Seduce the Editor

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  • “Say What?” (A Guide to Damn Fine Dialogue)

    by Emma LaSaine, Columnist

    “So, I wrote this story. . . .” you mutter with trepidation.

    “Great! Let’s have a look,” I reply, snatching the manuscript from your hands. “Hmm, let’s see, there’s a few grammatical errors.”

    I hear a thumping sound and look up.

    “Oh, don’t bash your head against the wall!” I chide. “They just repainted that and you’ll get it all bloody.”

    You roll your eyes and wipe a trail of red from your forehead.

    “I promise, it’ll be okay,” I tell you. “I’ll be gentle and I won’t even pull out the red pen. We’ll use blue or something. How about pink? Who could be intimidated by a pink glitter pen?”

    “Okay,” you sigh, “but don’t expect me to like it.”

    “You never do.”

    Quotation Marks

    By and large, the easiest way to tell if a character is speaking on the page is by looking for quotation marks. That said, it has become trendy to let dialogue blend into the rest of the manuscript by either using italics in place of quotation marks even for spoken dialogue or by leaving it entirely without any kind of distinguishing punctuation or formatting. However, I am of the mind that just because you can make such a choice doesn’t mean you should. The key idea is that clarity is important (if people can’t understand your writing they may rage-quit the piece rather than reading it past the first page).

    Furthermore, stylistic choices must be just that, stylistic. There should be a compelling reason why you chose to do what you did with words. Don’t just decide to never use commas or end all questions in a period and all statements in a question mark simply because you want to be edgy; readers (particularly editors) are looking for the why behind your choices. You are saying something with words not just in their literal meaning, but also by the way you string together and punctuate those words.

    So, to return to the central topic, if you are using quotation marks, how do you know when to use them? The simple answer is, whenever a character verbalizes words. If two characters are having a conversation, everything they say aloud should be inside quotation marks:

    “Hey bro-dawg, what’s new?” Marty asked.“Not much, Bro-seph Gordon Levitt,” Todd replied. “Just looking for my pants.”

    What’s more, if a character says something aloud in isolation, quotation marks are still appropriate:

    “Ouch!” he exclaimed when he stubbed his toe.

    It’s also important to note that “double quotation marks” should go around all dialogue unless you have quotation marks within quotation marks, in which case ‘single quotation marks’ are appropriate:

    “Guess what I read yesterday,” Amy said to their cousin.“What?” Shannon asked. “‘Good Country People’ by Flannery O’Connor,” Amy replied.

    While the short story “Good Country People” would ordinarily appear within double quotation marks, as it is printed inside a piece of dialogue, the writer uses single quotation marks to signify that the short story’s name is part of the rest of the dialogue.

    Commas, Question Marks, Periods, and Exclamation Points

    Think of quotation marks as that one friend of yours who gives really good hugs. Everything gets squeezed in, and nobody gets left out. All ending punctuation should be inside the quotation marks:

    “Hey there,” she said.

    “What?” the man in purple overalls asked.

    “Hey there!” Irina shouted.

    “Oh,” he said, “hello.”

    Even when there are quotations within quotations, the punctuation that belongs with a set of quotation marks goes inside of it:

    “And that’s when she said, ‘I’ve never met him in my life!’” Francis shook his head, “Can you imagine lying like that in front of so many people?”

    So, now that we’ve settled where the punctuation goes, when ending a piece of dialogue which punctuation do you use? The rules are in fact similar to those for regular sentences with one small exception: If the dialogue ends in a period before a dialogue tag, substitute a comma:

    “Greetings, earthling,” Zorg intoned, extending his maroon and lime green tentacle. “I am here to eat your flesh.”

    “No, no, no!” exclaimed his manager. “That’s not proper customer service at all.”

    If the sentence before a dialogue tag (“Zorg intoned” for example) is a question (“Who do you think you are?” Hubert demanded.)  or exclamation (“Heads up!” Tara screamed as she whipped the softball at Kelly’s face.), the question mark or exclamation mark remains. Only statements (“Greetings, earthling.”) have their ending punctuation replaced with a comma before a dialogue tag (“Greetings, earthling,” Zorg intoned.) And don’t forget to have your quotation marks hug whatever punctuation you’re using.

