Scrawled in red…

The Art and Importance of Following Directions
(Notes from the Writers Files)
By Elizabeth Cutright
© 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

Scrawled in red across the front page, “E – I gave this a quick read.  I’m pleased to tell you that I like your writing quite a lot.  I’ll look forward to reading it more thoroughly, assuming you’ll turn it back in for critique, with format corrected, indents for paragraphs, etc. PS – do put numbers on the pages.”

It’s a note from a writing workshop instructor, circa 2004, and I found it in a file box labeled “writing.”  Lots of gems inside those cardboard confines – outlines from writing workshops, Xeroxes of articles I’d come across during my daily freelance research (some dating as far back as 2000!), and this 12-page manuscript (page numbers penciled in by said instructor); the first chapter of a novel I still haven’t finished.

The note is significant for a couple of reasons.  First off, the stroke to the ego – it’s always nice to hear that someone enjoyed your content.  But even more important is the admonishment – I didn’t follow his submission guidelines, and so a more thorough reading would have to wait until I included those indents, page numbers and other formatting requirements.

Following directions.  That’s always a tough one.  It’s the curse of the detail-oriented-deficient: the inability to dot every “i”, cross every “t” and make sure all the appropriate boxes have been checked.  I’m in the process of filling out long, elaborate government forms, and even though every section I’m supposed to fill out is highlighted, I still live in fear of the missed checkbox or missing supporting documentation.  Are my forms all in order?  Is every data-line filled in?  I’m checking it all over and over and over again.

So why should writers be detail oriented?  And why would an Editor ever admit to a deficiency in the “details” category?  I think I can answer both those questions in one go.  The details are important – and often overlooked – because any deficiencies are almost always invisible to the original author and glaringly obvious to everyone else.

Morrissey warns about this in Cemetery Gates,

“There’s always someone, somewhere
With a big nose, who knows
And who trips you up and laughs
When you fall
Who’ll trip you up and laugh
When you fall.”

In a crisp Xerox copy of an article from the Olympian (dated November 10, 1996), James Kilpatrick warns of hazards of the sloppy writer.

“For the writer who goes over the transom – the writer whose reputation is yet to come – three factors are important,” he writes. “These are the first impression, the first paragraph and the first whistle.”

And what dooms that unsolicited submission – even the most minor mistake: the misplaced comma, the misspelled (or misplaced) word, and single spaced-unnumbered pages.

“The first page of a manuscript creates an immediate impression,” explains Kilpatrick, “If the novel, article or short story has been bicycled for months in search of a buyer, at least the first page should be made pristine.  Every line must be correctly punctuated, every word correctly spelled.”

This advice seems rudimentary and intuitive, but I must agree with Mr. Kilpatrick – I am often dazzled by the submissions I receive that include some obvious (and often easily adjusted) error.

“The first paragraph can make or break,” counsels Kilpatrick, “In a busy editorial office, dealing with a dozen transoms a day, the first few sentences are vital.”

It’s a drag to go over your own work with a fine-toothed comb, so it’s worth it to invite a third eye to the party – have them look over your paragraphs, see if they find something that should be redlined, rewritten or replaced.  Your word processing program will only get you so far, and if you’re really serious about submitting your short story, article, or novel, then at some point you’re going to have to let someone else see what you’ve written.

I know it’s scary.  Try to pick someone kind who has a workable command of the English language.  There are, of course, professional folks you can hire (it make a nice little side-living freelance editing for friends and referrals), but if that’s just not in your price range, cajole your best friend, your parents, even your erudite third grader… anyone will do.

All original content is the sole property of Elizabeth Cutright and The Daily Creative Writer. If you are reading this blog on another website, it has been reposted without the author’s permission in violation of the DMCA. © 2012 The Daily Creative Writer

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