tidy and put away, it may be right up your alley. If you are more familiar with spreadsheets, I am sure there are many ways to layer and search information efficiently in that format. If you like to see the big picture, or flip from one idea to the next quickly, it might not be the best fit.

Visually Organized

Graphic novelists, designers and cartoonists (for obvious reasons) tend to gravitate toward storyboarding, where the story is told on a large horizontal space with images and text together showing what the story is to evolve into. Some authors use sticky notes to create a timeline for their work, which can easily be moved around and experimented with before the actual writing begins. Mind mapping is a highly visual way of showing connection, cause and effect, and the underlying moving forces in a piece. It is one way I have enjoyed organizing information for a smaller project, such as an article. It can also be a useful way of showing character connections and motivations, or even a useful way of revealing those less-obvious connections in a non-fiction piece. Many times I’ve had a revelation as I surround the nucleus of an idea with its many outgrowths and discover truths I hadn’t seen before. XMind is an excellent digital way to record an extensive mind-map.


Notebooks are a huge part of cultivating a healthy writing habit. Writing every day is essential! It’s also a place to capture the genius that visits in the night, or the moment that would otherwise be lost. The problem is: how the heck do you find anything useful in there? It’s as good as lost if you never revisit those words. Enter the card file idea. This was a method suggested to me for organizing research papers back in the day, but never have I found it more useful than when I have the seeds of several good stories, but need time to flesh out the details and characters more fully. On my countertop I keep an old school card file box. I know. So retro. But it’s in the center of my home where I work, and right at my fingertips so I can jot down snippets while passing by. I have color coded notecards for each of the stories I have in progress at the moment, with headers on each card noting what the card relates to; anything from character name lists, plot twists, or map sketches. They are then chronologically ordered in relevance to the story. You could do the same thing in Evernote as Josh recommended a couple of posts ago, which would make it available across platforms, making your ideas that much more accessible and searchable, which is hugely helpful as a project grows.

Don’t be afraid to try out something new on your next project… but also trust yourself. Just because Jack Kerouac typed it all out on a typewriter, or Brian Jaques hand wrote his work nearly flawlessly in beautiful flowing script doesn’t mean you need to follow suit. Same goes for these organization ideas. Do what works for you, and keep writing!

Let it Rest. by Melissa Heiselt

Writing is easy. As the distinguished columnist Red Smith once said, “You simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.” It’s the editing that’s murder.

Like any great bread, cheese, or wine, time is the secret ingredient to making your writing the best it can be. Let’s say you’ve just finished your masterpiece; a complicated story, biography, or self-help manuscript that you just know is going to enlighten and entertain. Maybe you feverishly earned that NaNoWriMo Badge proving to the world that you can write a novel in just one month. We all know editing comes next, and so many writers want to dive right in and tackle it! Believe it or not, the most valuable thing you can do here is: leave it alone.

In my experience, the length of time for a good rest is dependent on the length of the material. A blog post or article may need just 24 hours. Something that has soaked up your life and soul and absorbed your every thought for months, and especially years could benefit from even more time. Giving it time does not mean abandoning the work altogether. It’s thoughtful time away from the manuscript, enabling you to disengage that part of your brain that created those words, and engage the part of your brain that’s wired for refining those words.

My first NaNoWriMo piece was a disaster. DISASTER, I tell you. I dove right in once the frenzied writing was over. After a month of trying to force that monstrosity into shape, I finally decided it was an interesting writing exercise, but for me was ultimately just not going to result in any kind of complete, publishable work. I had completely forgotten about it until clearing out my computer and stumbling across it years later. Just for laughs, I decided to read over this disasterpiece. And you know what? It wasn’t that bad. I was too close to it at the time to have perspective enough to know how to handle the awkward transitions and pacing that resulted from my feverish endeavor. There were sections that truly were all but unintelligible. But with time between us, we were able to make amends.

This experience opened my eyes to the importance of respecting the time and space required for good writing. When I’ve typed that last period I know it’s time to put it away, take a walk, and enjoy the life of the living for awhile. Now  even as an editor, I’ve learned that when things start to feel muddy, and frustration creeps in, walk away. Give it some space to expand and develop in your subconscious before you return to the work and give it its best chance at published life. You’ll be glad you did.