    Dialogue Tags

    How do you know who said what? Dialogue tags.

    Dialogue tags are the “Jimmy said” or “she mumbled” or “they asked, pushing their hair out of their eyes.” Think of dialogue tags like labels that give the reader enough information to stay in the loop about who’s talking while not detracting from the conversation itself.

    Dialogue tags customarily follow a piece of dialogue, just after the closing quotation mark:

    “Here’s an example of how it looks,” I said.

    However, they can also appear mid-dialogue stream or, as is increasingly acceptable, preface the dialogue:

    “This can be done,” I said and paused for a deep breath, “for pacing or dramatic effect.”

    I leaned in closer and whispered, “This may also be done every now and then.”

    As always, think about what you are trying to accomplish on the page. What form of dialogue tag best serves the tone, voice, pacing, etc. of the story? Also remember that dialogue tags are a great way to give the reader more information about the characters, setting, etc. of your story. That said, dialogue tags should not detract from the flow of the story. Don’t get too crazy with dialogue tags. If you have a lot to say, consider moving to a paragraph between dialogue to share more information:

    “I have to tell you something important here,” I whispered.

    Looking over my shoulder, I pushed myself closer to the reader’s ear, leaning down so my long hair hung around my face, shielding my lips in a curtain.

    “This is also an acceptable way to write dialogue.”

    “Oh,” the audience breathed, “I think I understand.”

    As in that last example, you can omit dialogue tags when it is clear who said what. But remember that cutting back on dialogue tags, like most stylistic choices, is a delicate balance and should only be done very intentionally to create a certain effect.

    Indenting and Paragraph Breaks

    Switching between speakers or between the overall storyteller/narrator character and spoken dialogue can be a bit tricky. The same basic rule that all spoken dialogue should be inside quotation marks remains; however, there are a few other components in the mix.

    Unless expressly for stylistic effect, all new paragraphs should be indented, including dialogue. But how do you know when to start a new paragraph when dealing with dialogue?

    The answer is a bit complex.

    First and foremost, if a new speaker says something, start a new paragraph:

    “What’s that in the sky?” the bystander asked. “A bird? A plane?”

    “Don’t be stupid,” Jimmy Olsen said and rolled his eyes. “It’s my boy Superman.”

    However, if a character performs action following dialogue but doesn’t immediately say something else, you should also begin a new paragraph as soon as the dialogue tag is over:

    “So, do you like dogs?” the blond woman asked, clearly bored.

    “I like snakes,” Joe told her.

    He opened his wallet to reveal a long string of photographs cut from National Geographic encased lovingly in plastic to preserve the images of diamond back rattle snakes, yellow corn snakes the size of alligators, and, of course, the poisonous snakes Joe loved so much.

    “How . . . unique,” the woman replied.

    It is important not to stuff dialogue into lengthy paragraphs where it will get lost and the reader may lose track of who is speaking. Perspective is also another indicator of when to create new paragraphs. If the “camera lens” sifts from one character to another during a dialogue exchange, use paragraph breaks to ensure clarity:

    Erma carefully rolled her knitting around the wooden needles and slid it into the large pocket of her leather jacket.

    “Don’t miss me too much,” she told Willie. “I’ll be back by Friday.”

    Then she slipped her prescription motorcycle goggles on over her thinning white hair.

    Willie crossed his arms defiantly, despite the grumble of joint pains, and watched Erma mount her Harley-Davidson. He did his best not to smile when he saw her long pink socks peeking out from underneath her patchwork skirt, and kept a stony face as Erma blew him a kiss before kicking off from the curb in a rusty engine roar.

    “Love you!” she called over her shoulder.

    As always, clarity should be the governing force in your paragraph break decisions. Trust your writerly intuition; if you sense a perspective shift, there’s a good chance you need a paragraph break.

    Characteristic Dialogue and Dialect

    Dialogue is a great way to give your reader information about the characters speaking. You can show a lot with dialogue. For example, if a character looks up from scrolling through Facebook on their iPhone to say, “Gina, do you remember that summer when we walked all the way from The Cheesecake Factory to the Sears Tower with Mom?” you can make a pretty good guess about the date of the story, as well as the age and hometown of the character in question. What’s more, you’ve just learned that Gina is that character’s sister.

