Thursday, July 22, 2010

Do Mistakes in Our Submissions Hurt Us?

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Mistakes. We all make 'em. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I'm no stranger to typos, much as I try to avoid them. I want the site to be typo free, but hey, I know me. When I make a mistake I fix it, otherwise I don't sweat it.

I think this attitude has served me well in the publishing business. That probably sounds strange since "make it perfect" is drummed into the head of every hopeful writer. And it is an important goal to strive for.

But here's the thing:

No one is perfect.

Mistakes do happen.

We all make them.

Now, major mistakes due to sloppiness and carelessness are to be avoided, because they just scream "unprofessional," and who wants to work with someone unprofessional? Publishing is a business after all. To play at this level you have to be professional. But the little sniggly things that occasionally creep into a manuscript? The "on" instead of "in" that spell check doesn't catch? Don't sweat it. Even professionals make those mistakes.

Try your very best to catch them all and fix them, but agents know not everyone can catch everything, especially in your own writing. There's a reason editors have professional copy editors go over every book. These folks are like the Navy SEALs of proofing. I'm constantly thinking, "How in the world did they catch that?" every time I get CE (copy editor) proofs back to check. And then I do my best not to make that same mistake again.

What should you worry about when you submit work to agents?

In a Query

The shorter the piece the less forgiveness you have. While one typo probably isn't going to doom you, several will. If you can't be bothered to proof your query, odds are the manuscript is a mess. Agents know queries are hard to write for some folks, and they're pretty good at spotting the core of a story. But you'd be surprised how accurate queries can be to the book itself from a writing standpoint, so your query really does reflect the book.

Do stress over:

1. Typos

2. Correct names and contact info

3. Show vs tell

4. Quality of the hook and the overall writing

5. Awkward or unclear phrasing

6. Following the guidelines of the agent you're querying

Don't stress over:

1. Your intro or closing paragraphs

2. Whether or not you have publishing credits

3. If you made a mistake somewhere that you missed

As long as you followed standard guidelines, wrote a professional letter with a great hook, and sent it to the agent the way they asked you to, chances are you're fine. Minor errors or simple human mistakes will not kill your chances.

In Your Sample Pages

Requests for partials are worthy of celebration, but we also can't help sitting on pins and needles while they're out. Since the sample is larger, you have more leeway on any little goofs you might have made, but like a query, the more typos you rack up, the more unprofessional you're going to look. If the first three chapters need a ton of work to clean up, odds are the entire manuscript does, too.

Do stress over:

1. Clean prose

2. A strong opening hook

3. Likable or compelling characters

4. Proper formatting

5. Contact info on every page along with the page number

Don't stress over:

1. What you call your chapters

2. If you did or didn't include a title page

3. That you missed a mistake

4. That you sent 53 pages to finish the scene when they only asked for the first 50

5. That you used underlines instead of italics (or vice versa)

6. That you used Courier instead of Times Roman (or vice versa)

At this stage, the story is either going to grab the agent or not, and unless your manuscript is a mess, a few mistakes will be overlooked. Irrelevant details that don't affect the story at all won't affect the agent either. If the book is good and professionally written, they'll ask for more. If not, they won't.

In Your Manuscript

This is the biggie. The dream request. Chances are, if you got this far, then the agent likes your work and is interested in seeing how it all turns out. They'll forgive minor mistakes that can easily be fixed. They'll forgive a few awkward sentences here and there. They'll even forgive some plot issues if the basic story and writing are wowing them. Seriously.

Do stress over:

1. Clean prose from start to finish

2. A compelling story and characters

3. That the back half is as good as the front half

4. Proper formatting

5. Submitting it how the agent asked for it

Don't stress over:

1. Stylistic choices you made, ie how you formatted e-mails in the story, or how you showed time

2. Any one particular part you weren't sure about but left in anyway even though you really feel now that you should have cut it out

3. Any mistakes you might have missed

The story is what matters. If you've passed the writing muster of sample pages, then you're writing at pro level and the agent wants to see how you tell a story. They know if they don't care for something they can ask you to change it. They know that a little editing can be done if the rest of the book rocks. They know you're not perfect. They can see if the story works. They can tell if the story is well written. They can tell if the story is something they might be able to sell. They're not going to reject you because one scene is slow or your ending isn't as punchy as it could be. They get it when they read a manuscript and they evaluate it on a bigger scale than a list of details to check off.

Now, this is not meant as a free pass to be sloppy. It's meant to ease your mind and put your focus on the things that do matter. It's easy to get caught up in the minutia of submitting that the important stuff falls by the wayside. Don't spend endless days on your query and sample chapters, but ignore the rest of the book. Do your best on the whole package.

Professional quality writing is writing that is as error free as possible, reads seamlessly, hooks a reader and offers a compelling story with interesting characters. It's not about which font you used or whether you capitalized your chapter titles or not.

You don't have to be perfect. You just have to be professional.

If you're looking for more to improve your craft (or a fun fantasy read), check out one of my writing books or novels:

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011).

She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Nice post!! I think in my revisions I've been focusing too much on getting everything perfect. Not that I'm going to slack off now, but I may just go easier on myself. Thanks, Janice.

  2. Sometimes I wish I could read through slush. NOTHING makes you an expert faster than sorting through a buttload of something.

    Over the years I've had to sort through hundreds of resumes. I developed quite the eye for them. If I could just get my hands on some slush, I could perfect my submissions.

  3. Vicki, try Query Shark (, Miss Snark ( Look for the Crapometer contests, and the Hook contests, and Evil Editor (

    All three blogs have folks sending in their work for comment. It's probably as close to slush as you'll find. I figured out how to write queries by reading Miss Snark's Crap-O-Meter hook pages. You get a great feel for the tone and flow of a query after reading 700 of them.

  4. I have a question: are you supposed to use underlines or italics? I've heard both sides, but which is correct?

    By the way, great post!

  5. Thanks for the link, Natalie!

  6. Oh, Brittany, either one is fine, italics or underline. As long as you're consistent. I used underlines when I was first querying, (because that's what folks said to do) but I asked my editor which she preferred, and she wondered why you'd underline.

    Underlining is probably better if you're using a font like Courier, which is harder to differentiate between regular and italics (the whole reason they started doing it in the first place back in the typesetting days). But if you're using a basic san serif like Times Roman, italics is fine if you want.

  7. This is great timing for me! Thank you for these wonderful pieces of advice.