Top 10 Habits of Highly Irritating Editors

There’s a lot of material on the internet about how not to be a deadbeat writer. Much of it is posted by fiction editors, often in exasperation after the latest badly-formatted 30,000-word story about zombie mangosteens, submitted in response to guidelines clearly stating that only vampire vegetable stories under 4000 words will be considered.

While I agree that editors have a right to be irritated by all the writers out there who fail to follow clearly-outlined submission guidelines, send death threats in response to rejections, and consider the use of proper punctuation to have a stifling effect on their creativity … well, I just think that there’s another side to the story, and lately I haven’t been hearing much from that side.

Hence, I present the Top 10 Habits of Highly Irritating Editors. Names have been withheld in case I might still want to send one of them another story some day.

10. Requiring overseas authors to include IRCs (International Reply Coupons). (To be fair, it’s not that hard to order postage from other countries via the internet. Of course, one might suggest that it shouldn’t be that hard to reply to overseas authors via the internet, either.)

9. Submission guidelines that are not easy to find on the magazine’s website. Please don’t make me search through 6 months of blog archive just to make sure I’ve correctly formatted my submission.

8. Rambling submission guidelines that are longer than the stories that the magazine accepts. I actually don’t mind this so much, if the rambling submission guidelines are entertaining. Often they’re not.

7. Special treatment for submitting authors who also subscribe to the magazine. Or contest fees. Or any extra hoops that authors need to jump through in order to submit a story. I’m actually sympathetic to some of these things. But they still irritate me.

6. Unnecessarily mean rejection letters. I once received the following rejection letter: “Unfortunately, your story fails to overcome the overly cliched opening and I was never sufficiently grounded in the story to truly sympathize with your protagonist’s dilemma.” This was, in retrospect, a valid criticism of the story I had submitted. But isn’t there a nicer way of saying it? (In fact, there is, and a received a much more constructively worded rejection letter for the same story from a different magazine. Interestingly, even though both rejection letters basically said the same thing, it was the nice rejection letter that convinced me I ought to go back and revise the story.)

5. Rejection letters including terse suggestions that I read sample copies of the magazine to find out what sort of stories they publish. It’s especially irksome when I did read sample copies of the magazine. “Well,” I think. “That was pointless. Better save my money next time.”

4. Number 5, only with a subscription form included with the rejection letter.

3. Making me check the magazine’s blog periodically to see if my story has been rejected, instead of sending a quick e-mail to that effect.

2. Not following through on the obligations outlined in the contract, once a story has been accepted. This includes many different irritating behaviors, but the two most irritating are probably (a) not paying the author, and (b) not publishing a story after the contract has been signed. (B) is especially obnoxious when combined with the Number One way to irritate an author …

1. Not responding to query letters!

We’ve all been there as authors. The magazine has had our story for a really long time. Maybe a year. Maybe longer. We start to wonder. Did their reply get lost in the mail? Eaten by the internet? Did they even receive the story? So we send a politely-worded query letter, asking if they are still considering the story, of course we’re happy to wait if it’s still under consideration, but just in case it’s already been rejected and we just never got the memo … we send off the query e-mail. And, nothing. Another month goes by, or two. They don’t accept simultaneous submissions, and neither do any of the other magazines we’d like to submit the story to. So, perhaps we send a second query letter. Perhaps we go so far as to send a (still-polite) e-mail to the effect that if we don’t hear back from the editor by X date, we’ll assume they’re not interested.

It happens all too often. Sometimes, a year after the “ultimatum” e-mail (and after we’ve already sent the story to 4 or 5 other magazines), we finally receive the missing rejection letter. A form letter. Encouraging us to read a sample copy of the magazine. With a subscription form enclosed.

In closing, I would like to offer my thanks to all those editors who, by their example, made it possible for me to write this list. And extra-special thanks to those who didn’t.

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16 Responses to Top 10 Habits of Highly Irritating Editors

  1. Donald says:

    Nice. I’ll add one:

    11. Failing to respond to a submission within their posted response time. Or anywhere close to their posted response time. Or at all.

  2. Donald says:

    Oh, and one more:

    12. Non-standard and/or unwieldy formatting requirements. Some I’ve actually seen: Use five spaces rather than indents at the beginning of each paragraph. Single-spaced only (which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t such a departure from what everyone else wants). Paste the submission in plain text in the body of the e-mail (with _italics_ and *bold* indicated by underscores and asterisks).

  3. Dawn says:

    13. Unwarranted condescension. If it’s not the story you (editor/reader) wished I had written, reject it. You’re the one with the power. Better still, go write the story you would have written. And submit it.

  4. Matt Kressel says:

    This is a very good list and I think a lot of would-be publishers and editors should be reading this first, and perhaps every month thereafter. I do, however, slightly disagree with #6. While I think it’s nice when editors take the time to let you down softly, they ultimately have no obligation to pull punches. Of course, I don’t think it’s in anyone’s interest to be a jerk, but an editor is not there to critique your story, only to decide if he or she wants to buy it.