    Using dialect, slang, colloquialisms, certain spellings (for example American English vs. British English spellings of color/colour), etc. can help you express the character’s voice and give the reader information about their background and personality. Remember, if it’s in quotation marks, it’s in the character’s unique voice. Just because you know that “it’s goin’ good” is less grammatically correct than “it’s going well” doesn’t mean a character would make that distinction when answering how their day has been. If you are using a dialect or communicating an accent, remember that clarity is incredibly important. Make sure your spelling and punctuation are consistent throughout the entire manuscript and don’t be afraid to do a little research beforehand to ensure you’re getting everything right.

    Internal Dialogue

    Sometimes I think to myself, Internal dialogue is a tricky business.

    You see, most people have their own ideas when it comes to how they ought to get thoughts onto the page. However, I often think that it can be boiled down into a few basic rules.

    The key is to think of internal dialogue and internal voice as simply an extension of spoken dialogue. While I can’t be sure, I’d bet most of us have our own patterns of thinking, just the way we have our patterns of speaking. From a stylistic perspective, think first about your character’s voice, then get their thoughts onto the page. Once it’s all down there, you can clean it up and make sure it’s clear what is or isn’t an internal thought.

    The easiest and most commonly accepted way of denoting internal dialogue is using italics. To determine when to use italics, think of internal dialogue the way you would spoken dialogue. Anything that (if it were spoken aloud) would require quotation marks should be italicized. Anything else is left untouched.


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.

  • Terms of Endearment (A Guide to Proper Nouns)

    By Emma LaSaine, Columnist

    Love is in the air, red panties are waiting in the wings, and, as we all count down the hours in restless anticipation of February 15—National Chocolate Sale Day, as it is so fondly known by yours truly—a lot of sweet-talk will no doubt be thrown around. So, when the February chill gets your characters in the mood, pop a bonbon in your mouth, grab your favorite pen, and don’t forget that good grammar makes everything sexy.

    Let’s talk about nouns for an oh-so-hot second. All those people, places, and things that make up the stories you create. Sure, nothing would get done without verbs, but there wouldn’t be anyone to do without a noun or two, if you catch my meaning. Like any word you set down on the page, each noun carries its own possibilities and challenges. Consider character names, for example. What you call your character can tell the reader a whole lot—not to mention what other characters call them, or what that character calls themselves.

    Imagine I’m standing in the middle of a grocery store aisle, telling a story to my cousin and you walk in mid-plot arc and, eavesdropping while you pick out your favorite brand of frozen pizza, have to figure out who these people are:

    “So, then Cheryl grabs the ice cream maker from Leviathan, who starts screaming, ‘Chubby bunny! Chubby bunny!’ at the top of his lungs . . .”

    Now Cheryl is a relatively unremarkable name, but unless I’ve missed the latest celebrity baby name trend (god forbid!) Leviathan might raise a few eyebrows. It certainly suggests more of a backstory, and perhaps even physical characteristics. It also hints that I, the narrator character, might have the sort of relationship with Leviathan that warrants a nickname—either loving or mocking—in a way that ‘Cheryl’ just doesn’t imply. That’s not to say any one of these implications is necessarily true, but as a reader, even if you only get the characters’ names devoid of any context, you’re probably more intrigued by Leviathan than Cheryl.

    Character names are one of a few key ways to hook your readers—particularly jaded, lovesick editors languishing away in the dark, blustery Chicago winter—and make sure they buy into your story right from the get-go. There’s nothing particularly wrong with naming your protagonist John Smith, but unless you use the name to make a point or give the reader some key insight into how John is shaped as a person by his name, it’s not likely to do you any favors. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not advocating that you name every character Crazy-Pants McGee, or Bernheimer L. Pentecost, or anything else your wild little minds can think up just to fuck with me. Not unless it makes sense for that character, at least. As with all diction, when choosing proper nouns (like character or place names) discretion is everybody’s friend. Yes, that’s right, the proper proper nouns can make your story (How’s that for a bit of English?).