On Being Wrong or Admit it, You Fucked Up by Josh Smith

Remember that time you wrote a perfect manuscript, proofread it, fixed a couple minor grammatical errors, then fired it off to your favorite publishing house and woke up a month later to find it on the Best Seller’s list? Yeah, me either.

Let’s be honest, if writing was such a magically painless act, there would be no editors and you wouldn’t be here right now. Writers of all levels are well aware that no first draft materializes fully-formed and ready for mass consumption, but what is truly difficult is not only recognizing areas in which you have failed to achieve what you envisioned, but accepting that failure. Not accepting it in the “well, this sucks, but I need it for the mechanics of this story to work, so I guess it stays” sense, but accepting that you have failed in order to understand why you failed, which in turn will lead you to the rectification of said failure.

While a great many issues can be dealt with during regular revisions, it is common to be so focused on a specific idea or approach that you overlook faults that negatively impact other areas of the work. Given the nature of these more insidious flaws, they usually require an external perspective, such as a beta reader, editor, or critique group to bring them to light. However, having someone else question your failings within these foundational elements can be challenging when you’ve already built an entire story or novel atop them. As I recommended in a previous post, take time to consider these suggestions before dismissing them outright. You aren’t beholden to the specific requests of any editor or reader, but their acknowledgement of the problem will help you internalize that it exists, and your wild writer brain will begin to redraw the map that will lead you to the optimal solution.

In high-concept pieces, each poor decision can construct a step in a Rube Goldberg machine triggered to derail your story. The first tripwire is the most important to root out, and once you see it, its entire architecture will become clear. Yes, you will have your work cut out for you. Yes, you may want to call for backup to help determine the success of your restorative efforts, but if you want to tell your story on your terms, I suspect you want to do it as effectively as possible. There is a delicate balance in non-traditional works that are more driven by tonal or visceral choices than plot, so be on the lookout for sections where style devours story.

Not all pieces require such in-depth scavenging, but that does not necessarily make them any easier to edit. All the best stories take us to previously unimaginable places and make us feel emotions we would never fathom otherwise, but these powerful elements can’t just be loaded up into the ol’ canon and blasted at our sensory receptors to achieve the desired effect. An intense or climactic scene might exist precisely as you envisioned, but if it doesn’t translate for your readers, it’s a wasted effort. Oftentimes, it isn’t even the writing of the scene itself, but the storytelling around it that leaves people grasping at your intent. Scenes featuring unrealistic or traumatic events are almost always divisive in early drafts, because they require the reader to conjure considerable imagination or empathy, and it is possible that you have not properly set the stage for such an undertaking. It can be particularly difficult to endure these criticisms if you are fictionalizing a lived experience, or are writing non-fiction, but no one said this would be easy. Again, recognizing that a problem exists, accepting that your approach is off, and working your way through will guide you to a more fulfilling story for you and your readers.

There is something to be said for a writer who will defend their vision to the death, but the mark of a true professional is identifying something that isn’t working, being open to changes, and dedicating themselves to improving the reading experience.

What Kind of Editor Is Right For You? By Catherine Foster 

Congratulations! You’ve finally typed the long-awaited words of your masterpiece—“The End.” You thought this day would never come. But what is the next step? Do you need an editor now? If so, what type? Wading through the different services that professional editors provide can be confusing and the process of selecting the right one for your needs can be daunting. There are as many types of editors out there as there are authors, and they all offer a different level of support depending on what you might require. Some editors span a spectrum of services and some focus on a niche according to the area of expertise. Let’s break it down starting with the most general help you might need at the beginning of the project and go from there:

Alpha readers: This is someone who is a nonprofessional. They will likely be found amongst your family or friends. Find someone won’t mind reading a first, unpolished draft of your work. They will likely have a lot of encouragement for you. This is important, since it is the first time you will share your story with someone. Ask them for what their favorite parts are and for things that don’t make sense. They may catch some grammar blunders, some glaring plotholes or elements of the story that don’t make sense. This is the time to do some rewrites and get a second or third draft in order as the story takes shape.

