You Can’t Make a Mistake

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a writer, it’s that there is very little tolerance for mistakes in this profession. Granted, a writer’s mistake won’t kill anyone (unlike, say, a mistake made by a surgeon), but when people are paying you for your work, they expect perfection. That creates a lot of pressure, but never more so than when you’re just starting out.

The problem (aside from the whole, “We’re giving you money for this so it had better be great,” thing) is that all fields of writing are flooded with competition. It’s a buyer’s market. Publishers, agents, editors, bloggers, and employers are drowning in submissions from highly qualified, intelligent writers. They need a way to quickly weed out applicants and submissions. The best way to do that, at least when making a first pass through the submission pile, is to look for mistakes.

They may look at technical mistakes, such as problems with tense, point of view, or proofreading, or mistakes in following directions (i.e., they requested a double-spaced manuscript and you sent yours in single-spaced). Other mistakes include addressing your materials to the wrong person, spelling that person’s name incorrectly, or calling a “Mrs.” a “Mr.” Any mistake can be cause to trash your submission.

It may seem unfair and like a double standard, especially because the materials they send to you may have mistakes that you are expected to overlook (such as this rejection letter that I received). However, they are the gatekeepers and you, unfortunately, are the small fish in a big pond looking for work. They get to make the rules.

Maybe some years down the road when you have a pile of high-quality articles to your credit, tons of satisfied clients, or solid book sales, you might find a gatekeeper more willing to overlook a tiny mistake on your submission. They can see that you generally produce quality work and, heck, you might be in high demand and they may want to grab you before someone else does.

But when you’re just starting out, that first submission is your only impression and any error will count against you. It will give the gatekeeper an easy reason to reject you. You may be the best writer since Hemingway, but the gatekeeper will never know that because your material will be discarded before they ever get to see your great work. It seems extreme, but when you have to wade through hundreds of applicants (and, honestly, query letters and book proposals are just other forms of job applications), you don’t waste time on someone who can’t separate “there” from “their” or follow basic directions.

I tell you this not to be discouraging, but to drive home the point that your submission materials (and your final work) need to be error-free. Some tips:

  • Don’t submit a first draft of anything. Revise until it shines.
  • Proof it and then proof it again. And again. And once more after that.
  • Have someone else (or a few someone else’s) look at it to catch the mistakes you might have missed.
  • If you can afford it, have larger pieces like books and book proposals professionally edited.
  • Send yourself a test email to make sure that emailed submissions appear properly formatted and that attachments are coming through correctly.
  • Double and triple check submission requirements and make sure you adhere to them. (Creativity of expression is frowned upon during the submission process.)
  • Don’t write and send on the same day. Even if you think you’ve written the final draft, let your submission materials sit for a day (or more) before you send them out. When you read them again with fresh eyes, you’ll probably catch mistakes that you couldn’t see when you were so close to the work.

The bottom line is this: Gatekeepers look for an easy way to cull the herd, so don’t give them an easy way to reject you. Make them work for it by getting past the initial screening. Submit work that’s so perfect that they want to read all of your materials. If they still want to reject you after that, fine. But don’t make it easy on them.


(Photo courtesy of stevepb)

4 thoughts on “You Can’t Make a Mistake

  1. Pingback: 16 Things NOT to Include in a Query Letter | Jennifer Derrick

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