    So, how do you know if you’re dealing with a proper noun anyway? Good question, voice in my head. Proper nouns (in contrast to common nouns) are words that name a specific person, place, or thing. For example, Louisiana, Uncle Orville, Twizzlers, or Department of Homeland Security. Even though they may mean the same thing to you as “Louisiana,” the words “his home state” don’t form a proper noun—the same way that “my uncle” can mean anyone’s uncle, but “Uncle Orville” refers by name to a particular person.

    Proper nouns are usually capitalized, as depicted above, so “uncle orville” would be incorrect. Carefully ensuring that your proper nouns are capitalized can help clue in readers to the dynamics of character relationships, key plot information, and sense of place. For example, if I tell you that Mary-Jo and Gene “went to a movie at the riverfront theater,” I’m saying that the theater in which they saw the movie was on a riverfront. However, if I write that Mary-Jo and Gene “went to a movie at the Riverfront Theater,” I’ve used a proper noun (capitalized to cue my reader), which explains that the name of the building in which my characters watched a movie was Riverfront Theater. While the first movie theater clearly must be located on a riverfront, the second one could be in any number of places, from the corner of a strip mall in Ohio to the mainstreet of a mountain town in Wyoming. Depending on what I, as the writer, want to convey, selecting a common or proper noun has different effects.

    Brand names are another example of proper nouns, be they real or fictional. Just like the aforementioned Uncle Orville, “Twizzlers” refers to one specific kind of red, vine-shaped candy and “Red Vines” to another. By merely describing the candy to you, it is unclear which brand I actually have in mind—and remember, details are what make fiction feel real. If you write that Suzanne loved soda I’ll know a bit about her, but what if I’m imagining Mountain Dew and she’s actually passionate about Fanta because the color reminds her of her long-lost brother’s orangey-gold hair? We all have that one friend who swears up and down that they can taste the difference between Pepsi and Coke, and that one is inherently superior—let’s get real, R.C. was the actual star of pizza-and-movie-night (but I’ll save that discussion for another occasion)—so, why not get specific with your nouns and paint a more vivid picture?

    Proper nouns can carry along a whole history, culture, or even cult of worship that common nouns simply don’t. When used wisely and in moderation, proper nouns can be a powerful tool. In turn, the absence of proper nouns can give the reader a lot of information about a particular character’s worldview. Is Kerry the sort of person who always refers to people by her relationship to them (i.e. “my uncle” or “my roommate”) even if the individual she’s talking to knows the person in question? Does LaToya refuse to prostrate herself on the altar of capitalism, only using general terms and thus avoiding accidentally endorsing brands via referring to objects using their proper noun names? What if Daniel only calls his boyfriend Jerold “pookie” or “honeycakes” because he wants the whole world to know about their love? Or, perhaps, our esteemed Uncle Orville is the kind of guy who believes in off-brand loyalty and is careful to point out his Valu-Mart canned chicken noodle soup, Valu-Mart faux-suede slippers, and the catalogue picture of his Valu-Mart pre-ordered urn (on layaway) as soon as you get inside the drafty old bungalow where he lives with his pet ferret Whiskers and the ghosts of twenty-two goldfish (all named Earl)?

    The beauty of names (proper nouns) is that a name adds history, cultural context, narrative. Using proper nouns effectively and engagingly will set your stories apart in a stack of barely-fictionalized essays on masturbation, lamentations by protagonist John on the burden of white male privilege, and dead-horse-beating love-gone-wrong stories with gratuitous yet vague sex scenes that just leave the acquisitions editor bone-dry and asking, “Wait? What’s the spacial relationship of her thighs to the dining room table at the bottom of page seventeen?”

    Well, maybe proper nouns won’t save your story if it’s drowning in self-indulgence and riddled with grammatical errors, but much like the start of some similarly ill-fated relationships, an interesting name can certainly get your foot in the door.


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.

  • The Anatomy of a Bio

    by Emma LaSaine

    The word “bio” conjures up PTSD flashbacks of sitting in a room full of other fourteen year olds as a hairy man in sweatpants waves his wrestling coach arms at a whiteboard and bellows, “Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, Species!” It brings back memories of flicking chipped black nail polish off gray skinny jeans, of copying lab results from the friend who really should have been in Honors Freshman Biology, of contemplating the futility of life while scrawling Death Cab for Cutie lyrics in the margins of your notes—or was this just me?

