Archive | Writing Tips RSS feed for this section

Word Limits

3 Oct

The word count can be confusing for those just beginning on the path of the writer. Thanks for the miracle of wordprocessing, you no longer need to count words per line and lines per page (unless you write longhand and need an estimate before you type it). Word or Libre Office or whichever program you use will tell you just how many words your document contains. Easy!

A word of warning, though. Remember that this count will include every word in the document, including the title and ‘The End’ (neither of which counts towards the total). If you have included your contact details at the beginning of the document, they will be counted towards the total (however, any words in the header or footer won’t be counted), but you can highlight your actual submission or delete unwanted words and then click restore to put them back once you have the word count.

Beware, too, of section breaks (such as *** or #), which will show up as words, but don’t actually count towards the total, and hyphenated words, which will show up as one word but may be counted individually. You may wish to remove hyphens and other such things before getting an accurate count.

So, you now know how many words your story contains. But, how many words are you allowed? The numbed will be listed for the magazine or competition – there may be a minimum and/or a maximum. You should always read the guidelines to see if these are hard limits (that is, you cannot break them by even one word) or soft limits (that is, you are allowed to break them by a reasonable amount – what counts as reasonable may be stated, otherwise a few words over is definitely okay and as much as 10% might be considered acceptable). If not otherwise stated, you can usually assume that you can go a few words over for a magazine or anthology, as the editor is likely to have the leeway to balance longer stories with shorter ones (although you probably wouldn’t be paid for excess words, if being paid by the word) and they may be willing to work with you to edit the story so that it fits. Competition entries should stick to the stated wordcount as deviating by even one word is likely to see your submission disqualified.

Personally, for competitions, I try to keep comfortably within the stated word-limits, just in case the word count I make it doesn’t match that of the judges. Leaving a cushion means you are unlikely to fall foul of a disagreement. (Remember, the judges are unlikely to contact you, so you won’t have the chance to dispute a disagreement.)

But, don’t worry about it too much – a little commonsense should see you through most situations.

Advertisements

It’s Christmaaasss!

16 Dec

Yes, it’s the festive season and writers’ thoughts are turning to snow, decorations and Dickensian ghostliness. The problem is, if you’re writing a story or poem now, it’s too late to submit to an editor. Indeed, even if you submitted work in the last two or three months, it was probably too late.

Draw inspiration now, but you need to know when it’s best to submit your work (indeed, the same goes for other festivals, seasons and anniversaries – often you will need to submit three months to a year early). Most editors will want to receive submissions by September at the latest, some will want it by June. A few will want festive submissions as early as January or February. Keep an eye on their deadlines, but if a magazine doesn’t have a specific festive issue, look for ones planned for release in November or December and consider submitting something festive that fits with their theme.

As far as Atlantean Publishing goes, our primary festive publications are Christmas Chillers and Xmas Bards and I want submissions by October at the latest. Festive issues of Garbaj and Bard sometimes appear – based upon whether I’ve had sufficient submissions to warrant it – and the second Monomyth of the year is usually late enough that festive submissions will be considered. Likewise, there is an annual horror poetry booklet release for Hallowe’en and there are often issues of Bard (and sometimes Garbaj) that reference the seasons, Valentine’s Day, Hallowe’en, etc; I need to receive submissions at least a couple of months in advance.

So, put pen to paper (or fingertips to keyboard) and produce something seasonal and send it to Atlantean or another publisher when the time is right!

Sourcing Inspiration

22 Apr

People often wonder where they can find inspiration. Other than the suggestion that they try certain discreet shops down dark side alleys, the obvious answers are from life, history and dreams. (Although as Neil Gaiman pointed out in an article on inspiration, dreams as a whole aren’t the best source of inspiration, given most follow ‘dream logic’ that makes little real sense and often only resonates with the dreamer, certain dreams hold within them the kernels, perhaps even the entire plots, of stories within them, while the stranger ones can still be a source for surreal and bizarre fiction.)

But, there is another source from which you can draw inspiration: fiction, poetry and song, even art.

Now, I’m not talking about fan fiction, but inspiration for your own stories. Fan fiction is when you play with someone else’s toys without their permission and, obviously, restricts what you can do with the finished story. Of course, there are intermediate levels involving shared worlds such as the Cthulhu Mythos and out-of-copyright works and humorous takes on in-copyright works.

