The craft issues of content, structure, and language a writer must consider when submitting a manuscript are extremely important, but first I want to share some easy-to-learn check-list items that will help to keep your piece off the bottom of the slush, the use of proper formatting, attention to grammar and spelling, and taking the time to proofread. Awareness of the importance of these three steps in the preparation of a story or essay for submission is one sign that an author takes his work seriously.
While incorrect format doesn't necessarily suggest the writing will be bad, it does suggest "AMATEUR." Most first-to-slit-open-the-envelope slushers understand it's their job to read through the end of a submission, BUT once they spot dense paragraphs or a million extra spacings between lines, a prejudice will insidiously try to slither into the reader's brain. Mumbling slush readers wonder if the writer is too lazy to find out how to format or too full of hubris to make the effort to create a professional-looking piece. Mumbles may turn into screams. "Gimme a break! I'm drowning here."
FYI to all who wonder why you never get a hand written note about your work:
Innumerable sites on the Internet have templates for proper formatting and almost every publisher has his own guidelines. If you don't want to sink to the bottom of the slush, learn everything you can about professional manuscript format and use it. Cormac McCarthy and e.e. cummings may be exceptions to the rule, but are you sure you want to risk it?
GRAMMAR AND SPELLING
I know. This is the I-used-to-be-an English teacher coming out in me, but once again, if you are submitting to a publisher, shouldn't your submission demonstrate you can write with assurance using the accepted standards of the language? I'm not saying a rule or two can't be broken. Many excellent writers break basic grammar rules, but they do it for rhythm and impact. On purpose. Fragments? Really? I can do that? Maybe. But first it helps if the writing demonstrates that broken rules contribute to the voice, the action, the pacing of the piece. Not understanding how grammar works or being sloppy with your submission is like attaching an anvil to your manuscript and throwing it off the Continental Shelf. (Maybe that's why it's called a "submission?")
A frustrating fact of life is when you finish something and you're ready to move on, you're probably not really finished. I finish writing a post here, and click that little orange publish button. Feeling good, feeling complete. Then I read through the blog as you would read it, and sure enough, I find typos, misspelled words, fragmented thoughts galore. It's inevitable. I can try and catch everything, but it may take two or three readings to get it all. Does it mean it's always perfect? Probably not, but 99% of the simple errors should be gone.
Obviously if someone drafts a well-paced, well-written, well-structured story with compelling characters meeting and overcoming internal and external obstacles, no self-respecting slusher is going to fail to pass it along for a typo, but for most of us, it's better to make the easy things like format and spelling part of our routine because bobbing up to the top of the slush, demonstrating our competence with the big stuff like content, structure, and language, that's just not as easy.