    In all seriousness, wrestling coaches should never be allowed to teach, but that’s a discussion for another time. Today we’re here to talk about the other meaning of “bio,” as in “biography” or “biographical statement.” What does “biography” make you think of? Dusty old books? Dead people? Two hours of hell as you try, desperately, to condense your accomplishments into twenty-five words that don’t sound like the product of a malfunctioning robot? Yeah, that last one, for sure.

    But no matter how much you hate writing about yourself in the third person, or how difficult it is to trumpet your accomplishments while still maintaining some semblance of voice, you need a bio. That’s right, you in the corner wearing the hoodie and angsting over the use of that comma; you need a bio, motherfucker. Why? Simply because you will publish your work. You will have a website. You will do something at some point that you’ll be forced to take some freakin’ credit for. And when you do, the people in charge are going to hold out their hands and say, “Gimme!” because they sure as shit aren’t gonna write that bio for you. So you need some fifty- or hundred-word concoction that represents you, your work, and how goddamn snazzy both of those things are (i.e. your professional achievements).

    Start off by making a list of all the stuff you’ve accomplished in your life—well, the stuff that’s pertinent to your career/industry/skillsets, at least. Did you win a poetry contest? Did you publish an interview with a cool novelist? Do you have a degree (or are you working on one)? Did you sell an essay to The New Yorker? If you answered, “Yes!” to that last one, I feel like you’ve got this bio thing all on your own, buddy. For the rest of you, let’s get down to business (to defeat the Huns—in this instance the Huns represent your lack of a bio—does anyone else feel like singing?) and make those lists.

    It might look something like this:

    1. MFA from Columbia College Chicago

    2. Intern at Graywolf Press

    3. 7th grade English teacher at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School

    4. Debut novel published by Random House

    5. 2013 recipient of the Young Educator Award

    6. Universal Studios optioned film rights of debut novel

    7. Acquisitions Editor for Hair Trigger 

    Now that you have your list, it’s time to MacGyver as many of those accomplishments into a coherent statement as possible. In order to determine which ones are most relevant, let’s apply this very scientific method of ranking:

    1. Most recent to least recent accomplishment (unless you just started college, high school is definitely out)

    2. Most relevant to what you would like to do with your life in the near future to least relevant

    3. Special consideration given to: recent/big-name publications, anything that allows you to describe yourself/your writing/your related skills as “award-winning,” and degrees/jobs/internships you hold/have held in your desired industry

    Anything that checks at least two of these three boxes better be in your bio when the dust clears and the tears have dissipated. Okay? Okay.

    So, once you identify your most recent/relevant/impressive accomplishments, it’s time to whip those suckers into sentence-form and stick them all together. Don’t worry about word count right now; just get the ideas down on paper (or screen).

    Once you rough something together, it might look a bit like the following:

    Renaldo Faux is a writer and teacher from San Antonio, Texas. He holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia College Chicago where he was an Acquisitions Editor for Hair Trigger, an award-winning fiction anthology. He has also interned with Graywolf Press. His short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, Ninth Letter, and Front Porch . His debut novel, Insert Title Here, was published by Random House, and Universal Studios has optioned the film rights. Renaldo loves spending time with his cats, Beatrice and Theo, despite being largely subservient to their will.

    Not a bad first go at all, though Renaldo may have a leg up on you in several areas (being a figment of my imagination, for starters). Regardless of how “big” your accomplishments are, your bio will follow some basic rules. First of all, Renaldo seems to have identified the majority of his strongest achievements off the list. However, his bio should reflect not only the work that he has done, but what he hopes to continue doing in the future. As a passionate middle school teacher, Renaldo should probably include his Young Educator Award as an accomplishment. If he is interesting in going into publishing, however, he will want to highlight his editorial experience with Hair Trigger and Graywolf Press.