Shared worlds are open to anyone to play with, although there may be restrictions on certain elements. Out-of-copyright works can (usually, unless trademarks are involved) be reproduced without restriction, meaning you can do things like rewrite endings, create sequels, change the format (such as from a play to a novel), add new characters, or recast the events in another era, genre or location, or add zombies to an existing work. Humorous takes, such as spoofs or using characters or a setting for satire, are generally acceptable.

But, what I’m most interested in here is the inspiration you can draw from in-copyright works. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from adapting a plot as you would an out-of-copyright one by moving it to another era, genre or location, given that you cannot copyright ideas, but it is a far riskier proposition as you may inadvertently infringe a trademark, plagiarise a scene or be accused of ‘passing off’. What is more practical is, as you read a novel or poem, listen to a song or watch a movie, to consider the ideas that it sparks.

For example, you may think characters make the wrong decision or ignored a better solution to the plot. Or, you might see a different approach to a setting. Or, you may wonder what the characters would be like in a different setting. Try to go for the less obvious. Elements from Harry Potter and the Fables comic inspired me to write an entirely mundane novel. George Lucas drew from samurai and cowboy films, amongst others, for aspects of Star Wars. Take elements from more than source and mix them up to make something original.

Even though they seldom suggest a whole story, poetry, songs and art can suggest characters and scenes. Anything can spark an idea and any idea can be sourced for a story. Keep notes and see what develops.

Christmas Future

24 Dec

Set aside Christmas present for a moment and turn your mind towards next year. As you doubtless are aware, Christmas comes once a year, which means now is the perfect time to be drawing inspiration for stories, poems and articles to submit to festive magazines and anthologies in 2016.

Remember, most magazines and many anthologies set their festive deadlines in the early or middle part of the year, so it’s worth writing your submissions now in order to meet those deadlines. If nothing else, remember that Atlantean Publishing will be looking for submissions for Xmas Bards, Christmas Chillers and festive-themed issues of Bard and Garbaj (details will be on the wiki in the New Year).

Merry Christmas to you all and all the best for 2016 – may it be an inspiring year!

So, you want to be published? Part Two

26 Oct

So, you want to published? Well, if you’ve read part one, you ought to have a suitable manuscript to submit. Time to send it off! But, where to? And, what does publication entail?

The following sections seek to cover the main points, but can only constitute a broad overview. Laws vary between countries, guidelines vary between publishers, and things can and do change over time. If you are uncertain, query or research further before submitting or signing a contract.

Markets

The first thing you need to do, is research where to send your manuscript. There are many publishers out there and it is a waste of both your time and theirs if you send it to the wrong one or submit it in the wrong way, and that’s before you consider which publisher would actually be the best one to approach.

Of course, while the structure of this two-part article has assumed you have a submission ready to shop around, it is equally possible to write one aimed at a specific market, for example, to meet the theme of an anthology. Neither approach is the ‘right way’ and even if you aim your writing at a specific publication, the odds are that it will be rejected and you’ll be shopping it around anyway (and, if you have something that suits the theme and length already written, it makes sense to submit it and direct your energies elsewhere).
But, whether you’re writing for a specific publication or trying to find a home for something you’ve already written, you do need to make sure you properly research the market to ensure your piece fits and that you understand issues such as rights and payment.

You may be surprised to learn how often people do something silly, such as sending a short story to a novel publisher or a horror story to a romance anthology. Of course, sometimes publishers are to blame, if their guidelines are vague or so dense that it’s difficult to locate specific details, but that generally results in errors like sending a 4000 word story when the cut-off length is 3000 words, rather than the sort of egregious errors I’ve mentioned, and a sensible writer will query if they cannot find the specifics they require.

Rights

Rights refers to what you are allowing the publisher to do with your work. Many publishers, unfortunately, insist on First Publication Rights – that is, they only want work that hasn’t previously been published. Sometimes, this may be more restricted – they may want work that hasn’t been published in print, but accept work that has appeared online (or vice versa), or work that hasn’t appeared within a specific geographical area (so First British Publication Rights would mean work that hasn’t previously been published in the UK); this latter is less common now, thanks to various print-on-demand (POD) platforms that allow a publisher to release a book in multiple regions at no extra cost.