Beta readers: Like the alpha reader, this group is generally also unpaid and unprofessional, although some companies do offer this as a paid service. These readers are exactly what they sound like: they read through your story and offer opinions on what they liked or didn’t like about the plot and characters. Beta readers can be found through online advertisements, but they are most commonly found in writing groups and places that encourage group input. You can also offer to read through a fellow author’s work in exchange for their advice on your own composition. However you go about finding this second opinion on your work, remember that this person should not, ideally, be a close friend or family member. The feedback that you receive from this round of critiques will give you a little more insight into the reader’s perspective; you are not obligated to take action on these observations, but you will have a more well-rounded view of some things to incorporate into the next draft.

Developmental editors (these are also sometimes referred to as substantive, structural or content editors): After a few people have read your story and you have tweaked your novel as much as you can on your own, you may feel that you are ready for the services of a professional editor. When a developmental editor reads through your novel, they will not start with grammar and punctuation. They will first need to do what can be thought of as a “big-picture” edit: that is, they will make sure that the story itself makes sense. A developmental editor’s job is to make sure the plot is sound. Are there any plot holes that need to be curtailed? Do the characters stay true to their descriptions? Do you introduce someone who is too similar to someone else? What is the point or theme of the story? How is the pacing? Do you answer all the questions that you asked? Does a certain storyline veer off and disappear? Would something make more sense if it was moved to the end or brought forward to the middle? A developmental editor prunes the withered parts and encourages growth from the atrophied sections. He marks the portions that don’t make sense and he highlights the passages that are beautiful but obscured. He polishes away at your story so that you know how and where to reveal a hidden gem in the extraneous words.

Line Editors: When the dust settles from the developmental edit, the finer work of the line edit can begin. The line edit consists of cleaning up the structural bits. Is the piece readable in its current form? How are grammar, spelling and syntax? Are the meanings clear throughout? Are phrases authentic and as good as they can possibly be? Is the dialogue appropriate and are the tags correct? A line editor ensures proper word choice throughout and is responsible for checking minor plot inconsistencies. They must be on guard to check for repetition and to flag against inconsistencies. Sentence flow must be upheld and is a major responsibility of the line editor. Conciseness is encouraged and upheld.

Copy editors: The copy editor’s role is very similar to the line editor, and sometimes they can be combined. The roles often overlap at this stage in that the copy editor is also responsible for appropriate word choice, inconsistency and standard grammar, spelling and syntax checks. The copy editor’s role varies slightly in that they have more responsibility for catching the even finer details of punctuation, indentation, formatting, and paragraph and section breaks.

Proofreader: Many people confuse “proofreader” with “beta reader”, but really a proofreader is the final step before the manuscript goes to publication. This step is usually reserved for extremely meticulous authors, professional authors or people who intend to self-publish and want to ensure absolutely no mistakes in the process. The proofreader’s job includes some of the items on the copy editor’s list, such as making sure there are no glaring errors. Ideally, however, all of these steps have been taken prior to the manuscript reaching the proofreader. They should only be scanning for an errant punctuation mark here or there. Their job is mostly to check on formatting, the removal of extraneous spaces, to highlight stacked hyphens, to remove widows and orphans, to ensure the consistency of late additions of text and design elements, and the finest details of formatting that would guarantee the work is absolutely error free prior to print.

Ghostwriter: On the other end of the spectrum, a ghostwriter can be hired to clean up your text.  This occurs when a person writes any portion of your story, up to and including all of it. They typically collect a fee for this service in exchange for allowing you to remain listed publicly as the author. Sometimes authors will have an idea for a story but don’t know how to execute the writing. In other cases, people will begin writing most or all of their story, but through the editing process they realize they can’t turn their story into a viable book. In these cases a ghostwriter can aid a client with 1) writing the entire story themselves after a series of interviews or 2) taking the already written material and editing it to such a degree that it is a fusion of the idea of the original author and the writing capabilities of the ghostwriter. The option to use a ghostwriter can almost be viewed as extreme editing and allows some people to have their stories told who would not otherwise have a chance to do so.

Editing is as unique as you are! I hope that this illuminates the choices available to you as you start your editing journey. The LetterWorks offers edits in all styles, and our editors have specialties in every kind of discipline listed here, so please don’t hesitate to think of us for your next big project. We are excited to help you as you work to hone your craft!