    Another aspect of the bio that Renaldo hasn’t quite nailed is the order in which he presents his achievements. People have short attention spans (and if you’re still reading this article by this point, you must really want to know about the art of writing bios, so it’s important to lead with the big guns. Let’s say Renaldo is looking to focus primarily on continuing publish writing while maintaining his teaching career, with editorial work as more of a secondary career interest. In that case, his bio should look something like this: 

    Renaldo Faux is a writer and award-winning teacher from San Antonio, Texas. His debut novel, Insert Title Here, is published by Random House and Universal Studios has optioned the film rights. His short fiction appears in Glimmer Train, Ninth Letter, and Front Porch . Recipient of the 2013 Young Educator Award, Renaldo also holds an MFA in Fiction from Columbia College Chicago where he was an Acquisitions Editor for Hair Trigger, an award-winning fiction anthology. He has also interned with Graywolf Press. Renaldo loves spending time with his cats, Beatrice and Theo, despite being largely subservient to their will.

    While this bio, which is about a hundred words, is suitable for his website, Renaldo (and you) will need a shorter version for publication credits in literary magazines and/or other professional uses. So how do you cut down a bio and still keep some semblance of voice? The answer, again, lies in your intent. If you only have twenty-five words to represent yourself, you won’t be able to give the full picture, so your shorter bios will likely end up changing based on their intended destination. Think of it as an exciting opportunity to tell the story of a character (yourself) and his/her achievements in a flash-fiction-meets-professional-voice shot of language. And if you’re gonna mention cats, know that you’re not alone but, particularly when it comes to a shorter bio, just don’t allocate too much real estate to the cats. 


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.

  • 10 Ways to Make Your Manuscript Submission­ Ready Dynamite

    by Emma LaSaine

    1. Submit Draft Thirty-­Two

    With the exception of a small (and possibly dishonest) portion of the population, none of us are “First­ Draft Writers.” Like cheese, wine, and fine motor skills, your writing will improve with time. Unlike cheese, your writing will take more than just a little effort and a lot of sitting around.

    Don’t dash off a brilliant idea as fast as you can type and send it to a publication without ever bothering to rewrite. By missing a deadline the first time around, you’ll ensure that your piece won’t be published, true, but in the long run, you’ll also avoid becoming a horror story for that editor to tell when they get drunk with their friends and forget about confidentiality etiquette. Better to revise a piece until it’s strong, and then submit it.

    2. Bulletproof Your Manuscript

    We all miss a comma here and there, a homonym that Word didn’t catch for us, an inverted apostrophe. It’s gonna happen. But there’s a difference between a single stray comma and an illegible manuscript. Copy editing is a part of the publication process, but that doesn’t mean you can get lazy.

    By the time you submit your manuscript, you’ll probably have read it a thousand freakin’ times. I know. But read it again. Print it out, turn off the music, tell your roommate to take a walk, get out a pen, and read that sucker aloud. You will catch something you let slip every one of those thousand previous reads.

    Each editor is different, but as a general rule they will appreciate the hell out of a piece that is well written. At the very least, a clean manuscript stands a better chance of making it past the first read. Some editors will only read a page, a line, because they have four hundred other manuscripts sitting on their desk or in their inbox. Don’t be that jackass who didn’t proofread. Editors are only human; If it seems like you didn’t bother to proof, we feel disrespected. Don’t piss an editor off—it may cost you publication.

    3. Do the Curtains Match the Drapes?

    While you’re proofreading, try to look at your manuscript objectively. Yes, you are the omniscient author, but that doesn’t mean you didn’t fuck up. We all do it. Change a character’s name halfway through a manuscript? Yep, I’ve seen it. Dates don’t match up with characters’ ages? Guilty as charged. (Math is difficult, I know, but it’s also important. You don’t want to give an editor any reason to doubt your authorial authority.)

    Another small mistake that may slip by you is the title of your piece. If you have a form cover letter that you like to copy and paste, make sure you change the manuscript title. An overworked editor doesn’t have time to query you to verify if the manuscript you submitted is in fact the piece you intended them to read. Take the extra two minutes to proof that cover letter.

    4. Name Your Manuscript as You Would Your Child

    Speaking of titles, let me take this opportunity to remind you that people are a judgmental lot. Even at the best of times we’ll form hasty conclusions based on whatever small scrap of information we have before us. This means that every word counts. Especially the first few words. Don’t just shove a title on the top of your manuscript. You worked long and hard on this piece (one would hope) so respect your own effort and take the time to think up a title that does it justice. It’s the first thing an editor will read and it may be the difference between intrigue and exhaustion.

