The Completely Preventable Mistake I Saw Writers Make Most Often When Submitting Their Work

Please don’t be THAT person …

When I was the managing editor of a now-deceased online magazine back in the mid-2010s, part of my job was to handle “submission requests” from students and freelancers looking to have their names and articles in digital print.

When I took over from our publication’s previous managing editor, I spent the first few weeks of my new position writing up new and improved submission guidelines for our correspondent program. These guidelines were carefully constructed to offer the clearest, easiest, and most straightforward directions for everyone sending things to my inbox to adhere to.

Guess what most of these writers did not do?

All I wanted — all I really needed, because of the very limited time I had to review these submissions — was for each prospective author to follow very specific and simple instructions to, let’s be honest, make my life easier. I kind of also wanted to give them an opportunity to practice what real-world publishing was like, because this was a magazine written by and for college students who weren’t professionals yet. So I had two motives in this practice — one personal, and one strictly professional.

My inbox was constantly flooded with resumes and CVs that I did not ask for, emails without subject lines, emails asking if my “blog” (nope) was accepting articles without attaching any work to be reviewed … I could go on. Basically, the inbox was a mess, I was almost always frustrated, and it got to a point where so many writers failed to follow directions that I had to start considering their work anyway because we weren’t publishing enough of their content. Because I kept rejecting people on the basis of NOT FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS, and nothing ever got better.

This still frustrates me even years after that gig ended. Setting aside the fact that these were students often in their late teens or early twenties, it amazed me how few of them neglected to read more than a few sentences of our how-to submission guidelines.

The ones who did do everything as requested were wonderful to work with, and I’m sure they’re doing quite well now based on that fact alone. But so, so many of these aspiring writers just … didn’t seem to care.

Following directions seems to be something writers either do completely or not at all, especially when submitting to a publication. I do think there are many people who truly believe they are “beyond the rules” and do pretty much whatever they please in general, and this practice carries over to writing in many obnoxious and often unprofessional ways. An unfortunate reality, but a reality all the same.

But there are also people who just feel the need to rush through everything they do, as if doing so will somehow save them time somehow later on (it won’t).

I won’t say I’ve never accidentally skimmed over an important piece of information throughout my adult life, but I also take my writing very seriously. And when I’m submitting based on a set of guidelines, I copy and paste those guidelines into a document and don’t submit anything until I have made sure I can check off every single box.

So is the problem that many writers don’t take their work seriously enough? Probably not. I think many of them are in this “more is more” mentality and are trying to submit as much work to as many places as they can in a very short amount of time. I personally don’t think that’s a good strategy to follow in any capacity, but they learn it from somewhere and continue to repeat it until someone or something prompts them to stop.

It’s sad to me, because I’m sure I passed over a lot of great writers who just couldn’t be bothered to act professionally enough to earn my respect or interest. As an editor, I don’t have time for nonsense — if I’m going to be reviewing your work as carefully and constructively as I need to, I also need to feel like it’s worth my time. If I’m in charge of deciding whether or not your work even gets to the review stage, you really need to make sure you’ve done all you possibly could to show me you’ve earned that right.

Maybe I’m too strict or uptight about these things. Maybe not. But if you’re going to do anything as a writer, make sure it’s everything in your power necessary to impress a potential editor. We see the same mistakes over and over again, and not following simple instructions laid out very clearly for you is not one that makes you stand out or makes us want to publish you.

Do as you’re told. If you’re looking for feedback, let that feedback be about your work, not about the fact that you haven’t proven you’re able to read. Act like the professional you want to be, and chances are, you will be treated like one, regardless of the outcome.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.


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