I wrote a post on this blog a while ago (here) about some embarrassing and even disqualifying mistakes writers had made in submissions to me. One reader commented on that post, expressing gratitude and then adding, “What would be helpful to me is to hear the subtle or inadvertent mistakes aspiring authors make when sending a proposal to you. Can you help us with that?”
Why, yes, Louise, since you asked so nicely, I think I can do that. Or at least give it a try.
Keep in mind as I mention some of the most common mistakes I see that “subtle or inadvertent mistakes” are seldom—if ever—disqualifying. They don’t help a writer’s pitch, by any means, but they may not trigger the red buzzer (if you’re an “America’s Got Talent” fan), unless they begin to proliferate. I’ll mention several that are, unfortunately, all too common.
I’m not sure how subtle this first “mistake” is because it never fails to leap out at me: inflated claims for the work at hand. I understand that a writer who has slaved over a manuscript for months or years probably couldn’t have seen it through to completion without believing in its value. But calling it one-of-a-kind, the best ever, a sure bestseller, or a guaranteed classic is counterproductive. (And lest you think, No one does that, let me just say, “You’d be surprised.”) And don’t call your writing “literary” unless you’re 100% sure that not only do you know what that means but that your writing fits the description. The other extreme, however, is also a mistake. Don’t tell me “I’m not one for writing,” “I’ve never published anything,” or (as one aspiring writer did recently) “No one has liked the first chapter until the reader begins reading the second and third chapters after which the reader realizes the first chapter is essential.” That may not be exactly subtle or inadvertent, but keep reading; this blog post gets a lot better in about 1,000 words.
Poor proofreading (or a lack of proofreading) is a frequent mistake I see in submissions to me. Sometimes I see signs that the document was spell-checked or proofread but not in the submission draft. Occasionally, I’ll see signs of a capable writer who wrote and submitted too quickly, deciding that proofreading is for lesser talents, perhaps, and that it’s not fair for the recipient to have to wait another day or two to see the product of a gifted writer’s efforts. As a result, however, misspellings or missing words or double words are left in a document that, if proofread, would be delivered from such errors. (And I vow to you that even such “subtle or inadvertent mistakes” leap out at an experienced editor or agent and make us wonder if the writer is careful enough in those and other areas.)
Another frequent problem I see is an inattention to book comparisons, or “comps,” in book proposals. This section of a book proposal is where the writer shows a little of his or her knowledge of the genre and presents a good case for why this book is different from others but likely to sell as well or better. This section is so important (as they all are) that an editor’s interest in and desire to contract a book sometimes succeeds or fails based on this information.
Another common but sometimes fixable mistake is not putting your best foot forward in the author section and/or marketing section. Or, as often happens, confusing the two. The author section answers the question, “Why is this person the perfect person to write this book?” The marketing (or platform) section answers the question, “What kind of reach and influence does this writer have?” (Not “once had,” or “will have,” or “hopes to have” but has.) Some writers are so intimidated by one or both of these sections that they neglect to apply their top-notch writing skills to these paragraphs, which is always a mistake.
Finally, I think a subtle but very common mistake is conceptual: answering questions no one is asking. It’s so important, when conceptualizing a book idea, to start, proceed, and finish from the already-felt-need of the target reader. The vast majority of the proposals I decline (often from capable writers) fail because they make me wonder, “Who cares?” The writer was obviously interested enough to pound out 60,000 words on “a biblical exploration of footwear,” but it’s not enough for the writer to be intrigued; the potential reader and book buyer must be immediately and thoroughly compelled by the personal value of the topic and how it’s presented.
So there you have it. As I said, none of these mistakes may immediately trigger my “no, thank you.” And some are sometimes fixable. But I hope that sharing these helps many who are otherwise producing publishable material.