Can You Afford A High Quality Editor? (The Answer Might Surprise You) by Catherine Foster

There are many decisions that factor into choosing an editor, but one of the most important for authors is usually the price. How much will it cost to edit your novel? Can you even afford it to begin with, or is this something so expensive that you need to take out a loan? What’s the ballpark for this kind of service? Unfortunately for many new authors, cost is also often a confusing question that doesn’t seem to become any clearer upon initial investigation. Many editors seem coy about offering up a flat rate, which can lead to a sense of elusiveness about price that many authors find frustrating. There is no set industry rate, leading to wild price fluctuations from one editor to the next. Can you determine worth between editors? Is there a way get a firm answer on what the final price for your project will be? Is it even worth it in the end? Can you even afford an editor?

The answer to these questions is yes … and most likely. Selecting an editor is difficult for many reasons. Currently, in the U.S. and in the rest of the world, there are no definitive tests or certifications that exist to standardize editors. This means that the onus of investigation into the practice and knowledge of each editor falls onto the consumer. Namely: you. Since there is no agreed upon way for an editor to point the consumer to a degree or certification to show his value, this means that each and every editor has his own way of demonstrating worth. Some positive things to look for would be many years of experience in professional editing, a significant list of clients or a record of edited and published titles, a well-designed website and a fully-entrenched social media presence. Red flags include a hastily designed website, spelling or grammar errors and someone without a list of references or much experience.

A good resource for finding reputable editors is through the EFA (Editorial Freelancers Association) or ACES (American Copy Editors Society). These are places that cultivate professional membership, and you can search profiles of thousands of qualified individuals. You can post a listing for an editor for whatever you are working on, and you will receive hundreds of responses in an hour. Your only decision will be how much money you want to spend.

The next step in selecting an editor is contacting them. Are they prompt in returning your e-mails? Do they edit your type of work? Some editors are academic editors while others work in the medical field. If you are seeking an editor for your memoir, you want someone who has experience with that genre. Do you like their personality? Remember, this is a job interview for a personal project, and you have to be able to work with them closely for (potentially) a long while. You want to be able to take direction from someone you like. Some other things to consider are: is this person clear and professional in their responses? Do they have an opening in their schedule for your work that suits your timeline? How will they communicate with you, and how will they make their edits? These are all important questions that will help you determine who you will select.

That brings us to the question of budget. There are many ways to determine to how charge for editing, and each editor is different. This is the cause for confusion among authors, and understandably so. At more professional places such as the EFA, it is the standard to charge an hourly fee, usually between thirty-five and fifty-five dollars an hour. Some editors charge by the word and some charge by the page. The matter can become more complicated when we define a “page”: to an author, they simply look at the number of pages in their word processor. To an editor, a page is defined as 250 words. There is usually some calculation necessary when looking at the total of the work, which renders the actual number of pages displayed double or more. An author, therefore, must be aware that if they are being charged per page that it will not necessarily be per the number of pages they believe but a much higher number. The same applies to the word count. Oftentimes different word processing programs count characters differently—a hyphen or an ellipses or a comma in one program is not considered a “word”, but in the transfer to the editor’s program all/some of those characters may become words. This may seem like a small detail, but when it is your dollar, they add up fast. It is something of which to be aware.

Should you just have a friend edit your document or find someone on Craigslist? They will be cheaper, certainly, but in our experience, if you are serious about getting your work published, you need a professional editor. It is possible to find someone through the classifieds in this way, but beware a discount price—the old adage that you get what you pay for is, unfortunately, true. Many of our clients are people who are on their second or third round from just such an experience. They hoped to economize, but in the end they chose to spend the money twice over to get the appropriate service they required—one which they all have expressed that they did not end up finding through lesser means.

How, then, can you make sure that you can afford your edit? The first step should be asking for a sample edit. There is a schism amongst professional editors: half of them do not provide sample edits, and the other half do. It is your right as a discerning consumer to ask for one. If you find an editor that you like and they don’t provide a sample edit, you may of course go forward, but you should proceed with caution. A sample edit serves to protect both you and your editor. Your editor is assessing how much work is involved in your piece and the time it will take him to complete this work. Only then can he give you an accurate quote of price. On your end, you will get a chance to see what he can provide, if you like his style enough for a thorough edit and if you truly want to pay for his entire service.

