Thomas Smith

Thomas Smith is an award winning writer, newspaper reporter, TV producer, playwright, and essayist. His work has appeared in a variety of places, from Haunts magazine to Zondervan's New Men's Devotional Bible. A three time winner of the American Christian Writers Association Writer of the Year award, he is also a speaker, musician, worship leader, ordained United Methodist minister, and a pretty fair banjo picker.

The Flip Side - Under The Stall

How Not to Impress Editors, Agents and Other
Writing Professionals

"Publishing is a small universe, and if you tick off an editor at one publishing house, and he/she moves to another house, you now have a bad reputation at two houses..."

Once upon a time there was a very nice agent. She devoted a good bit of her time to attending conferences to help fledgling writers and scouting potential new talent. After one particularly long day of teaching workshops, sitting on panels, handling fifteen-minute appointments, and generally “doing the agent thing,” nature called. As she settled in for the first private moment she’d had to herself all day, she heard a voice from the next stall.

“I sure am glad I finally found you. Your appointment list was full, and I’ve got this novel I want you to take a look at.” Not two seconds later, a large manila envelope skidded across the tile and came to rest on her brand-new Franco Sarto slingbacks.

This tale would be hilarious if it wasn’t true. Unfortunately, some agents reading this column right now are shaking their heads and reliving a similar moment from their pasts.

It’s not uncommon for writers to make the leap from friendly conference attendee to goggle-eyed lunatic at the mention of the words agent or acquisitions editor. From outlandish claims about their writing projects (“This will be the next Left Behind”) to downright bribery (I have seen $5, $10, and $20 bills clipped to query letters), something about an encounter with an editor or agent brings the oddball gene out of its dormant state in even the most level-headed people.

Equally frightening are the writers who run headlong into reality and don’t know how to deal with it. These are the folks who meet an editor or agent for the first time and expect a line edit and an in-depth discussion about a manuscript they brought with them; or they come in with a piece of really bad writing and the editor kindly tells them that their masterpiece may need a little more work, which makes said writer a little cranky—sometimes cranky enough to tell the offending editor exactly what they can do with their red pen.

And while such an attitude certainly makes a lasting impression, it is not the one you want to make. Publishing is a small universe, and if you tick off an editor at one publishing house, and he/she moves to another house, you now have a bad reputation at two houses.

Also, be warned: A one-on-one meeting is not the only way to breach the boundaries of good agent/editor etiquette. A well-placed query letter or proposal can do the same thing. Take for example a query that opens something like this:

“Dear editor, God told me to write this story, and He also said I should send it to you and you should publish it . . .” Okay, with a show of hands, how many of you out there have a similar letter in your files? Um-hum, I thought so.

One editor, having seen the story from God letter one too many times, evidentially said: “Dear Writer: While I thank you for thinking of our publishing company, we will not be able to use your story. Since God wrote the best-selling book of all time, I can only assume He can spell better than what was evident in you manuscript . . .”

So, how does the average writer get into an editor or agent’s good graces?

It’s not as difficult as you may think.

First, be respectful. Remember the magic words please and thank you. And don’t forget the advice given by every card-carrying mother on the planet: mind your manners.

Don’t call editors and agents by their first name unless invited to do so. For example, “Ms. Mortimer, may I speak with you for a minute or two about the project I’m working on?” will make a more favorable impression than, “Hey, Kelly, hang on a minute and take a look at this proposal while I go get some lunch.”

Second: Don’t worry about carrying a full book-length manuscript around with you to your meeting. Most agents and editors don’t want to carry a stack of manuscripts with them on the plane. If they are interested in your project, they’ll ask you to mail or e-mail it to them.

When communicating via mail or e-mail, keep the letterhead simple, professional, and error-free . No garish colors of fancy fonts.

When dealing with these nice folks in person, bring a clean, well-edited manuscript, proposal, or whatever is requested. Make sure it is formatted properly and meets their criteria (number of pages, etc.).

Think about what you want to say before you arrive at the conference, or before you write that query letter. Have a clear image of the heart of your story in mind before you make the pitch. Doing otherwise could very well scuttle your project in a matter of seconds. A seasoned editor or agent will know in less than a minute how much thought you have put into your idea.

When dealing with writing professionals, having a polite, professional bearing can carry you a long way. Accept criticism graciously, and always thank the other person for her/his time. In short, act like a professional, even if you aren’t one . . . yet. You see, bad writing can be fixed, but a bad first impression is hard to overcome.

That being said, Ms. Mortimer, may I speak with you for a minute or two about the project I’m working on . . .