    Don’t call your piece “First Person POV Exercise” unless that’s actually the title you pondered up. You don’t want an editor to think that you aren’t taking their time seriously.

    5. Hook Me

    Editors want to love your work. We want to fangirl over it like the word nerds we are at heart, but sometimes stress and sleep deprivation keep us from feeling that exhilaration. Get our attention quickly and and keep it. A good first line will never hurt you. I’m not saying that you should shove all the sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll of the ’60s into your opening sentence merely to grab attention, but don’t just throw some words there as a place-holder either. It’s important to be intentional. Your manuscript should begin where the story starts and not a word sooner.

    6. Paginate Like a Champ

    Page numbers make editors’ lives easier. Editors with easy lives are happy. Happy editors read manuscripts less vindictively. This is where we forgive you that rogue comma or occasional character name fuck­up.

    7. Flyin’ Blind?

    Some publications do what is called a “blind read,” meaning that their readers and/or editors read manuscripts without knowing who wrote them, in order to maintain an unbiased opinion. If the publication to which you are submitting does this, don’t put your name on the manuscript. Just don’t. It will immediately disqualify your work from consideration. The lesson here is to read the submission guidelines. You know you should.

    8. Get Your Dates Straight

    You revised. You proofed. You wrote the best damn cover letter in four counties. Now it’s time to submit. But is it, actually?

    Make sure you know when the deadline is. This sounds silly, but it’s actually the most important thing. If you don’t submit in time, your work won’t be considered. Just to be safe, plan to submit a few days (or even weeks) before the deadline.

    9. Know When to Use the Shotgun

    Like a shotgun, simultaneous submissions have their time and place. Some publications do not consider simultaneous submissions (when you send the same piece to multiple publications for consideration), but most will. Again, it’s important to check the submission guidelines. Note in your cover letter that a piece is a simultaneous submission. Common courtesy also dictates that you should notify editors in a timely fashion if your piece has been accepted by another publication. Don’t waste their time considering a piece they won’t be able to publish. Also, don’t be a jerk about it. Even though you’re a Big­shot Soon-­to-­be-­published author now, you still may want to publish work again, and this magazine or journal may be a great fit. You’d do well to respectfully thank the editor for their time so that they remember you positively when that next submission arrives.

    10. Read Your Manuscript Again Before You Click "Submit"

    Just do it.


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.

  • Hit It and Quit It: A Guide to Writing Kick-Ass Cover Letters

    by Emma LaSaine

    So, you want to submit your manuscript to a publication, do you? Alright, but you’re going to need a cover letter, and because you’re a creative motherfucker it’s gotta be the best damn cover letter that editor will ever read, right? This thing has to have the power to level the Sears tower, the wit to knock your reader onto their ass like a twenty-foot wave crashing onto Lake Shore Drive, and the length of a wait for a Forest Park-bound Blue Line train on a Sunday morning during construction season.

    Or does it?

    Believe it or not, this article is already longer than your cover letter should be. Yes, you heard me—cultivate some brevity.

    “Why not longer?” you ask. “Aren’t details important?”

    It simply doesn’t need to be. You have a busy life. Your editor has a busier one. They don’t have time to read your in-depth analysis of American politics as it pertains to the five-page story you’re sending their way. A concise, cover letter won’t make or break you in their opinion, but it certainly won’t piss them off as much as a six-page treatise on why they should publish your two-page poem. Sometimes, that makes all the difference.

    You worked on this manuscript a long damn time, am I right? You labored through draft after draft. Now, you’re finally sending it out into the world. You aren’t submitting this cover letter for publication, you’re just writing it because whatever publication you’re submitting to requires one, so let your manuscript speak for itself. If it’s good, it’s good.

    “Well,” you demand, perhaps with arms akimbo, “how should my cover letter look?”

    Good question. Your cover letter needs to accomplish four basic goals:

    1. Address the editor politely.
    2. Give the form and title of the piece you’re submitting.
    3. Share your bio.
    4. Thank the editor for their consideration, then duck out before the party gets too rowdy.