Once you are agreed, an editor should be able to give you an accurate quote based on that sample edit. If this is a time-based quote, he should be able to tell you how many hours it will take him to finish the job. It is important that he agree not to exceed this number, and that he agrees to finish the project at the same price even if he underestimates the time. If it is based on the number of words, it will still be an exact price. There should be a contract in place, and most editors require a certain payment schedule throughout the project and before delivery; this is normal. When you deal with a professional editor, you will find that you are contracting a person for a specific service, and that is all outlined in the contract. This is, again, for your protection and theirs. It may seem daunting at first, but it should be viewed as a relief. If you ever deal with an editor who does not have a contract, you should not ever pay any monies! This is a warning sign to you. Having a contract in place is a record that this person is obligated to provide exactly what they outline; they promise to do so by a certain date and time. You should read your contract carefully. You do have legal recourse should your editor not provide what they promise. While it should never come to that, it is a protection to you as well as to them. It is also something you can refer to as the project progresses as a record to make sure that both sides are holding to their end. This is a benefit to contracting a professional and part of your contracted service.

Each freelancer is different, and each way of handling payments is as varied as there are editors and authors. At The LetterWorks, we understand that editing can be expensive, and it isn’t always easy to work into your budget. We want everyone to have access to high-quality editing, and to meet that goal we try to structure creative ways to budget. We’ve worked out a lot of different ways to work with our clients, from changing the timeline to the size of the project to the methods in which we can work on it. We are ready to meet your needs in any way we can. Editing may be more affordable than you think. Please check us out and let us help you make your writing dream a published reality.

Author Spotlight: Kristy Gherlone

Kristy Gherlone was born in Maine into a family of musicians, writers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Much of the inspiration for her writing comes from her unusual childhood experiences, including the series of events that led her to the north Maine woods town of Millinocket, where she spent most her life.

After graduating high school, Kristy went on to the University of Maine.  In between attending classes, she co-opened a day care center and worked at the University child care center.

Later, she made the decision to leave school to start a family of her own, and raised three girls. She worked for several years at Baxter State Park, as a Behavioral Specialist, and then as an Early Interventionist for children with autism. She has a great deal of passion for children and nature.

In 2004, Kristy moved to New Hampshire. She married a wonderful man from the area in 2014, and finally found peace. She started writing, which was something she had always wanted to do, and released her first novel, The History Lottery, in 2015. Since then, she has published two more novels, Twelve Urns, and Innate Tendencies.

Recently, she has turned her attention towards flash fiction and short stories, and has appeared in seven different magazines. One of her stories, The Whupping Tree, was edited with the help of The Letter Works, and it will appear in The Mystic Blue Review very soon.



Tips from a Developmental Editor: the Story Question Solution by T.N. Rosema  


At the developmental stage, many writers know their characters inside out. (“My heroine’s eye colour is green. She’s a Gemini. Her favourite television show is CSI New York.”) They aren’t always so clear about what happens in their story. Plotting is hard!

This blog focuses on just one plotting technique, simple but mighty. It’s called the Story Question.

The Story Question shows up in Dwight V. Swain’s evergreen Techniques for the Selling Writer. According to Swain, any marketable story has five elements.

  1. Character: your main character X.
  2. Situation: the story “trouble” requiring X to act.
  3. Goal: what does X want to achieve or retain?
  4. Antagonist: their job is to resist X’s goal(s). Weak antagonists can ruin a story!
  5. Disaster: the dire threat X faces near story’s end.


Now map these five elements into two sentences: a statement, and a question.

The Statement nails your Character, Situation, and Goal.

The Question nails your Antagonist and Disaster.


Here is Swain’s pulp-fiction example.


When humans suddenly begin to grow to 12-foot height


John Storm


Tries to find out why.


SENTENCE 1 (Statement)

But can he defeat


The traitors in high places


Who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be a result of an extra-terrestrial plot?


SENTENCE 2 (Question)

The Story Question isn’t a magic formula, but it can trigger meaningful decisions about your work.

