The editors and I here at Sammiches and Psych Meds / MockMom have been reading through submissions for our website for a little over a year now, and we are beyond impressed with and thankful for the writers who share their talent and their words with us and our audience.
Unbeknownst to the world (and to us before we dove into this endeavor), the submissions process is one hell of a beast. Not only are we tasked with determining whether a topic would be a good fit for our site and our readers, but we are also charged with deciding whether a piece of writing, regardless of its topical merits, is written well enough to appeal to those readers.
Through this process, we’ve encountered a few “red flags” that give us pause when deciding whether or not to accept a submission for publication. So we’ve decided to put it all out there in an attempt to help writers improve their work and increase their chances of getting accepted by the online (and print) publications of their choice.
Without further ado, here are some writing pitfalls to avoid at all costs:
Including the dreaded double space after periods. I know most of us were taught to click that space bar twice after a period, but we’re here to tell you, STAHP THAT NONSENSE. It’s no longer necessary, and it aggravates editors to no end. It’s pretty standard across the industry to place a single space after a period these days. We may love your submission, but the thought of having to spend ungodly amounts of time going through and removing every. single. extra. space may make our cortisol levels rise. And that’s not a good thing.
Exhausting the exclamation points. It’s not uncommon to receive submissions with exclamation points at the end of every sentence. Listen up, writers: No one is that excited about anything. NO ONE. Exclamation points are to be used sparingly, as in maybe once or twice per piece of writing, if at all. Leave them out unless absolutely warranted. If you’ve used the right words, superfluous punctuation shouldn’t be required.
Abusing those everloving ellipses. Ellipses are intended to convey to readers that you’ve omitted words from a sentence for one reason or another. Typically, writers will use these in quotes when they’ve left out words that are not pertinent to the overall impact or meaning. In more informal writing, such as in blog posts, ellipses are sometimes used to indicate a pause in thought. But when … they are … overused … or used … in place … of other … more appropriate … punctuation … they cloud … the meaning … of the piece. Just as with exclamation points, use these sparingly, if at all.
Committing homophone homicide. Few things are as great a turn-off when reading through submissions as trying to comb through a piece with multiple homophone or homonym errors. Know the differences between two/to/too, whether/weather, then/than, your/you’re, and there/their/they’re, to name a few. And if these pose difficulty for you, conduct a quick Google search or have a writing buddy look over your work before submitting to make sure you’ve caught them all.
Engaging in the dialogue debacle. When including dialogue in a piece (which you definitely should do if appropriate), be sure you punctuate it correctly and avoid using trite speech tags. And if there’s one thing I learned in my college fiction writing course, it’s that your characters should speak for themselves. If you find yourself using speech tags such as “he exclaimed” or “she angrily retorted” often, it’s time to take a look at what it is your characters are exclaiming or retorting. If what they’re saying requires your clarification for effect, their words probably need work. Unsure whether you’re crafting the best dialogue possible? Check out this helpful resource from Writer’s Digest.
Falling victim to the comma conundrum. Commas are hard, man. I’ve heard tell of some teachers instructing students to place them wherever there is a natural pause in speech, but I’m going to respectfully disagree. There are rules, and I’m pretty sure there isn’t one that says to use a comma whenever you’re tempted to take a breath. It is difficult and frustrating for editors to read a submission where the writer has either overused or not used commas appropriately at all. This quick and extended guide to comma use from the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University is a great start for the comma-challenged.
As an aside, I’m a die-hard Oxford comma proponent, but to my dismay, it’s industry standard to eliminate that bad boy as well. (Between us, though, I still love when writers include it. There are some things I just can’t let go.)
RELATED: Semicolons vs. colons. Know the difference and how to use each. We’re begging you.
Abusing apostrophes. Apostrophes are used to show possession, not to make a word plural. So instead of saying, “I bonged 15 beer’s last night,” say, “I bonged 15 beers last night.” A friend and colleague of mine has taken to telling her students, “Every time you use an apostrophe to make a word plural, a puppy dies.” Nobody likes dead puppies. Nobody.
Overusing adjectives and adverbs. Adjectives and adverbs have their place in writing and can add a little something something to an otherwise flat piece. But using them everywhere is a problem. Instead, try using specific nouns and verbs rather than attaching adjectives and adverbs to boring nouns and verbs. Mark Twain once said, “Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write ‘very’; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” Next time you’re tempted to write “old woman,” give Marky Mark’s technique a try. Then opt for “crone” instead.
Pooping out on parallelism. Probably one of the toughest grammatical concepts for beginners, parallel structure can mean the difference between a good piece of writing and a great piece of writing. I have lost count of the number of parallel structure errors I’ve had to correct in submissions, but suffice it to say, it’s a lot. Essentially, parallelism means using grammatical components that are the same within a sentence.
For example, you would never want to say, “My favorite activities are riding bikes, to go to the park, and when I walk on the beach.” Instead, you’d want all those items in the list to be in the same grammatical construction: “riding bikes, going to the park, and walking on the beach.” Unfortunately, this isn’t the extent of parallelism. For more information about its complexities, check out another of the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University’s helpful resources.
Forgetting to sh-sh-sh-show, not tell. This one has been shoved down your throat ad nauseam, I’m sure, but it bears repeating. Nobody wants to read an article where the writer simply tells the reader how something felt or looked. Instead, the reader wants to feel or see right along with the writer. So instead of saying, “I was beyond angry,” try, “A white hot knot formed in my stomach, inching its way up my torso and planting itself in my throat, its burning aura radiating into my cheeks and expelling itself through barbed words.” Jerz’s Literacy Weblog has a decent resource for tackling this writing technique.
Using the same sentence structure, silly. Nothing puts an editor to sleep faster than reading the same sentence construction over and over and over.
For example: Some writers use simple sentences. Each sentence is the same length. There is no cadence. There is no rhythm. It sounds robotic. It gets very boring. Readers lose interest. The story is lost. The writing is dead.
Instead, switch things up a bit. Make it so no two sentences in a row are the same. Use a simple sentence followed by a complex sentence followed by another simple sentence followed by a compound-complex sentence. For more information about varying sentence structure, check out the trusty Online Writing Lab at Purdue University’s sentence variety resource.
Not evaluating the rhetorical situation. As a writer, it’s your job to know the nuances of the publication you’re submitting to, including the types of pieces they normally run, who their audience is and what they expect, and what type of tone is appropriate. Make sure your voice is present in your writing and that it is uniquely you, but also make sure you’re submitting writing that appropriately fits the publication. You do not want to leave editors wondering if you’ve ever even read the site while evaluating your submission.
Look. We’re not saying it’s unforgivable to make mistakes as a writer. Hell, we make them all the time (and probably even in this very piece). What we are saying is that there are some steps you can take to polish your work and present your best you to publishers, increasing your chances of improving your craft and getting a byline on those sites you’re dying to write for. And while these writing pitfalls only scratch the surface, paying attention to them just might make the difference between a rejection and an acceptance.
Good luck out there, writers. You can (and will) succeed at this thing.