Self-published work is considered published and most publishers consider work that has appeared on a blog or website or in publications with a limited circulation to be published, too. They usually state this in their guidelines, but, if in doubt, as always, query.

Because few publishers are interested in reprints (or, at least, unsolicited reprints – that is, reprints they didn’t ask for) and usually pay less, you do need to be sure that the publication is the right place for your work. Or, to put it another way, it makes sense to start with the better paying and more prestigious publications before trying lower or non-paying publications or posting it on your blog; you can always seek to have it republished or decide to put it on your blog later.

Of course, that decision has to be balanced by the marketability of your work. Some genres have spawned large numbers of magazines and anthologies, others are quite niche, and if your work falls into the latter, you may find there are few options open to you (just as there are fewer paying outlets for poetry than fiction).
Publication rights cover both print publication and electronic/digital publication and many publishers will seek to acquire both as they release their publications in both formats. Although many publishers, as mentioned, are seeking works that haven’t been published in any format, if they only acquire the rights to publish it in one format, then you may be able to find a publisher of the other who will regard it as unpublished. Print publication can be subdivided into various formats, such as periodical (magazine), paperback, hardback and large-print. These are seldom referred to when it comes to anthologies as most publishers are acquiring the rights to your work for an anthology that will only appear in a specific format, but will come into play where novels are concerned as it is fairly common for different publishers to handle different formats (meaning you either sell them individually or sell them all to one publisher who then resells or leases the rights to other publishers).

As well as straightforward publication rights, the publisher may also be seeking such rights as audio (that is audiobooks) and translation rights (in order to translate it into other languages). Other rights, such as film and stage rights, also exist, but publishers will not normally seek to acquire these. If you retain the audio rights to your work, you can freely record it yourself or sell it to an audio publisher (it is debatable whether this would be regarded as published, but you may find it easiest to have it published first before selling the audio rights, as most audio publishers are happy to accept previously published work). Translation rights exist for each language and do not impinge on the English language rights (so if you have had your story translated into German – or wrote it in German and then translated it into English – you can offer it as unpublished in English unless the publisher specifically mentions translations; but, note that competitions may ban or restrict the entry of translations). Naturally, film rights allow the story to be made into a film and stage rights allow the story to be adapted for the stage and performed, and will usually be sold to those in those fields (you are unlikely to have a say over how the work is adapted).

When granting rights to a publisher, you need to be aware of how long you are granting the rights for and whether or not they are exclusive. One-time publication rights is most common with periodicals and means that a single print run will be produced – although back issues could potentially be available for a long time, once the last copy is sold, no more will be produced without a new agreement being negotiated. Exclusivity refers to the work being restricted to appearing in only that publication (or, for novels, only with that publisher). One year from publication is the most common period for exclusivity, although it may range from three months to three years. Some publications only ever seek non-exclusive publication rights (although they may request the courtesy of exclusivity for a short period). Longer periods of exclusivity should be considered carefully as they will prevent you from reselling or republishing the work elsewhere. Non-exclusive rights refer to how long the publisher may keep the work in print.

In the past, you might sell a work for a single printing or allowing reprinting within a certain period, but with print-on-demand publishing, a publisher can keep an anthology or novel in print indefinitely and this presents something of a problem for the writer as many publishers are now asking for open-ended non-exclusive rights, which may affect the ability to resell work in the future if a publisher is seeking exclusivity. Of course, if you are receiving royalties, this isn’t a bad deal, as you’ll receive royalties for as long as the book sells, but if you sold your story for a one-off payment, the publisher is far more likely to benefit from the deal than you.

Payment

Payment can be a contentious issue! The sensible writer will, of course, avoid vanity presses (those publishers who charge you for the pleasure of seeing your work in print) and will generally avoid those publishers who offer no payment or contributor copy of any sort, as you’ll be paying them if you want a copy (although I do not class with these those webzines and ezines that are freely available to access or download, as you can get a copy for free). But, should a writer submit work to a publisher that only provides a contributor copy or to publishers that offer only royalties (or those webzines and ezines I mentioned)? That is a decision the writer alone can make.