    Boom. Concise gold. Now let’s put it all together:


    Example McEditor

    Pretend Magazine

    231 N. Imaginary Street, Chicago, IL

    Dear Example McEditor,

    Thank you for reading my short story entitled “Name of Your Manuscript.”

    Jane Sample is an award-winning writer and photographer from Cleveland, Ohio. Her fiction and nonfiction have been published in Fake Journal and Not a Thing Magazine. Her forthcoming debut novel, The Next Great American Novel, is to be published by Publishing House Name.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Best Regards,

    Jane Sample

    810-552-3241

    jane.sample@gmail.com


     “But what about flattery?” You cross your arms and raise a skeptical eyebrow at the above cover letter. “That looks like it could be for any magazine. Don’t they want to know that you read their publication?”

    Well, yes. But do you? Editors love to hear how great their place of employment is, but that doesn’t mean you can genuinely claim you’ve been a lifelong fan of whatever magazine or journal you’re submitting to. Editors know when you’re lying—and will be especially annoyed if you waste their time lying in-length—so unless you actually have thoughts and feelings about that experimental prose piece they published in Issue Twelve last September, don’t waste their time with unnecessary faux flattery.

    Now, maybe you do have those thoughts and feelings you want to share. Great! If they’re genuine they’ll most likely be welcome. In that case you can simply insert another short paragraph before your bio displaying your familiarity with the publication. You can also note in the first paragraph if you’re sending this manuscript in response to a specific call for submissions or to be considered for a particular issue.

    A few other things to note: 

    -Just as Jane Sample did, make sure to include your contact information. 

    -You can also put a professional header with the editor’s name, the name of the publication, and the publication’s address at the top of your cover letter. This is customary, but not always required, especially for electronic or email submissions.

    -Make sure you check the publication’s submission guidelines. In fact, those fuckers should be stapled to your hand while you write your cover letter and proof your manuscript.

    -Follow the rules, format your shit correctly, and make sure you triple-check for errors before clicking “Submit.”

    “Fine,” you roll your eyes, “I guess you know a bit about cover letters. But how the hell do you know who’s gonna read my manuscript?”

    Well, let’s put aside your troubles with authority for a moment, shall we, and talk about editors. Most publications will list their mastheads on their websites. Give ‘em a read. If the masthead lists Bob Story as Fiction Editor and you’re submitting flash fiction, Bob’s likely your guy. For Creative Nonfiction, you’ll want to look for Nonfiction Editor Jolene Essayist. You get the idea. If you absolutely cannot discern to whom you should address your cover letter, or if there’s a whole team reading submitted work, something like, “Dear Poetry Editor,” or “Dear Acquisitions Editor(s)” will suffice.

    Do not, under any circumstance, use that pitfall of formality “To Whom it May Concern:” because it sounds like you couldn’t be concerned with figuring out who will read this cover letter. Don’t be a diva and don’t anger the editor. They are considering you and your work, not the other way around.

    Well, there you are. Now you’re armed with the knowledge to fire off a cover letter of your own and submit your writing every-which-place. In fact, you can even keep a template cover letter to tweak for each new submission so you don’t have to write one from scratch every time. But if you do, just be sure to quadruple-freakin’-check that you didn’t accidentally leave the wrong manuscript title, publication name/address, or editor’s name on your cover letter. Believe me, I’ve seen it, even from excellent writers, and it doesn’t make you look too competent.

    Oh, and one last thing to remember: cover letters accompanying manuscripts to publications and cover letters for applying to jobs are different animals. Don’t conflate the two. How do they differ? Well, the intents and the subjects are different, if that gives you any clue. If it doesn’t, you have the Internet. Go Google it like you do with all of your trivia questions or spelling discrepancies.


    Emma LaSaine is a recent graduate of Columbia College Chicago, with a BA in Creative Writing. She is an award-winning nonfiction writer, Managing Editor of Habitat Magazine, and Production Editor of Hair Trigger 38. Emma is also the 2013-2014 Honors Research Award recipient. Her writing appears in BORGEN MagazineSlacktivistThe Lab Review, and on her website, emmalasaine.com.