Obviously, we’re looking for good writing. We’d love great writing, of course, but good writing is already pretty rare, so we’re more than happy with that. Most of us, on our better days, figure we’re producing good writing. On our spectacularly good days, we figure we’re producing great writing.
But of course, it’s hard to tell, right? Here are a few filters to run your writing through before submitting. They don’t guarantee great, or even good, writing, but they are the sorts of things that good and great writers tend to do. They’re also the sorts of things we tend to skim for when reviewing a submission, before reading the whole piece, to see what level of craft the writer has.
- Did you do a “search & destroy” for clichés? If you’re telling us that the snow blanketed the ground or about her velvety skin or that it’s a “cool brisk day in late fall,” you’re in Cliché Hell and you might want to get out immediately. Find a new way to say an old thing.
- Speaking of “velvety,” did you do a “search & destroy” for adjectives & adverbs, especially those that end in “ly”? If an adjective or adverb is in your piece, it’s probably because you didn’t choose the right noun or verb in the first place and are now doing damage control. Yeah, sometimes you need them, but not close to as often as you might think. If you’re telling us that someone is walking softly across the floor, maybe they’re not walking so much as gliding or tiptoeing or stomping or…
- Speaking of “across the floor,” did you do a “search & destroy” for extra words? Mark Twain said, “I would have written you a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time” because he knew that good writing — especially in short pieces — is usually economical writing. Make sure that every single word in your piece has to be there. If you’re telling us that it’s a “windy day,” that wind better be part of the story, or it’s superfluous.
- Speaking of “superfluous,” did you do a “search & destroy” for dollar words when you could have used a nickel word? The best writers know that writing is, above all else, communication. Yeah, sometimes you need that fancy word, but “extra” is almost always better than “superfluous” and “use” is
almostalways better than “utilize.”
- Speaking of “talks,” did you do a “search & destroy” for synonyms for “said”? Yeah, sometimes your character needs to “whisper,” ” but they almost never need to “mutter, ” “grouse,” “mumble” or, please God no, “chuckle.” And even if they’re doing those things, you can probably paint that picture for us without those words. Keep it simple and use “said.”
- Speaking of “said,” did you do a “search & destroy” for “said”? Because lots of the time, you don’t even need to say “said.” If Sally pulls her hair into a bun and reaches for her hairpin, we know she’s the one talking even if there’s no “said” after her next line, because Sally’s the one we’re focused on. Only if someone besides Sally is speaking do we need the “said” (and maybe not even then).
- Speaking of “reaches for,” did you do a “search & destroy” for “reaches for”? While this falls into the unnecessary words category in #3, it’s a particularly annoying one to readers and editors. Unless the plot requires her to reach for it but somehow not be able to get it because she’s in handcuffs and the killer is approaching and she reaches for it but doesn’t get there in time and he stabs her to death, just skip to the part where she actually picks up/grabs/whatever the hairpin.
Of course, these tips won’t guarantee good writing, but they’ll sure help you get there more quickly and they’ll definitely get your submission read more carefully by our editors.
Here are a few more:
- Follow the submission guidelines. (But seriously, this isn’t really a big secret, is it?)
- Own what you send. Don’t send us a follow up the next day saying, “oops, use this one instead.” Rookie mistake. Better to let the mistake stand than to shine a big fat flashlight on it by sending us a second one (and then expecting the editors to go through all the submissions to delete the original one, which probably isn’t going to happen which means the original submission is the one that’s probably going to get read anyway).
- Be fun and positive to work with. Editors are people, too, and dreading a ticking time bomb email from an unhappy writer in our inbox is enough to send us off to truck driving school. Truck Masters, I think, it’s called.
- We would love to do a whole issue about dogs. Hint, hint.