***Disclaimer: the views expressed in the post below are mine and not necessarily those of my employer***
At my job, I’ve had the privilege of sitting on the panel for two different literary awards for new writers, the prize for both being a publishing contract. I spent most of this past weekend curled up with the first three chapters of about 20 manuscripts, giving them a second look before we selected the five entries for which we’d like to see completed manuscripts.
It was a fascinating exercise! Tons of creativity but varying levels of execution. Some manuscripts had crazy amounts of action but almost no character development or descriptive language. Some had voice but no compelling plot to go with it. Others were the polar opposite. Some had a ton of compelling elements, but would clearly require a heavy amount of revision and editing. Then there were the few that were so well-constructed and compelling, that were so thoroughly considered and edited that we probably wouldn’t have to do too much before publication (an editor’s dream!). So, having been immersed in the editorial process all weekend, I have two pieces of advice w/r/t query/cover letters for anyone submitting their writing for publication (as two issues, though superficial and seemingly “no brainers,” emerged as a recurring theme!):
1) Edit your query/cover letter. Then edit it again. Then ask the best writer you know to look it over. Then ask that person to ask the best writer they know to look it over. Then look it over again yourself.
I cannot tell you how many cover letters made my skin crawl, especially as a former teacher. So many atrocities committed against the English language! Even my first and second graders left my classroom understanding which form of there/their/they’re to use when. **headdesk**
Different editors have different preferences. I know some that never read the cover letter before they read the manuscript. I know some that only bother to read the query if they like the writing sample. Personally, when I’m reading submissions, I start with the query/cover letter. I like to know a bit about the author before I dive into the piece. Murphy’s Law dictates that the one time you dash off a cover letter without editing it, someone like me will be reading your query, and it will not work in your favor.
The way I see it, the query/cover letter is like the outfit you choose to wear to a job interview; it helps create an initial impression. If an applicant showed up for an interview at our publishing house in sweatpants and a dirty, ripped up t-shirt, that would be a substantial red flag and I would most likely form the impression that maintaining a professional appearance wasn’t something that the candidate valued. When I see a cover letter chock full of usage and grammar errors, with misspellings and questionable/awkward sentence construction, I get the impression that the piece submitted is probably full of the same issues, which is a huge time suck for Editorial. It also sends the message that the aspiring author is not dedicated to the craft of writing. In my humble opinion, a writer needs to aspire to certain level of command over the English language in order to manipulate it to their benefit. If I see that a potential author is still struggling to figure out which form of “you’re/your” to use, or dashed off the query/cover letter without giving it a second glance, that gives me pause.
2) Don’t use a word just because it sounds fancy or smart unless you’re POSITIVE that you’re using it correctly. Then consult the dictionary, just in case.
Growing up, my nickname was “The Human Dictionary.” Epically nerdy. I know.
I like words. I like learning new words. I admire it when people incorporate new vocabulary from their reading into their writing and speech. We live in the era of 140-character-or-less communication, and sometimes words like “antithesis” and “extraneous” just don’t make the tweet (unless you’re Maria Popova of @brainpicker). I love literary, descriptive language, and I celebrate its presence in a synopsis, especially when it’s used well and used correctly. But when I see the word “abiding” used like a noun, or “apocalypse” as a verb, and words like “avert” used when the opposite is meant, my brain immediately goes:
Go through your query/cover letter and synopsis line by line. Look for words that you don’t use on the daily. Then consult a dictionary, just to be sure you’re using it accurately and in the correct context. Make sure it makes sense. Ask your linguistically nerdy friend** to read it. Ask them to ask the nerdiest of their book nerd friends to read it. And so forth.
In short, take care of the superficial so I can concentrate on the content of your manuscript without being distracted by egregious spelling or atrocious usage.
I feel a bit better now that I’ve vented. Thank you for humoring me! Hopefully my rant can be of some use 🙂
**I proudly consider myself among the linguistically nerdy.