Article: Beyond the Guidelines: 25 Ways You Might Be Annoying Editors Without Even Knowing It

All writers at some point in their careers make some kind of submission faux-pas. It’s embarrassing and you’ll feel pretty dumb when it happens, but rest assured that there’s almost certainly another writer out there who has done the same thing, or has done something even more obtuse.

Following standard manuscript format will take care of most of the problems you’re likely to run into. But in my seven years experience as an editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I’ve come across a number of recurring mistakes that tend to get glossed over in guidelines, but are annoying nonetheless. Here are my top 25.

Manuscripts & Submission Packages

  • The Impenetrable Envelope — Be careful about making your submission envelope too hard to open. Too much tape is the primary culprit. Don’t tape up every gap in the envelope; leave some room for the letter opener.
  • Paper or Plastic? — Plastic envelopes are very hard to open, so don’t use them. They seal quite securely, so they probably offer writers some measure of comfort, but it’s a bit too secure–the letter opener doesn’t work so well on them.
  • Confetti is For Celebrations, Not Submissions — Never use those padded envelopes with the recycled confetti inside. They’re not only messy, they’re totally unnecessary. Your manuscript is made of paper, it’s not going to break.
  • The World is Not Flat, But Your Ms. Should Be — Always mail your manuscript flat. It doesn’t matter if it’s two pages and will fit nicely into a #10. Mail it flat. The editor will appreciate it.
  • One at a Time, Please — Don’t bombard the same publication with more than one story at a time, and don’t submit more than once a week, even if you get a rejection back in a few days. As a general rule of thumb, submit a story to a market, and then don’t submit anything else to them until they’ve responded to your first submission.
  • The First Rule of Write Club is You Do Not Staple Your Manuscript — The pages of your manuscript should be loose, or bound only with a paperclip. Do not staple or otherwise bind your manuscript. This also goes for those clear, plastic folders you used to put your high school English papers in.
  • Unending Ellipses — An ellipsis has three full stops. Always. Occasionally, you will see what appears to be an ellipsis that is made of four dots, but in reality that’s an ellipsis followed by a period because it ends a sentence). Never, under any circumstances, should an ellipsis ever have five, ten, or fifteen full stops, no matter how long a pause you’re trying to indicate.
  • Ready For Your Close-up? — Don’t send headshots, no matter how good-looking you are. It doesn’t help, and more often than not, it comes across as creepy, and the editorial staff will make fun of you at lunch.
  • Submission Spam — If you’re submitting to a market that accepts electronic submissions, double-check your submission to make sure it’s the final draft before you click send. If you send three submissions in rapid succession explaining that whoops, you messed up and sent the wrong file, use this one instead, you’re going to look silly.
  • Reading Comprehension — If you’re going to indicate that you’ve read the guidelines, make sure you follow them. For instance, don’t send email queries saying "I know you say not to query, but…", or instruct the editor to email you his response even though the guidelines say to send an SASE.


  • S is For Self — Remember that SASEs are self-addressed. Before you seal up your submission envelope, double-check to make sure your SASE isn’t addressed back to the magazine you submitted to.
  • A Place For Everything — Be mindful of where you place your SASE in your submission envelope. Putting it too close to the top of the envelope sometimes results in it being damaged by the letter opener as the envelope is sliced open. Also, don’t put your manuscript inside your SASE. That’s almost like a pre-emptive rejection.
  • Does This Envelope Make Me Look Fat? — When you mail a manuscript flat, don’t force the editor to cram your manuscript in a letter-size SASE to return your manuscript to you. Editors become conditioned to think flat ms. plus #10 envelope equals disposable manuscript.
  • Recycle Paper, Not Ink — A nifty way of avoiding the problem mentioned in #13 is to always send disposable manuscripts. It’s easier for editors (and probably cheaper for you).
  • Return to Sender — If you wanted your ms. returned to you, but the publication doesn’t return it, forget about it and try to make it more clear next time that you want it returned (or better yet, send disposable mss.). If you write to the magazine asking them to return your ms., you’re probably too late — it’s almost certainly been recycled already.
  • Size Matters — When sending disposable mss., always use a #10 envelope for your SASE. Don’t use a #7, #8, or #9, or the extra envelope you mistakenly grabbed when you bought that greeting card.
  • Format Matters, Too — Don’t send postcards in lieu of envelope. Although they’re cheaper to mail, most markets mail you a rejection letter (or form letter), so a postcard doesn’t help.
  • Manuscript GPS — Speaking of postcards, if you want to be notified when your ms. arrives, use USPS Delivery Confirmation rather than including a postcard with your submission. Why? Delivery Confirmation is automated and requires no extra work on behalf of the editor. Plus, if the slush pile gets backed up, a postcard might be sitting inside a sealed envelope for quite a while, so you’ll be left in the dark as to its status. Note the distinction between Delivery Confirmation and Certified Mail; Delivery Confirmation requires no extra work from the recipient (and you check the status online), while Certified Mail requires a signature upon delivery, usually forcing the editorial staff to wait on line at the post office.
  • There Can Be Only One — One SASE is always enough. Opening up a submission envelope and discovering not one but two SASEs is confusing, especially when one is large (for the return of a ms.) and the other is a #10.
  • Mailing 101 — Know which side of the envelope the stamp goes on. You’d think everyone does, but sadly, that’s not the case. (It goes in the upper right-hand corner.) And always affix your postage to your SASE. Don’t paperclip it to the envelope or stick it inside the envelope. It’s far too easy to lose that way, and it just creates extra work for the editorial staff.

Cover Letters

  • Page Zero — Don’t put your cover letter inside a separate envelope. It should just go on top of the first page of your manuscript. Think of it as "page zero."
  • Hello, My Name Is… — Anything you want the editor to know should be in your cover letter; don’t expect them to visit your website to learn anything about you. It’s okay to mention your website, just don’t assume the editor will go look at it, and whatever information you decide to share, keep it short and to the point.
  • Well, Duh! — Don’t point out the obvious in your cover letter. For instance, don’t point out that underlining equals italics, that underlining indicates character’s thoughts, or that white space between paragraphs indicates a scene break.

Mortal Sins

  • Rejecting Rejections — Writing to an editor disagreeing with a rejection letter might help you blow off some steam, but it’s never a good idea. Also be careful what you blog about or post to public message boards. If you badmouth an editor online, don’t be surprised if it gets back to him or her.
  • The Sting — Everyone knows–or should know–that plagiarism is wrong, but do keep in mind that it’s still illegal even if you use it to prove a point. So, if you’re thinking about setting up your own personal sting operation–by putting your name on a classic story and submitting it as your own–to prove that those mean editors don’t really read your stories before rejecting them…don’t do it; it won’t prove anything anyway.

Keep in mind that the abovementioned dos and don’ts won’t necessarily apply to every market; always check the guidelines. When in doubt, imagine that you’re sitting in front of a stack of 100 or more submissions, and think about it from an editor’s point of view.

By putting in a little extra time and thought into preparing your submissions, you can avoid these pitfalls (and avoid incurring an editor’s wrath). And if you’re consistently professional enough that the editor doesn’t groan every time he or she sees one of your manuscripts, maybe you’ll even avoid writing’s biggest pitfall–rejection.


This article originally appeared in 2009 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market.