This short story feels too lean because I haven’t really described my Situation.”

Is X moving towards her overall Goal here, or is this scene just padding?

No wonder the tension sags in Act Three of my novel. The Antagonist is weak.”

The Disaster happened early, so everything after it read like an anti-climax.”



In conclusion, if your characters are vivid but your story is relatively thin, try forming a Story Question. It nails down your key elements, and you can begin to create a compelling plot.


THE AXE: How Do I Make the Cut With Literary Journal Submissions? by Josh Smith

One of the best ways for writers to establish themselves in the literary world is to have their work appear in journals, but where to begin? Catherine’s post on cover letters is packed with insight, so you’ll definitely want to give that a read! I’ll be expanding on a few of the other points she made and discussing additional elements that journal editors focus on when it comes down to making the big decision to accept or reject.

While there are thousands upon thousands of literary magazines out there, I am specifically addressing how we swing the axe at the journal I edit for, Loud Zoo. I know, I know, it’s not the New Yorker, and of course a feature in our little magazine isn’t a springboard onto the Best Sellers list, but it’s the venue I can speak for with regards to its inner workings, and much of this information can be recontextualized and applied to other publications.

Edit! Edit! Edit!!! While this seems obvious, we see a lot of work that is simply not ready for a public forum. Even experimental works that subvert the rules and are meant to read looser and more conversationally need to be edited as much as any other story or they will feel half-cooked, and the experiment will surely fail. In addition to working out the grammatical, punctuational, and other technical problems, editing also helps you fully develop the characters involved and the story you are trying to tell. Do you have someone whom you can trust to give honest feedback on your works in progress? Those people are invaluable. We used to go all in and give complete content edits to submissions we felt were lacking but were worth the effort, but these days we don’t have the time.

Read the guidelines. No, really. So many pieces we reject simply don’t fit the requirements of the submission call or the scope of the magazine. As Catherine noted in her post, we know most people don’t have the time to read every issue of every magazine, but we try to make our intentions with this journal as clear as possible on the website. Loud Zoo strives for social change, and while every piece we accept isn’t necessarily a cobblestone on the road to revolution, we don’t have much interest in purely escapist works. Nothing against escapism, but there are plenty of other outlets for it.

Don’t be a bigot. While I didn’t intend to discuss morality when I sat down to write this, bias tends to show up on the page whether we realize it or not, and a piece with potential can make us want to catapult our computers into the abyss at the turn of a phrase. This is not about censoring people with opposing views (what kind of ideology is ignorance, anyway?), it’s recognizing that as a writer, your words have meaning, and in this day and age that comes with the responsibility to have a basic understanding of and respect for your fellow humans. We are open to sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, Islamophobic, bigoted, etc… characters and situations, with the caveat that you utilize them as opportunities to enlighten, rather than simply glorify or stereotype. There are always writers who think that shock is their key to the kingdom, but it is a transparent device unless it brings to light information that profoundly affects both your characters and your readers.

Dear male writers, women are people! Women are not just scenery or props for your male characters to do things for/at/with/to. It’s asinine that there is even cause to mention this and the previous point in 2017, but here we are. We reject so much work with hollow female characters that are described in immaculate physical detail, but have absolutely no depth or agency. Can you write fictional women who are not realistic? Of course! But unless you are working a complex or satirical angle that allows readers to gain something from the situation, you’re simply perpetuating inaccurate and harmful representations that our magazine will not partake in.

Satire isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s incredibly difficult to write, and even more difficult to write properly. We love well-done satirical works, but we don’t see many of them at all. If you are heading down this road, make sure you have a clear intention from the start, and that the final effect of the piece reflects that goal.

We see your clichés, and we’re not interested. So many stories rely on overused themes, arcs, and tropes, and while it is possible, it’s not likely to work something fantastic out of those molds. Nine times out of ten, the work comes off as contrived. If you’re only writing a certain genre or subject because you think it’s more likely to sell, truth is, it’s more likely to suck. That said, tropes are fun to subvert, and you can get fantastic results by taking something familiar and jettisoning it off into the unexpected. Whatever path you choose, be true to yourself and have faith in your readers. Seriously, readers are THE BEST. Take them by the hand, and they’ll follow you through the wilds!

