Because Looks Matter

Okay, I received a spam with the above title, but a moment before I confirmed it to be spam, it got me thinking.

I hear people complaining about the hoops we have to jump through to submit our manuscripts, or talking about this or that exception who managed to ignore all the requirements and still get an agent, publisher, or sale.

To them, I say, “Looks matter.”

When you’re at the grocery store and there are twenty different zucchinis in the stack, do you just randomly grab one, or do you take the one that looks healthy? Maybe you’re not the type to poke and prod your way through the whole pile, but it’s rare that someone doesn’t at least check for tears or soft spots. No one wants to waste their money on something rotten.

Say you’re asking someone for directions? Are you going to go to the man in a torn raincoat with a scruffy beard and a brown bag-wrapped bottle in his hand? Or are you likely to ask the young woman who is corralling her two kids as they try to enter the store? I’m sure of the two, the mother is the busier one, but most people would assume her answer would be more reliable.

Rightly or wrongly, looks matter.

We make judgments every day based on what we know, what experiences we have had, what cultural influences we’ve absorbed, and billions of other factors. Sure, looks are not the only sense that we employ to make these judgment calls, but they are definitely a common one.

Now turn that to writing submissions.

We all believe the stories we’re submitting are publication quality and ready for the big time, or at least we should think that. Ignoring how well or poorly we’re able to judge our own work, focus instead on the fact that every writer in that slush pile believes the same thing. And a portion of those writers, a portion that usually exceeds the number of spaces in the magazines, are right.

Why wouldn’t you jump through the hoops, especially when most are consistent across magazines with a few specific twists? Why wouldn’t you remove anything that might possibly turn an editor away? Knowing that the slush pile contains many more stories than there are slots, and most likely many more good stories, why would any writer not do their level best to eliminate anything that detracts from the value of the particular story?

Now maybe I shouldn’t be musing on this topic. After all, agents frequently report numbers along the lines of less than 15% who followed the submission instructions, and I doubt magazines have significantly different numbers. Each and every one of those authors who decided to forge a new path just made it that much more likely that the editor/agent will choose my story out of a limited stack instead of being overwhelmed by the deluge of brilliant stories. Still, it’s worth thinking about, whether you’re one of those who carefully checks and may feel tired of the effort, or especially, if you’ve been thinking that it’s not really worth the trouble.

Of course this type of thought leads to the opposite problem, something I have suffered from a time or two, where you check, double check, triple check, and end up changing something by accident or confusing yourself into an error, but I’d prefer to be on the side of the occasional accident than the one who doesn’t care. Put yourself in the editor/agent’s footsteps for a moment and consider how you would feel to receive something that fails to respect the rule set you’ve taken the time to put forward. As I have told my sons a time or two when trying to increase their awareness, how would that make you feel? Somehow I doubt what comes to mind is a charitable, “I’m sure they tried their best.”

So when you’re preparing that next submission, remember looks matter, and you’ll already be ten steps ahead of the pack.

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6 Responses to Because Looks Matter

  1. Deirdre says:

    In a world where timing is everything, I ran across an email forward you sent (yes you!) back in ’05 about being thankful for the little annoyances in life because they mean you’re living in it. It sort of applies to this.

    Be thankful that you have so many hoops to jump through, because it means you are able to write what you want and share those stories with publishing houses.

    • MarFisk says:

      Clearly it struck a chord if you’ve kept it all these years. I will forward the ones that I think say something important, and yes, be thankful for annoyances as best you can. Extra important to remember when I realize pretty soon my teenagers won’t be here to annoy or for me to enjoy very much longer.

  2. Good one, Margaret. It’s one of the lines I take with members of my writing group, and I’ve had two members make first sales so far, one on her first submission ever, the other pretty early on for how tough markets are. I think one of the purposes of those finicky directions is to check for how well an author can read (if they can’t read the submission directions, can they really read well enough to revise their own work?) and how easy (or not) it will be to work with that particular author (can/will they follow directions?). When you consider how long it takes to write and edit a story or novel, it really is worth the few extra minutes to carefully read the submission information and follow through on it with the same care.

    • MarFisk says:

      That’s my thought too that one of the reasons is to see how easy people will be to work with, but often it’s just because overworked eyes don’t like the look of 10 point fonts, or worse :).

  3. Michele says:

    What came to mind as I was reading this was a child. My children. I want my children to always have their best feet forward. And myself. I want my best foot out there, as well. I will groom my children and myself for whatever the occasion may be. Why should I do less for something that will, ultimately, represent me? It is a PAIN (in my opinion) to edit. I don’t know why I came to this feeling about editing, though I have my suspicions. But it’s still necessary to do the work and do it with heart. Just like all those motherly chores we may not like best, but will do willingly nonetheless.

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