Submission Protocol: Mistakes Happen

There may be no worse feeling for an author than realizing you’ve made some boneheaded error in the submission process after you’ve sent the submission. Panic sets in, and you begin to catastrophize about the end of your career and how the editor and all their friends will gather around your mistake, point and laugh, and add you to some DO NOT PUBLISH list from whence you will never return. Uh, well, I assume that’s how other writers feel about it anyway.

But here’s the truth. We all make mistakes, and most of the time, it’s not a big deal. In this post, I’ll present three common submission mistakes, what to do when you make them, and how to avoid them in the future. In case you’re wondering, yes, I have committed each of these submission sins (and survived to tell you about it).

Mistake #1: I made on error on the cover letter.

Mistakes on cover letters are pretty common and run the gamut from typos to more egregious copy-and-paste errors where you list the wrong story title or publisher name. Have I made this mistake? I sure have. I once misspelled my own name on a cover letter. How’s that for making a first impression on an editor? 🙂

What to do. Look, editors are human beings, and human beings understand that other human beings make mistakes. I think the vast majority of publishers will overlook an error on a cover letter and judge the author on the quality of their story. A number of editors of prominent genre markets I follow on Twitter have said this very thing. So, if you discover you’ve made a mistake on a cover letter, try to relax, it’s likely not going to hurt your chances of getting published. You don’t need to alert the publisher or send a revised cover letter.

How to avoid making this mistake. Use a templated cover letter, one you’ve thoroughly proofed and know is typo free. Then, make a little checklist of the elements you need to change or add and anything from the publisher’s guidelines you need to pay special attention to. Like this:

  1. story title (change)
  2. publisher name (change)
  3. word count (change)
  4. bio (add)
  5. email subject line (publisher wants title – word count – last name)
  6. publishing credits (remove; publisher doesn’t want in cover letter)

Just check off each element as you complete it. Once your checklist is complete, check the publisher guidelines again to make sure you haven’t missed anything, then proof the cover letter (and maybe one more time after that), and you should be in good shape.

Mistake #2: I sent a story to a publisher who has already rejected it.

I have made this mistake twice (I can barely stand the shame of writing about it). I keep very good records, but a minor lapse in concentration (and a story title change) resulted in this ghastly submission sin.

What to do. As soon as you realize the mistake, send an email to the editor letting them know what happened. Be polite, be professional, and apologize. Like I said earlier, editors are human beings and often quite reasonable ones. The last time this happened, the editor responded with a very kind email, thanking me for alerting him. The first time I didn’t get a response, but the publisher did accept my next story, so I guess they didn’t hold the mistake against me.

How to avoid making this mistake. Keep thorough and accurate submission records of every story you’ve submitted and the result of that submission. The easiest way to do that is to use an online submission database and tracker like Duotrope or The Submission Grinder. They’ll keep your submission records for you, and if you want to download that data into a spreadsheet, it’s just a few button clicks away. Before you submit a story, check your records to make sure you haven’t sent it to that publisher already. You might be asking how could you not remember where you sent a story? Well, after 500 some submissions and stories with double digit rejections, things can get a little fuzzy. So check your records and check them again before you hit send.

Mistake #3: I found a typo in a manuscript I submitted.

Well, first, don’t go proofing manuscripts you’ve already submitted. 😉 Yeah, this happens, and I’m sure just about every manuscript I’ve submitted contains at least one typo or a dropped word or some other minor error.

What to do. Nothing. Editors expect a few typos and whatnot in the manuscripts they receive. This is why they edit and proof stories before they publish them. I recently sold a story where I’d used the wrong name for a character once. How was I punished for my misstep? The editor pointed out and fixed the error when they asked me to approve the changes they’d made.

Do not send an editor a corrected manuscript. That’s a bad look, and it creates more work for the editor, who is likely overworked as it is. If the error is a huge one–like you accidentally uploaded a half-finished version of the story–you might email the editor, let them know what happened, and withdraw the piece. Honesty is the best policy with mistakes, and, in my experience, editors are often very understanding about such things.

How to avoid making this mistake. You should thoroughly proof your manuscripts, and, if possible, get eyes other than your own on your work. But even with all that proofing, a few minor mistakes are going to slip through from time to time. Like I said, editors expect a few typos, but if you’re consistently making larger errors on your manuscripts and catching them AFTER you submit the story, it’s likely time to reevaluate and improve you proofing process.

Have you made any of these errors in your submissions (or others not listed here)? Tell me about it in the comments.

4 Comments on “Submission Protocol: Mistakes Happen

    • Oh, yeah, that’s a good one. Heh, I probably should add it to the post.

      I think you did the right thing. Send an email, admit the mistake and withdraw the story. I really do believe the vast majority of editors won’t hold that kind of thing against an author on future submissions.

  1. Oh man, NOT going through your manuscript after sending it in is a huge one for me. I’ve always found something that needed correcting, and I don’t need that kind of negativity in my life, lol. I’ve since used the ‘fire and forget’ rule. If it’s already out, then I’m not going to even open the file because I’m sure there’ll be something that needs fixing.

    • I know, right? It’s not even that you might find an actual error, like a typo or dropped word. It’s more you’ll obsess over how you should have written this part or that part differently, better, etc.

      Thanks for the comment. 🙂

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