Send notifications if your work is accepted elsewhere. Like most journals, we don’t publish reprints (again, read the guidelines!), and Googling every piece that comes through wastes time we could be giving to other submissions. We have sent an astronomical number of rejections based simply on the fact that the writer did not send a notification that their piece was accepted elsewhere. Confused about what constitutes a previous publication? It varies from journal to journal, but any time a work is made available to the public, that is a publication. See, it’s right there in the word! That means blogs, message boards, and even Facebook posts count as publications by our standards. If you shared something on a blog or on social media and want to try getting it published elsewhere, I highly recommend deleting it before you submit. We recently rejected a piece because it had already been published in four—YES, FOUR—other magazines! Next time you wonder why it takes so long for an editor to respond to your submission, remember these folks. Also, sometimes when you send us one of these wonderful acceptance notes, in addition to our eternal gratitude, we’ll be so bummed that we missed out on your piece that we’ll ask you for another!
Additionally, don’t revise a previously published work, change the title, and try to pass it off as new. This makes us think you should have spent more time editing in the first place, and it isn’t a loophole to bypass the previous publication guideline. There are several journals that actively publish reprints, so all is not lost if you have a story out there that didn’t get a fair shake.

I’ve given plenty of examples of how NOT to get published, but by now you’re probably wondering if there are more proactive ways to improve your odds. Honestly, this is the hardest part about trying to explain our magazine: what we are looking for and what we hope to achieve. We didn’t start this thing so we could run with the pack, so if there’s a piece you don’t think would fly in a more traditional litmag, it might fit with us. We are not interested in sequestering genre fiction from literary fiction. For us, it doesn’t matter if your work has space ships, dragons, and ghosts, as long as the result is a moving tale that gives us insight on something we didn’t realize we were missing out on. This is not the case with many other journals, so always be aware of each market’s specific restrictions. We’re primarily reaching for that spark that makes readers really connect with your words. Start with a concept that stirs you, keeps you up at night, and write it from the heart. If there are social or political connotations, explore them. Give us a tangible emotional impact, package it with deep truths, new ideas, and uncommon perspectives, edit it, then edit it again, and then maybe a couple more times, and you’re likely to wind up with something many editors can enjoy.

Of course there are exceptions to every rule, and I’m sure there are outlets who are seeking the exact things we want nothing to do with, so again—choose your submission destinations wisely. Like so much in life, advice like this is not absolute. Find what works for you and build from there, but never stop improving your craft, never stop growing (both as a writer and as a person), and always persist!

What Published Authors Never Tell You About Writing A Cover Letter by Catherine Foster

As a short story author, I am proud to tell people that I have over seventy published titles to my credit. This is one of the first things that I list about myself when I am crafting a blurb about my accomplishments or when I need to write up a paragraph detailing my successes. As authors, we can craft what truth to write on the page to suit our needs. For instance, it is an equal truth but far less flattering to mention that for every story on the list that met with an approval letter, I first met with at least four rejections. Sometimes I had ten or fifteen dismissals before I saw that coveted acceptance finally come my way. In fact, it might be fairer to write next to my name: suffered 703 kicks in the teeth, but who wants to trumpet their failures? It’s far better to tell about the ones that people liked than the ones they didn’t, wouldn’t you agree?

Let’s be honest: you’re going to get some rejections along the way. It’s to be expected, but you’re strong and you can handle it. You can mitigate your risk of receiving that dreaded rejection letter by following a few simple rules:

–When you are ready, having your piece thoroughly edited and proofread.

No submissions editor wants to read a story by an author that couldn’t be bothered to properly punctuate or spell correctly. If you don’t care, why should they?

–Reading and respecting ALL submission guidelines.

This can be difficult, since each place has varying, possibly circuitous, rules that sometimes seemed designed to test your patience and understanding of your computer’s advanced formatting tools. But a word to the wary: many places will not even read your submission if you don’t follow their rules very closely. It is wise to spend time reading the fine print, and I especially recommend becoming familiar with William Shunn’s excellent guide to formatting, which is considered by most to be the gold standard when there is any doubt about the rules.

