Monday, April 29, 2013


Hi folks,

Earlier today, I posted a comment in a fellow blogger’s post giving her some hints about submitting writing samples as part of her application to an MFA program. I thought perhaps it might be somewhat helpful to others so am expanding it a bit to include submissions to publications and agents. Here’s what I told her and a bit more:

Sarah, I often write recommendations for students and clients and friends of mine applying to MFA programs and I give them a bit of advice they haven't heard before. In the writing sample (of which I've read dozens and dozens and see the same thing done all the time), I see writers trying to use every square inch of the space allowed. Many will "cheat" and fudge their margins or line spacing or font size in an attempt to squeeze in even more. But, that's simply a big red flag to those who read these for admission. All of those tricks are instantly visible to the reader and tell us one thing--that this applicant is lacking in confidence in his or her work. This is a writer who seems to think that the more they provide, the more their ability will shine through. Alas, the opposite will happen. They'll simply look unsure of the quality of their work. The folks who read these are reading tons of other samples also and it's a daunting task. What gets an applicant to the top of the pile and considered very favorably is the person who submits just a bit less than the maximum required. This exudes confidence for one thing. It also elicits a sigh of relief that the reader won't have to read as much. The truth is, any good judge of writing can tell within a paragraph or two if the applicant has talent or not.

If the prose sample asks for say, "15-20 pages" I'd urge the applicant to submit 18 or 19 pages. It will stand out and very positively, as the vast majority of the other applicants will submit the entire 20 pages and use all the little tricks mentioned above. And, if it's a good school, there will be tons of applicants, most of whom will be rejected. One of the reasons (that no one will tell you) is that the person who submits a bit less than the maximum will be viewed much more positively by the reader than the one who crammed every possible space with prose.

Also, a person who fudges with font size, spacing, etc. has violated professional format and that's another big red flag. It instantly identifies the writer as… unprofessional.

Hope that helps! And, good luck!

This is what agents and editors want to do with their letter openers to those who cheat on their submissions formatting...


The same advice applies to writers sending in stories and material to writing contests, to agents, to editors and publishers.

Ask any agent and he or she will tell you the same thing. In their submissions policies it will state clearly that they want “three chapters” or the “first five pages” or "fifty pages" or something similar. Editors will often ask for the same thing. Publications (especially print publications—it doesn’t matter as much for e-publications simply because their space requirements are normally less stringent), will often have similar parameters—for instance, they’ll say they accept stories “up to twenty pages” or some other such amount.

And what happens very often is the same thing I described to Sarah above. The writer will “fudge” the submission by the same techniques. Instead of 12-point type, they’ll make it 11.5 type. Instead of 1-inch margins all around, they’ll “cheat” on the margins a bit. They’ll also cheat on spacing. Instead of sending it double-spaced, they’ll make it 1.5”. Or, if they’re really computer-savvy, they’ll change the spacing to 1.8” or something like that. Sometimes, they’ll even change the font to one that allows more words on the page. That’s a cheating technique that’s particularly… what’s the word?... oh, yeah… dumb…

All in an effort to get more words on the page. The logic they’re employing is that the more they can get the professional to read, the better chance their “genius” will show through and their story will be taken, their entire mss requested.

Well, I hate to burst such thinkers’ bubbles, but that isn’t what’s going to happen, booby! The very opposite will happen. Anyone who reads a lot of material—agents/editors—will spot any of these “tricks” and others just by glancing at the first page. They’ll see what the writer is trying to do and instantly a big red flag is planted in their mind. It simply shows a writer who isn’t sure about his/her work, and feels (wrongly) that the more the gatekeeper reads, the better chance their work has of being accepted.

And, sometimes the submission is fudged space-wise not because of those reasons but because the story they want to submit is just a bit longer than the required maximum. These aren’t folks trying to game the system, but simply to get their work in under the required pages. But, the effect they’re going to have on the reader is the same. A negative impression. To those cheating on the format for that reason, I’d strongly urge them to simply edit the story until it does fit the space requirements. There’s scarcely a story ever published that couldn’t be cut at least somewhat. And, if it really can’t be cut, I’d urge you to just not submit it to that place. The editor isn’t going to assume you cheated for that reason but is just going to assume you fudged it for the same reasons most others do. And, if you cheated this way in a contest, trust that the judges are going to see instantly what you've done and not only won't your submission be considered but you'll be remembered... And, not in the way you want to be remembered. And, the writing community is a relatively small community and people talk and this kind of stuff gets passed around.

The agent or editor who is requesting “three chapters” is just assuming most novels adopt an average length of about 10-20 pages per chapter. What most want are roughly 50 pages. Roughly… They can tell within five pages at the most if it’s any good or not—five paragraphs, actually. Fifty pages just gives a pretty good idea if the structure of the novel is sound or not. And, I’d really urge writers to send the first three chapters and not the three you’ve cherry-picked because they’re your best chapters. That really creates a red flag. The agent or editor knows instantly that the writer is sending these random chapters for that very reason—that the writer feels they’re the best chapters. What that means is that if this is what he/she considers the best… and it’s not really all that great—then the rest probably sucks. And, that leads to… you guessed it… a rejection.

In the case of a large sample—three chapters, etc.—what they really want to see are about 50 pages. If your chapters average three pages, then I’d suggest sending a partial of about 50 pages and perhaps state in your cover letter that because your chapter lengths are unusually short, you thought they really wanted to see about 50 pages. Usually, however, most submission requirements will make that clear by saying something to the effect that they’d like to see “about three chapters or fifty pages.” A hint here. The fiftieth page will often end in the middle of a riveting scene and the temptation is to furnish the three more pages that will include that scene. I’d suggest not doing that, but instead only send say 45-46 pages that do end upon the completion of a scene or chapter.

The main thing that’s crucial here is to strongly advise you to never “cheat” or “fudge” the formatting to squeeze more prose on the page. Professionals will see instantly what you’re doing and the result will be a negative one. If nothing else, they’ll resent what you’re doing. In effect, you’re sending a message that you think they’re stupid enough to not see what is obvious to anyone who’s been reading submissions and manuscripts for any length of time at all. It’s an insult to their intelligence and that’s exactly how they’ll perceive it. To your detriment…

I hate using this saying (because of my name—I’ve heard it a bazillion times…), but in this case: “Less is more.” It really is.

Hope this helps!

Blue skies,

Looking for a novel in which cheating doesn't pay? Check out:


K. A. Laity said...

Good advice! Anything you do to annoy the committee/editor/agent is bad. Put your best foot forward.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Kate! I've been an editor for several publications and I'm like most editors--when I see this kind of fudging going on, that writer instantly begins with two strikes. And, as editors we've seen all the tricks!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Kate! I've been an editor for several publications and I'm like most editors--when I see this kind of fudging going on, that writer instantly begins with two strikes. And, as editors we've seen all the tricks!