[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

SFWRITER.COM > How to Write > On Writing: Professionalism


by Robert J. Sawyer


Copyright © 1997 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

This installment of "On Writing" is devoted to what my wife Carolyn Clink and I discovered while editing the Canadian SF&F anthology Tesseracts 6 — which should be hitting bookstores in September.

Unlike many anthologies, the Tesseracts series is wide open: anyone may submit work and it will be seriously considered (indeed, our mandate was to bend over backward to find work by new writers; Carolyn and I are proud of the number of beginners from whom we bought stories or poems).

Still, despite the high quality of the work we did choose, as a group, it appears Canadian writers have a long way to go in the area of professionalism.

First, we were stunned by the very large percentage of submissions that were not in standard manuscript format. There's only one universally accepted way to do it, folks: Courier 10-pitch / 12-point type, or as near as you can manage it, on one side of white 8.5x11" paper; 6.5" line; double-spaced (i.e., 24-point leading); ragged right margins; italics shown by underlining; blank lines between scenes shown by a centered number sign; a descriptive header and a page number on each page after the first; and, if your story ends near the bottom of the page, some indication that this is indeed really the last page (we had to phone one author to ask him if his story really did end with the words that appeared on the last line of what we thought was the final page).

Despite our intention to be forgiving, after slogging through about the tenth manuscript with no page numbers I vowed I would summarily reject unread any unpaginated manuscript that happened to fall on the floor; life is too short to try to figure out which page goes after which other page by piecing together the text.

On fonts: you may think Times, or some other proportional typeface, looks nicer than Courier. However, most editing is still done by hand. Trying to circle the extraneous letter for deletion in "illlicit" is much harder in a proportional font — and damn near impossible in a sans-serif one. If your printer can do Courier, use it (it was frustrating to see all the authors who had Courier page headers or cover letters, demonstrating they clearly could use that font, but who set their body copy in a proportional face).

The guy who emailed us a manuscript because he was too busy to print it out and put it in an envelope didn't do himself a favor — but even if a market is open to email submissions (and ours wasn't), you're shooting yourself in the foot sending a word-processing file without telling the editor in a plain-text attachment exactly what word-processing program, on what computing platform, was used to create the manuscript (and you really should check first to make sure it's a format the editor can read).

A big part of professionalism is appearances — including giving the illusion that the market you're currently submitting to is your first choice. All those people who submitted multiple manuscripts on the day the anthology was announced were telegraphing that they were pulling old stories out of their trunk — and the person who submitted stories clearly dated "1986" and "1989" made it blatantly obvious. (Indeed, you're not helping yourself by submitting more than two or three pieces to any market — no editor wants to see every old dog you haven't been able to sell elsewhere.)

And please — don't ask for special treatment. There's been a lot of grousing lately about how long publications take to reply, but, as a writer, ask yourself whether you have been part of the perceived slowdown by demanding that extra time be spent on your submission.

Some writers asked for responses by email, or by a specific date, or wanted critiques. Sorry, but the only way any editor can process the hundreds of submissions he or she receives is to handle each one exactly the same way. If you want acknowledgment of receipt of a submission, send a stamped postcard with the work's title on it; don't send an extra empty envelope and expect the editor to take the time to write you a letter to put in it.

As I said, we tried to be forgiving of such lapses. But the one thing we couldn't forgive, and were frankly shocked to see so much of, was the lack of basic literacy. We read countless stories whose authors didn't know the difference between "its" (the neutral version of his or hers) and "it's" (a contraction of "it is"). More subtle, but still grating, were the large number of people who didn't know the difference between "that" and "which." ("That" introduces a defining characteristic, and isn't normally preceded by a comma: "This is the novel that Jacques wrote." "Which" introduces an incidental characteristic, and is usually preceded by a comma: "That novel, which is actually quite good, was written by Jacques.")

Also irritating were those who used words that weren't in their computerized spelling checkers and couldn't be bothered to look up the correct spelling in a dictionary (there's no such thing as a "trilobyte").

It was also abundantly clear that many authors never looked at their printouts before submitting their stories. Some had missing lines of text or overprinted lines that even a cursory glance would have detected.

A key habit of the true professional: reading the guidelines. We said our reporting time was "10 to 12 weeks following the August 15 deadline" (which I'll point out, for those complaining that response times are getting longer and longer, is a much faster turnaround than the ten months Tesseracts 3 took to respond). Those people who started pestering me at my private email address — which appeared nowhere on the guidelines — in advance of the expiration of our reporting period made no friends; those who cut no slack if reporting went a short period after that time frame likewise were no fun to deal with.

Finally, a word or two about content. Please note that song lyrics aren't public domain: you can't simply add them into your story. Many authors quoted from popular songs in their manuscripts, but without paying a permission fee, this is illegal — and since most such fees have to be renegotiated for every new edition or translation of the work, most anthology editors will reject a work on the spot that contains such quotes, even if a note of permission for the current edition is included.

We saw a large number of virtual-reality or cyberpunk stories; those are pretty moribund subgenres. We also saw a lot of high fantasy, most of it not very fresh. What we didn't see much of was hard SF; a well-written spaceship story with realistic characterization and dialog would have been a shoo-in.

Anyway, Tesseracts 6 has passed into history. Paula Johanson and Jean-Louis Trudel are editing Tesseracts 7, which is now open for submissions. Apply the advice above — and, of course, write a good story — and maybe you'll make a sale to them. But, no matter who you're submitting to, always remember to behave like a pro — and someday you'll actually be one.

According to Maclean's: Canada's Weekly Newsmagazine, "By any reckoning Robert J. Sawyer is among the most successful Canadian authors ever." He has sold 23 novels to major U.S. publishers and received 53 national and international awards for his fiction, including the World Science Fiction Society's Hugo Award and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America's Nebula Award for Best Novel of the Year, as well as the Crime Writers of Canada's Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story of the Year. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name.

Rob has taught creative writing at the University of Toronto, Ryerson University, Humber College, and the Banff Centre, and he's been writer-in-residence at the Toronto, Richmond Hill, and Kitchener Public Libraries and at the Canadian Light Source, Canada's national synchrotron. He's a frequent keynote speaker at writers' conferences.

For more on Rob and his work, see his website at sfwriter.com, which contains 800 documents and over one million words of material.

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"On Writing" column index
Letter to Beginning Writers
Manuscript format checklist

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