Choosing wisely about where to submit.

You may not have time to read the back issues of every literary magazine between The Albuquerque Revue and Zephyrhills Weekly, but it is your responsibility to be at least a little familiar with where you are submitting. It doesn’t make sense to submit a horror story to a romance-based magazine or a conservative political editorial to a nonbinary review. These types of mistakes are sure to get you a rejection, and not a nice one. A little bit of research beforehand can save you a lot of headache in the long run. Or it can make your day!

–Having a great submission letter.

This is your introduction and your chance to stand out from the pack.

We’re going to focus on the last item. The key to having your first story accepted instead of brushed off can be as simple as your submission letter. If I had known that when I was beginning my career, I may be more able to write now suffered only 201 kicks in the teeth and saved myself a few heartaches, but perhaps you can learn easier than I did. A well-written submission letter is important because it gives a lot of information about you in an organized manner. Many contributors skip this step, especially if they are submitting through an online management software system such as Submittable that has its own place for the questions that would normally be included in a cover letter. This is a mistake for several reasons, this first and most important is that your information will be stored with that system, but you want to be known as professional. Your submission and that spot in the magazine or with the publishing house is similar to a job to which you are applying. If you take yourself seriously and with respect, the editors will see that and take notice. Filling out an online form is the minimum effort required, and it shows. Having a well-crafted submission letter speaks volumes about you, and you want to leave people with the best impression of yourself and your work that you possibly can.

It is all right to create your letter beforehand and tweak it to fit the different places you are submitting to. This is known as a form letter. The danger in this is that you must be very careful to look over your letter before you send it out. You don’t want any embarrassing mistakes because you sent the wrong date or the wrong salutation at the top. So be aware of the pitfalls of the form letter.

The submission letter should start with your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address at the top left corner, left-justified. Must you give this information? Sometimes not, but it is easier to remove it in subsequent drafts than to keep adding it every time you want to send the letter. Traditional cover letters usually include that information, and any reputable establishment will not sell or use personal information from submissions. If you choose not to include this information, you can always delete it later.

The next step is to choose a greeting. Because it is a form letter, it is advisable to choose something that does not specify gender or is inclusive to both. “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madam,” etc.

The opening paragraph is where you introduce yourself. Say hello and state the the name of your story. This is where you need to establish a connection, no matter how tenuous: “I found your listing for calls in New Pages.” “I read Glimmer Train.” “I read a story by your editor.” Here is where you mention how know about them or how you heard about their company and why you think your story is a good fit. This paragraph should not be more than three or four sentences. This is not the time to discuss plot details or to explain anything. This is a quick, easy, paragraph establishing introductions and connections and should not be overly dense.

The next paragraph is your biography. It should be about seventy-five to a hundred words, or no more than four sentences. This is where you state some accomplishments germane to the industry. You may list a single website and no more than three published titles. If you list everything you have ever written, you risk boring the editor and they will skip over your whole letter. If you are new and just getting started, don’t fret. You can use general terms when talking about your accomplishments: “I’ve been writing for 5 years.” “I have always loved reading and have decided to pursue writing as my dream.” Many, many publishers passionately support new and emerging writers, so don’t be intimidated  when you’re just starting out!

The last section is where you close it out and tie everything together. Thank the editors for taking the time to read your work. Say something gracious about the process or something personal but genuine. If nothing seems to fit, that’s okay. This section should be short, but not more than three sentences at most.

For your closing, pick something that suits you but is not too trendy. “Sincerely,” “Respectfully,” “Best wishes,” are all good choices and something in that vein would serve you well. You want to write your name, and underneath that you may also put your pen name in parentheses, if you are using one.

This will be a good, solid submissions letter that will serve you all the years that you will be working with the publishing industry. It can be modified easily: you can add to your growing list of accomplishments in your biographical section, add in word count if the site specifies it, give a little blurb about the plot if they require it, and so on and so forth. The most important thing is that you remember to read all of the requirements for each site so that you can make the changes to your letter that you need to.

Rejection doesn’t come easy to anyone, but being prepared will help you avoid a majority of those nasty stings. This guide to submissions letters is your first step in great preparation. Good luck out there, and happy submitting!