First impressions count.
Psychologists say it only takes 10 to 30 seconds for us to decide, with reasonable accuracy, whether we like someone – or not. It’s a rule that could apply to any first encounter, even the first time an editor holds one of your manuscripts in his/her hands.
If employers hire people whose skills, qualifications and “look” seem to fit with their business, then editors hire writers whose skills, quality and “look” of their writing seem to fit with their publication. And just like a potential employer sums up a job candidate in as little as 7 seconds, that’s about all the time an editor needs to decide whether your piece, among the hundreds received that month, is worth a second glance.
It doesn’t matter if you’re selling an article on spec, submitting a book proposal, or applying for a journalism job – how well-groomed your work appears can either make the editor paper-jet it into the bin, or sit up and take note – regardless of the content.
Peter Landis, the veteran news director at NY1, the 24-hour news channel for New York City, warned upcoming journalists at a recent forum about something as simple as misspellings in proposals: "As soon as I see misspellings, I throw it away," says Landis. "I don't look any further."
What we also know is that first impressions last. They become the default settings in our brains, as the brain tends to return to the original memory, rather than work through any new, improved data. So what does this mean for you as a writer? Just this - your first shoddy cover letter doesn’t just impact on the piece you’re trying to sell right now – but on the next twenty submissions to that editor!
Why is slapdash writing and layout as off-putting as a stained shirt? Because it basically means more work for the editor. In the world of pressing deadlines, more work spells late nights slouched over a computer. And who wants that?
So what do you do with your completed first draft to make sure it's read past the opening lines? How many times must you edit a piece before it’s ready to send in? Here is a 7-step programme to help you polish that piece! (Adapted from Marshall Cook’s Seven Steps to Better Manuscripts)
STEP 1: You do the hard work so your reader doesn’t have to.
First try to write your rough draft freely, without worrying too much about grammar, style, spelling and punctuation rules. Being a critical left-brain editor from the start can squeeze all the life out of a piece. Afterwards, be ready to go over your work with a fine toothcomb to sort out any writing mistakes.
STEP 2: Read your piece as soon as you finish it, and note any big changes that you’d like to make. Avoid thoughts like: “This is a load of rubbish!" It's not. It may just need some editing!
STEP 3: Allow for a cooling-off period. What also works is to have more than one piece going at the same time, so that you can walk away for a few days, or even weeks, to get a fresh take on your own words and ideas. With rested eyes, you can more easily see the changes that are required.
STEP 4: OK. So your intro is catchy, the body flows beautifully and your closer wraps it all up with flair. Now you need to use your critical checklist:
Your Print-Out-and-Keep 20-Point Editing Checklist
1. Does your piece deliver what you promised in the lead?
2. Is your angle clear? Is it fresh?
3. Does the body flow logically from point to point?
4. Do you use smooth transitions between points?
5. Did you give all the information required?
6. Have you supported every general statement with specifics?
7. Have you shown, using descriptive scenes, rather than just told?
8. Is your conclusion strong?
9. Have you written in active voice?
10. Have you built each sentence around a visual, active verb?
11. Does each verb have a tangible, specific noun?
12. Have you chosen a simple word over a long, obscure one? Is your spelling 100% correct?
13. Have you kept your sentences short?
14. Have you chopped out each unnecessary word – especially adjectives – and met your word count?
15. Are your tenses consistent?
16. Is your point of view (POV) constant throughout your piece? (i.e. third person, first person….)
17. Do most of your sentences begin with a subject and verb, and subordinate information placed to the right?
18. Have you avoided sentences starting with “There was…” and “It is…”?
19. Have you kept adverbs to a minimum? (very, rather, a little, completely, really, nicely, and other words ending in –ly)
20. Have you varied your conjunction usage?
STEP 5: Read your piece aloud to listen for rhythm and flow. Remove clumsy clauses and phrases, and give overly long sentences a crew cut.
STEP 6: Get someone else to read it over. Do your words make complete sense to them?
STEP 7: Follow the correct format for submitting your manuscript, and write a professional cover letter
Your cover letter should include the title, a brief “sell” of your piece, word count, publication for which it is intended, and a brief bio of you and your previous published stories (if any). Always include your contact details after you have signed off.
•Use the correct name of the editor, not just Sir/Madam
•Be professional: don’t beg, threaten or manipulate the editor in any way
•Avoid mouse language, or any form of apology or apologetic tone.
•Write with confidence. IT DOES NOT MATTER if you are unpublished.
Nichola Meyer is the Principal of International Writers' College