  5. Jim Stewart says:

    13. Guidelines that say something like “We just like really good stories, we don’t care what kind!” I’m sorry, but this is _always_ bulls**t. Every editor has certain preferences for the kind of stuff they publish. It may have nothing to do with genre; maybe you will just as happily publish a western as you would a story about knitting, but you have preferences for certain themes, or certain endings, or how experimental you want the story to be or whatever. Give me something to go on.

  6. Jim Stewart says:

    14. Guidelines that just read “Read a few of our issues to know what kind of stories we like.” Look, I understand it’s hard to run a magazine, and you get too many submitters and not enough subscribers. But selling issues to people who are deciding whether to submit to you is not the way to build a readership base. It is good to have read a magazine before submitting, but I have to know if what you publish is even close to what I write before I decide it’s worth buying an issue or two of yours.

    PS I don’t have any trouble with these kinds of guidelines if it includes a link to a few free stories on your website.

  7. Lisa says:

    Perhaps all of these things are simply foils to frustrate all but the most perservant authors, thereby reducing the number of submissions and required responses.

  8. David Mercurio Rivera says:

    There’s no excuse for not responding to query letters after holding on to a story for a long period of time. It’s just rude. And all too common, unfortunately. A brief response, ” It’s still under consideration and we hope to get back to you in the next x weeks” does the trick.

  9. Mark S says:

    #2 is not just an irritation, those habits are downright unprofessional and unacceptable.

    A few other suggestions of my own:

    10a. Responding via regular mail at all. I can understand why an editors may want to limit the deluge and save printing costs by requiring hardcopy submissions, but why make the author wait AND make more work for yourself by mandating envelope-and-stamp acceptances and rejections? That’s just tradition overriding good sense.

    13. Assuming that your preferred guidelines are universal industry standards, and getting bent out of shape about it: i.e., “No one accepts manuscripts via email!” vs. “No one sends paper manuscripts anymore!” or “Never use Times New Roman! Manuscripts are always formatted in Courier!”

    14. Still requiring authors to underline for italic and insert hand-drawn wavy underlines for bold. Type isn’t set by hand anymore, folks!

  10. Jessica says:

    Very true, Lisa. I know when my significant other wants to submit a voice-over demo, many companies have you jump through lots of hoops. I assume it’s to deter the masses, and then the company only has to wade through the determined folks’ submissions. And unfortunately, the hoops deter him sometimes (those times, I do it for him- I don’t mind hoops if it means possible work in the long run).

  11. Donald says:

    It’s a lot of work in order to be published in a magazine mostly read by other aspiring writers wanting to see what sort of stories they ought to submit.

  12. Kristin says:

    Matt – I agree with you that an editor has no obligation to critique my story, or to find something positive to say about it, or whatever. In fact, the “nice” rejection for the story that I’m referring to in #6 didn’t say anything positive about my story either. It did, however, manage to avoid loaded words like “cliche”, and provided specific feedback as to what, exactly, wasn’t working in the opening scene, and why.

    I think the problem with “telling it like it is”, even if it’s harsh, is that it ultimately serves no purpose besides giving the editor a chance to vent his or her frustration at having wasted their time reading such a crappy story. Unfortunately, if something is phrased in an antagonistic or rude way, even if it is valuable feedback, it’s probably going to be wasted, because the recipient isn’t going to be able to step back enough to see the truth in what you’ve said. So it’s just a waste of time, if your motivation in providing more than a form rejection is to help the author improve. I honestly don’t think that a snippy rejection letter that lacks more specific suggestions than “the opening was cliched” is any more helpful than a form rejection.

  13. Kristin says:

    Jim – I know! I see vague guidelines like that and I think, “Oh, good! Another place I can send my high fantasy elf stories!” And then they reject them just as quickly as the places that say “no Tolkienesque elves.” What gives?

  14. Matt Kressel says:

    Kristin, yes, I agree, an editor should not be snarky just to be snarky, and there’s really no use for rudeness. However, I think sometimes we might mistake a to-the-point rejection as being intentionally rude, when it might be that our feelings were hurt. I’ve had plenty of those.

    With Sybil’s Garage rejections, the editors and I try to say something positive about every story we reject. I think this encourages a relationship with your authors and also engenders respect.

    Mark S., I’m not sure I agree with your #14. The reason why italics are underlined in manuscripts is because editors who read hundreds or thousands of mss can sometimes miss italics. The underline is there to make sure the editor sees them.

  15. Kristin says:

    It’s true, I think that it is easy to be too oversensitive, and thus to misinterpret the intent behind a rejection.

    I would have said once that I would be grateful for even a rude rejection if it pointed out valid issues about my story. I didn’t think I was that sensitive. But it occurred to me that maybe I’m more sensitive about them than I’d like to admit, after thinking about the fact that I’d received two rejections for a story that said more or less the same thing, only one said it more gently, and I completely dismissed the less nice rejection and only listened to the advice after it had been phrased more gently.

    Ideally, I would be able to critically assess any feedback on my story without regard to how gently it had been phrased. However, although intellectually I do appreciate any time that an editor takes to point out what’s wrong with a story, the unfortunate fact remains that, if the comments come across as rude or antagonistic, I’m probably not going to pay any attention to them, and they will have just wasted their time.

    It’s a good lesson for me on the other side, too, because sometimes I’m not as tactful as I should be when I’m critiquing people’s stories in writers groups.

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