When deciding where to submit work, the writer needs to consider multiple factors such as rights, length, effort, exposure, prestige, personal satisfaction and saleability. Firstly, the more rights you’re offering up, the better the payment you should expect. If a publisher wants audio and translation rights in addition to print publication rights, they should be prepared to pay more. The longer the period of exclusivity they request, the more they ought to offer, and an open-ended period of non-exclusive publication should offer more than one-off publication rights. If the publisher wants to wants to acquire the copyright to a piece outright, the payment ought to be good as you will lose all rights to exploit it yourself in the future.

When a publisher pays by the word or line of poetry, length will, obviously, have a direct effect upon how much you are paid (and allows you to easily compare payment – 2c per word is more than 1c per word). But, you also have to consider length and effort (frequently, but not always, closely related) when deciding what a piece is worth. You may be happy to put a limerick you dashed off in five minutes on your blog, but the epic poem that took you months to get right should be given more respect. Generally, the more time and effort that has gone into your work, the more you want to earn from it.

While the size of the readership will affect pay rates, as small presses with small readerships generally lack the income to pay well, if at all, you might equally be willing to accept lower pay for the opportunity to get your name out there. I’m not talking about those publishers who offer ‘exposure’ under payment (every publisher should be offering that!), but situations such as having a poem on a non-paying webzine that is read by lots of people or in a local newspaper for free. It may be that not being paid or paid less might help you to generate a readership that will increase your income in the long term. Equally the prestige of a publication may affect your decision – is it better to earn $50 from a midline publication or $10 from a prestige publication that will look good on your writing CV? Again, you’re making a call based on long term gain – can a publication credit leverage you better pay rates or more readers in the long term?

Personal satisfaction is that nebulous element of just how happy you are to see your name in print. Some writers are only really interested in writing as a hobby and will be more than happy to see their poem or story in print (although, no matter how pleased, I would recommend they should avoid paying for a copy). Some writers are full-time professionals and would place a paycheque far ahead of any sense of satisfaction. Most are somewhere in between. Only you can decide how satisfying any given publication credit is. This may even change over time. A beginning writer may feel that building up a portfolio of publication credits is their main aim, but once they are established will look mainly at the income they make. Equally, a beginning writer may be hardnosed in pursuit of money. It’s entirely up to you.

Saleability is the last thing to consider. That is, the question of how much would you expect the work to make you. Generally, a reprint will earn you less than an unpublished piece, but a piece that has proven popular may sell better as a reprint. Often, the more niche a piece is, the less it is likely to earn you due to the smaller audience, although if there is sufficient demand and few writers, the reverse may be true. The actual quality of the writing will affect the saleability – the better you are at writing, the greater your chances of being accepted by the higher-paying markets as you will usually have far more competition. And, of course, the more popular and famous you are, the more people will be willing to pay for your work.

By considering all these aspects, you can decide what a reasonable pay rate for any given piece of work is (and you may decide that different pieces are worth different amounts).

The same issues apply to self-publishing when deciding how much to charge for your book. Obviously, you’re keeping your rights, so they don’t factor in, and exposure will either be guesswork or based on experience, but you will need to balance your sense of satisfaction, the book’s saleability and the amount of time and effort (and any costs, such as paying for a cover image) that went into it.

Contracts

The problem with publishing contracts is that 90% of them cover amounts far too small to make enforcing them worthwhile (especially when publisher and writer are in different countries). Only if the writer goes on to become famous or the book sells really well is it worth pursuing any breach. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop publishers from issuing contracts for piddling amounts, often with pointlessly complex language and more clauses than necessary, meaning that you will almost certainly have to deal with them.

Of course, where larger amounts of money are involved or specific duties covered (for example, the publisher has promised to provide a certain level of publicity or the writer has agreed to write a novel to a set deadline) then a contract is a must, but many are nothing more than an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, whether a contract is offered and how complex it is has little to do with the amounts involved. Most small press publishers that offer only a complimentary copy work solely on an informal basis of acceptance letters or emails, but you could still receive a lengthy contract for exactly the same offer.

Generally, you do not need to have a lawyer look over publishing contracts, as the issues are straight forward – what rights are you granting the publisher and for how long, what format will it be published in, when it is due to be published, what happens if publication is delayed or cancelled, and how much will you be paid and when.

