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Cultivate Good Writing Manners
"Musings" - September 2006

by Margot Finke

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The Purple Crayon

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Good writing manners can make the difference between being chosen to join a great critique group - or not. Or, a fellow writer offering you a personal recommendation to an agent - or not. Definitely getting that manuscript accepted - or a rejection letter.

You don't believe me? Read on, and discover how good writing manners help you make contacts that facilitate writing success.

Good Manners--Online Lists and e-Mails:
Online writing lists are among children's writer's best resources. Information about writing, publishers, agents and related areas, flows through them on a daily basis. Ask a newby question, and the answer comes ASAP - often more than one opinion for you to consider. E-mail is the modus-operandi. Don't tick off list members by your bad manners.

Unless you are a punk teen, and could care less whose cage you rattle, don't skip all punctuation and grammar rules when writing e-mails. At the very least, use caps at the beginning of a sentence and a period at the end.

Remove most of the previous message before you click Send. Members on digest have ways of dealing with this sloppy behavior - Voodoo dolls and sharp pins!

Make sure your Subject Line matches the content of your post. This keeps the various conversational threads clearly separated.

If you ask a question, and you receive detailed and helpful replies from one or more members, please send each of them a private thank you. Forgetting to do this is Very Bad Manners. Then, next time you ask a question, you won't have to wonder why no one replied.

Keep political or religious opinions for e-mails to friends and relatives who share your views. Posting such personal areas of thought within a children's writing list can start a flame war, and needlessly upset everyone.

Jokes (yes, I know that one had you rolling on the floor) also belong in private e-mails to friends and relatives. Other list members might not share your brand of humor.

If something a member writes makes steam shoot from your ears, don't dash off a flaming reply. STOP ! Never send an angry post while steam is still coming out of your ears. Put it aside until you cool down - overnight if necessary. Reread it when you are calmer. Prune out sentences that are too hot to handle before you click send. You are entitled to voice your opinions: beginning world war three is frowned upon.

Good Manners--Critique Groups:
You need a good critique group as desperately as you need a lower mortgage, higher pay, and 15 pounds off your hips. So, don't ruin your chances by committing any of the following gaffes:

Don't take forever to complete a critique and return it. If life intervenes, and you need to take a break, contact your group and explain the situation. Every writer needs a time out occasionally.

All negative comments make you look mean and petty. There are always positive elements in the worst manuscript - dig them out and offer praise, as well as constructive advice and suggestions.

Provide the reasoning behind your comments and suggestions. Give examples that clarify these reasons. Think about how you felt when that witch in your last group dissed your whole plot.

Critique partners are often friends waiting to be welcomed. Share information that comes your way about agents and publishers: especially if you think a particular member's book would fit their list. Doing this earns you huge brownie points. You never know when someone will return the favor.

Good Manners--Agent and Editor:
Good manners can make or break your chances of acceptance. Apply the same rules to Agents and Editors.

Rushing off a manuscript, without taking the time to research the agent or editor, shows that you are careless, impatient, and probably a lousy writer. Not a good first impression. Take the time to check out their website before you send that manuscript. Their website holds the key to what they want from authors like you. First, read the information they list about themselves. Then, look over their current list of books. Would your book fit comfortably with what they already publish? Check out their Submission Guidelines. This is where you discover what they are prepared to accept from you - Query letter only? Query plus a few chapters? Or, query plus the complete MS? Do they take simultaneous submissions? And most dreaded of all: We are accepting no submissions at this time. The trick is to send them exactly what they ask for: not one scrap more.

Don't write, or phone, or e-mail them every month or so, asking for progress report. This is when patience is needed - even if it kills you! Harassing an agent or an editor will doom your chances. If they promise an answer in 3 months, plan on at least six months. A brief inquiry, after lurking close to your mailbox for 4 or 5 months, is acceptable.

If they ask to read your manuscript, and then suggest some rewriting or reworking of specific areas, don't panic. Panic makes you dumb! Dumb will earn you a rejection letter faster than you can say "rejection !" First, make sure you have a good idea of what they want rewritten or tweaked. An e-mail or two, back-and-forth, will clarify exactly what is needed from you. NOTE: At this early stage, editors and agents are convinced that "fast" rewrites must be bad rewrites. So, take your time - a few months if necessary.

You received a "good rejection." Keep those good vibes alive by writing a quick thank you
note. Editors work hard, and they really do appreciate being appreciated. You never know when you'll have another story to send them, and your charming "thank you" will be remembered. Forgetting to say thank you is bad manners, not to mention bad karma that could come back to bite you.

Good Manners--Writing Conferences:
Writing Conferences are where the good stuff happens, so don't let bad manners blow it for you.

Editors, agents and successful authors hang out at conferences. Don't crowd them into a corner, manuscript in hand, and pitch your book. Treat them as another human being, one that has a life outside of children's books - yeah they do! Cultivate conversation starters that show you are interested in the agent as a person, or the editor as someone living in a city you've always wanted to visit. Chat with the author about her books, her family, or her wonderful website. Find common ground before you broach the subject of your writing. They all understand that you're desperate to become a published author. However, your good manners and admirable restraint will impress the heck out of them. After you get to know them a little, offer your spiel.

And please, treat the rest rooms as neutral territory - no slipping that hot manuscript of yours under a stall door, in the hope that some poor editor will be captivated. The editor is more likely to blacklist you with every publisher in the US, and use your manuscript pages to line her kid's bird or guinea pig cage.

Don't chatter to a friend sotto-voice, while a workshop is in progress, or a presenter is offering insights and the wisdom of many years. An editor or agent will remember that chatterbox and treat them accordingly.

If you carpool to conferences with fellow writers, offer to pay your share of the gas. This will make you a popular companion. Forgetting to pay up could see you thumbing a ride the next time a conference is held.

So, There You Have It !
Yes, I know lectures about good manners usually come from your mom. However, this month I decided to dust off my Mom hat and nag. You will be relieved to learn, that any infringement of these rules will incur no punishment from me - obviously, I can't speak for other authors, agents, or editors.


Margot Finke's biography and index to Musings.

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