But, you do need to read them carefully to be certain nothing slips by you, especially if the language is convoluted and flowery. The last thing you want is to discover you’ve given away more rights than you intended. Most publishers are decent, honest folk, but this might happen unintentionally if the contract is poorly worded (I had to ask for one contract to be reworded because if implied I would have to pay the publisher if I wanted to reprint the story in my own anthology).

Given that most contracts cover such small amounts, the cost of having it looked at by a lawyer will be prohibitive. But, if you aren’t sure a contract is legit or you just don’t understand it, you do have options that don’t cost a penny. If you know a professional writer or publisher, they may be willing to look at it for you and offer their opinion (but bear in mind they aren’t an expert and can only offer a layman’s advice, and remember they are busy people and may not be able to spare the time). If you are a member of a body such as the Society of Authors, you are likely to have access to professional legal advice provided by the body. There are also sites online where you can post legal questions to get lawyers’ opinions (some are free and rely on whoever, if anyone, looks at your question, others charge but guarantee your question will receive an answer; of course, there is no guarantee that the person who answers your question will be an expert in contract law, but they should at least be able to offer some guidance).
If you are lucky enough to be offered a substantial amount of money, then do seek professional legal advice to make sure everything is legitimate.

Today, it is common for contracts to be signed electronically, using Adobe, or for scanned signed copies or even a typed, emailed declaration to be accepted. These methods are held to be held legally binding.

Go, submit!

You now have a basic understanding of all the key points, so what are you waiting for? Go, submit your work.

So, you want to be published? Part One

29 Sep

So, you want to be published? I’m assuming you are capable or writing something and, indeed, have done so. If not, go away and write a story, poem or article, then come back to learn about the next step. Lots of people dream of being published who never finish a thing.

Check Your Work

Before you do anything else, check your work over and make sure you’ve got your spelling and grammar correct. If it’s a poem, make sure it scans. Thanks to spell and grammar checks, there’s little excuse for submitting a document riddled with errors, but do check that you haven’t typed (or the computer has autocorrected to) the wrong word and that no words are missing; and do not so slavishly follow the computer’s corrections that you insert the wrong word or bad grammar by mistake. If in doubt, double check.

Just as it’s good to leave a gap between drafts in order to check how a piece reads, it also works when it comes to checking your grammar and spelling: it’s easy to read what should be there rather than what actually is. A little distance can help you spot errors.

Layout

Once you are reasonably certain your work is free of error, you’re ready to lay your manuscript out. It can be a good idea to create a template so that you don’t have to reformat every document you type as most editors request a similar layout.

Selecting your font is easy – almost all editors who have a preference ask for Times New Roman. A few prefer other fonts, but usually also accept it, so you will almost never need to change your font if you select Times New Roman from the outset. Keep it black on white and choose size 12. Even though, occasionally, you may want to use more than one font (such as including non-English text), this is problematic as, should you or an editor changing the font as a block, this can easily be lost (I’m speaking from experience here!), while some specialised fonts may not be available to everyone; thus such mixing should be avoided if at all possible and be flagged in the covering letter or as a note in the document.

Your document should have your name, address and email at its top. You will probably find it best to locate these on the upper left as, while many editors have no preference, those who do usually follow the so-called standard manuscript layout and will insist that they are located there.

Next comes word count (generally, unless writing flash fiction, you need only round this to the nearest hundred words for a short story or thousand words for a novel; for poems, you may wish to include the line count). This can be placed below your personal details or in the upper right, to conform to standard manuscript layout (personally, as an editor, this really annoys me as, when cutting and pasting a name and address, I end up with the word count in the middle of it).

Then comes the title and your byline, which should be centred. Your byline is the name you will be published under, which may be your real name, a variation on your real name or a pen name. If using a pen name, you may wish to include a note beneath your name and address or in your covering letter that you are ‘x writing as y’, just to make clear which is which.

Finally, we reach your actual submission. For poems, articles and short fiction, this will usually start directly below the title and byline. Novels, non-fiction books and competition entries usually have a front page with all the above details and the submission proper starts on a fresh page – this will be titled with the relevant chapter or section number or the submission title (but not byline) for a competition. Remember to use a page break if creating a front page.

Prose should be left aligned (not justified). Poems should be laid out as they are intended to appear in print (but bear in mind that complicated layouts may be lost during pasting, do try to keep it straightforward).

Fiction and non-fiction paragraphs should be indented using the paragraph layout tool in your program, not indented using tab or spaces. There should be no line after the end of the paragraph. (It should also be noted that you should only ever include a single space after a full stop.)

Section breaks are usually indicated with a star or hash, but you could equally leave a blank line.

Prose should be concluded with The End or Ends (although one publisher I have worked with insisted on x-x-x). Unless very long, poetry doesn’t require its ending to be indicated.

It is acceptable to include multiple short poems in one document, but, normally, you should only have one piece of prose in a document. A good generic document title is the title of the piece itself (so Lord of the Rings, not Fantasy Novel). It is best to save your document in as a .doc or .rtf file as they are the most widely accessible file types.

Any illustrations you may want to submit with your story should be submitted as separated files, not within the document.

Your Bio

You will also need a bio. Occasionally, especially with competitions, you will not need to send one, but most publishers like to see one. Keep it short (80-100 words) and to the point. Primarily, you want to tell them about your writing career and anything relevant to your writing – for example, if you are writing about education and you’re a teacher, tell them. Don’t worry if you have no writing credits – all writers start somewhere and you can spend a little more time describing yourself.

Do keep it interesting and relevant. You don’t have to tell the editor everything about yourself! In particular, avoid personal details that are unrelated to your writing or achievements. Relevance can boost your chances of being accepted, but irrelevance risks making you sound odd, boring, offensive or as if you are either attempting to drop names or force them to accept you so as not to appear discriminatory.

Try and imagine you are an editor receiving this bio from a complete stranger and you have just a few seconds to take it in – how does it come across? You want them intrigued not bored, and you definitely don’t want them confused, abused or offended.

Links and your twitter ID are best listed at the end of the bio, not within it – editors may not want to include them. Do not include more than two.

This will be a separate document – again .doc or .rtf – or pasted into the submission email.

Covering Letter

Your covering letter should be straight to the point and pasted straight into the submission email (ahead of the bio and any pasted submissions).

For most submissions, something like “Attached for your consideration is an unpublished short story called x (y words) by z” is perfect. Editors are busy people and don’t want to have to wade through the verbiage to reach the point of an email.

Generally, you do not need to provide any sort of description of a short story or poem (at most you may want to mention the genre or, for poems, the specific type). For articles and novels, an introduction and/or synopsis will likely be required. You may find it easiest to attach the synopsis as a separate document.

Generally, you don’t need to mention anything about yourself as you’ve already put that in your bio – only if something is very pertinent or if submissions are only open to a specific category of writer should you do so

Editorial Requirements

Okay, so you have your story laid out, you’ve written your bio and you either have a draft covering letter or, at least, a short, generic letter in your mind, and you’re ready to submit.

Go to the publisher’s website and look at their submissions guidelines. (These are not always easy to find – look for Guidelines, Submissions or Contributors – failing that, email them and ask them for their guidelines).

Many editors are quite easygoing – in some cases, there are no real guidelines at all, just an email to send work to – and, if you have followed the above suggestions, you should be able to submit with little or no further effort. Some are stricter, and you may find you have to tweak your layout or provide specific information in your covering letter (pay particular attention if entering a competition – some will insist that no personal detail is included on the story, some will accept a front page; some require entry forms, and so on).

A few editors have very specific requirements – most of these are obsessed with the so-called standard manuscript layout; if your work is entirely or mostly laid out in that style to start with, you will have fewer modifications to make. Of course, some do just have idiosyncratic ideas, and if you want to submit to them, you will just have to suck it up and make your work match their requirements.

As well as ensuring you have the right email to submit to, make sure you have put the right subject in the subject line of the email, attached or pasted into the email your work as requested, and made sure to include anything else required (for example, a few editors request a keyword be included to prove you have read their guidelines, while others request a photo).

Congratulations – you are ready to submit now!

Next time – I’ll discuss markets, reprints, rights, payment and contracts

Critiquing the Critiques

22 May

Writers can expect to see their work critiqued by editors, both when rejected and sometimes with an acceptance. Of course, not all editors do supply such feedback – many are busy people who just don’t have the time to respond to every submission, while others perhaps have no concrete advice to offer – but many do. Unfortunately, while some supply very good advice, others… don’t.

Feedback almost uniformly divides into helpful and unhelpful feedback – there’s not really such a thing as indifferent feedback, unless the writer has submitted something that doesn’t fit their guidelines and is told so, and even that is helpful in its way.

Unhelpful feedback can be divided into three types. The first sort is the factually inaccurate. This is where the editor identifies a flaw that doesn’t actually exist and is the most unhelpful sort as a lot of effort may be wasted attempting to locate a non-existent plot hole or trying to work out what they’re actually on about. Of course, given that it probably results from them skimming the submission, it may indicate they found it boring, but the most you may glean from this supposition is what stories not to send them. A subset of this category I’ve encountered recently is the editor saying the exact opposite of the point they apparently intended to make, which, again, tends to waste time as you attempt to decipher their meaning.

The second sort of unhelpful feedback you might encounter is one with no context. As an example, one reader once offered the comment of ‘Boring’ beneath one of my gaming reviews. The problem with this (besides the lack of any further detail) was that it didn’t define what exactly they found boring? Was it the review? Was it the game I was reviewing? Was it gaming in general? Who knows!

The third kind of unhelpful feedback occurs when the editor effectively wants to tell their own story in place of yours. Instead of actual feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of the story, they supply an outline for one completely different to it and suggest you write it. Which is all very well if you want to take on the commission, but not much good if you just wanted feedback on your work; and, as the editors that tend to do this don’t pay, you probably don’t want to take on the challenge, anyway…

Although not a specific class of unhelpful feedback, a special mention must go to those editors who insist on giving detailed feedback whilst demanding you never resubmit rejected work to them. Thank you, I now know exactly how to craft the story to your specific needs, but you’ll never see it. Unfortunately, other editors probably don’t share your exact same requirements! So, not terribly helpful.

Balancing the equation, there are three types of useful feedback. The first sort is technical and only really applies where a writer has significant failings with their spelling and/or grammar. All writers will make mistakes and possess idiosyncrasies, and there will always be a question of ‘house style’ and spelling convention (primarily British versus American), but these are minimal concern from a feedback point of view, mainly being covered during the proofing stage. But, if a writer makes a lot of errors, putting the editor off their work before they’ve made much progress reading it, they can expect to be informed in order to improve their writing.

The second sort of useful feedback tells the writer more about the editor than it does about their story. Some editors may believe their opinions reflect an objective reality and some may even be giving advice that applies to a significant portion of publications, but on the whole, editorial opinion is subjective. What one editor believes constitutes a good story is not necessarily an opinion shared by other editors. I’ve had stories rejected by one editor with a savage critique only for the next editor I submit it to accept it and rave over how good it is. Neither editor is wrong; they just have different tastes and different aims for their publications. But, while you may not wish to follow an editor’s advice and rewrite a story that, in your opinion, has achieved what you wanted it to, you can learn what they do or do not want. If an editor tells you your story is slow, you won’t send them another slow-moving masterpiece. If an editor complains that your story is full of sex or swearing, you’ll know not to send that type to them again. And, so on. You could even try rewriting the story to match the style they do want and resubmit it to them, while sending the original one elsewhere in the hope of finding an editor who will appreciate it. Many editors can supply this sort of feedback, but it can be drowned out if they are obsessed with providing details that aren’t terribly helpful. Simply stating that a story is slow or tends towards telling than showing is more useful than an attempt to analyse its flaws at length, in my opinion.

The third type of useful feedback is the sort that makes you think. Not many editors can do this, but there are some who possess the ability to dissect a story and explain exactly what they think in a clear manner. Because they do so in such a concise manner, it is easy to discern where they are offering good advice that is worth taking. In addition, I find that when I disagree with their assessment I’m forced to clarify why I disagree, helping me to better understand my story, which is incredibly useful when deciding whether or not to make changes as, sometimes, you may discover that while you disagree, it’s not a good enough reason to resist a change that might make the story work better for a wider readership. Such feedback is the rarest, but most valuable of all.

Hopefully, this will help you to discern the advice worth paying heed to from that best ignored. Perhaps, too, any editors reading this will consider the feedback they give and just how helpful it really is.