Written by Emily Harstone October 1st, 2018

The Ten Most Common Manuscript Submission Mistakes

When I talk to agents, writers, and editors I always hear them complain of the same mistakes over and over again. The other day I was reading a back issue of Poets & Writers and based on the question “What kind of submissions do you not take seriously?” (I am paraphrasing here), I was able to guess exactly what the agents would say in response to this question.

Even writers who write imaginative and creative pieces are capable of falling into the same traps, particularly if you don’t know what other writers are doing in terms of submissions, or what agents’ and editors’ expectations are. Speaking from personal experience, I made a lot of mistakes when I started submitting.

Agents and editors are so used to seeing query letters and sample chapters day in and day out, but most writers only interact with their own submission packet. If you do have a chance to see other authors’ submission packets, that is always a good place to start.

Another good place to start? Learning what not to do. Below I cover the top 10 most common complaints agents and editors have about submission packets. All of the reasons are based on information I have learned from talking directly with agents, writers, and editors. This is concrete information you can use to craft the best submission packet you can.

1. The Submission Did NOT Obey Their Submission Guidelines

Agents and publishers receive submissions all the time where the submitter does not follow directions at all. They include the whole manuscript when only the first 30 pages are asked for. They don’t include a cover letter at all. They submit a marketing packet instead of a manuscript or cover letter. The variety of mistakes are wide ranging, but the fact remains the same – the author did not follow that agent or publisher’s submission guidelines at all.

Submission guidelines exist for a reason. Ignore them at your peril. Most of the editors I have talked to either automatically reject submissions that do not follow guidelines, or they refuse to respond to them entirely.

2. They Didn’t Submit to the Right Agent or Publisher

There is no way to predict which agent or publisher will be the right fit for you or your novel. But it is pretty easy to eliminate ones that won’t fit at all, based on genre and interest.

If you have written a young adult (YA) book, don’t submit it to a publisher that does not publish YA. They will not accept your book. If you submit your work of fantasy to an agent that only focuses on literary fiction, they will not accept it.

Most authors think of this in terms of what the agent or publisher explicitly states on their site that they don’t publish, but when submitting, particularly to agents, it is important to see what books they represent. For example an agent might not say “No Fantasy” but the only books he has represented are works of literary fiction. Even if he was to be won over by your wonderful dragon filled novel (which is unlikely), he probably would not be the right person to represent it because his connections are in a different genre.

Also, and this is a bit of a tangent, most small publishers who accept unsolicited submissions and are open to multiple genres do not sell as many books as those publishers who focus on one or two niche markets. If you have a fantasy novel, it is generally best to place it with a fantasy publisher.

3. It Was a Mass Submission

This mistake overlaps with #1 and #2. Some authors submit mass or blanket submissions, where they submit the same manuscript and the same cover letter to as many publishers at the same time as they can usually via email, but sometimes through electronic submission managers as well. Most publishers can spot these submissions right away. Sometimes they do not even open or read these submissions, because they are so used to receiving them. When you submit this way many of the publishers don’t even publish the work you are submitting. You might be surprised how many science fiction manuscripts Authors Publish receives, in spite of the fact that we don’t publish science fiction or manuscripts. We receive these submissions because the author is mass submitting and has not done their due diligence.

The other issue with mass submissions is that your manuscript is much more likely to be submitted to and be accepted by an illegitimate publisher this way.

4. Do Not Include Rhetorical Questions

What would you do if your parents were killed by pirates? What would you do if you could breath underwater? What would you do if your boyfriend became a werewolf?

These and many other rhetorical questions are something that agents are so used to seeing in cover letters, that some agencies just toss them into a pile together and leave it at that.

Sometimes an entire paragraph of a cover letter is devoted to rhetorical questions, other times it is just a sentence or two. But after reading a few hundred or so of them, most agents grow to dislike them.

It is really easy not to use them in a cover letter and really much more effective. So if you have any in yours, remove them. They might seem like a fun way to intrigue the agent, but that isn’t what the agent is thinking.

5. Don’t Talk about Copyright

“A book with a copyright date of 2013, and submitted in 2016, speaks volumes to an editor or agent. It means it’s been shopped around, a lot! If you are really worried someone will steal your material, register it with the Writers’ Guild, East or West. For a small fee they will record the work, proving when you wrote it. And then, unless you are submitting to an entertainment agent or producer, keep your mouth shut. Copyright marks and WGA numbers suggest you don’t trust us.”

Read more on what Joyce Holland, Literary Agent said in the link.

Tempted to use this symbol Ⓒ instead of talking about copyright directly? Don’t! It sends the message that not only do you not trust the agent, you are new to submitting. We talk more about that here.

If you don’t trust a publisher or an agent you probably shouldn’t be submitting your manuscript to them for consideration.

That doesn’t mean you can’t copyright it.  The cost of a filing to register work with the Copyright Office listing a single author and claimant is currently $45 – This is a simple and affordable way of protecting ones work. One that you can do without informing the agent or potential publisher.

Even if you don’t do this it can be helpful to timestamp your work, by emailing it to yourself, although Word keeps track of this automatically, it can be harder to access that information. Some people mail their work to themselves but that offers to more protection than email.

This is part of why it’s so important to research and trust the organizations you are submitting to.

6. Don’t Query (Yet)

Most publishers and agents mention a time frame within which they respond to most submissions. For some publishers it is 2-4 months, for others it is a week, others 6 months. After that time has passed and you have not heard from them, it is fine to query. Querying involves sending a polite email inquiring about your submission. I actually like waiting an extra month on top of the time they mention before querying, just to be polite.

If they don’t mention a time frame at all, don’t query for at least six months. If they ask you not to query, don’t! These are rules they set in place for a reason, but more importantly, querying too quickly, or bothering them too frequently about your work can really tick them off. It can also send them the wrong message – that if they were representing you, you would be very needy. Don’t do that.

7. Politeness and Formality are a Must

I have already talked a little about how important politeness is if you are following up on your manuscript, but it is vitally important throughout the entire process.

I’ve seen cover letters that are rude. Usually along the lines of “You are so very lucky to receive my wonderful manuscript.” Often the rudeness is right at the end of the cover letter, such as signing off with this line “I can’t wait to receive the acceptance letter you will send me”.

It is also particularly important to respond politely, or not at all, if they decline your submission. Sending them an email imploring them to give your work a second look or calling them out for rejecting your work, will only do you harm. Remember agents, agencies, and publishers talk to each other. If you behave badly it could hurt your reputation at a much larger scale than you might be thinking.

Remember that it isn’t just when engaging with the agent directly that you have to be polite. If you are polite via email, but then blog or tweet to complain about the whole experience, the agent will likely find out, and then be even less pleased.

It is also important to be formal with your cover letter. Just like you would be formal for a job (although honestly I have read a lot of rude and informal cover letters in my day).

Think of this as a time make an impression that is professional. Even if your book is the new version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, you want your cover letter to convey reliability. Unless you already have a Hunter S. Thompson like publication backlog, in which case you would probably not be reading this article.

But don’t go over the top. I have read a cover letter where every other word was archaic and appeared to be pulled from the thesaurus. It did not make a positive impression.

8. Know the Agent’s Name

“Number one on my list of things never to do, is to address a query to 30 or 40 agents or editors at the same time. I’m talking about listing them in the header of your query. We usually toss those without even reading the subject line. Someone sent me one yesterday addressed to at least 50 other agents. I took a moment and tried to figure out what their reasoning might be. Did the writer think I would immediately jump on the material, worried someone would beat me out of a bestseller? Really?

I’m not foolish enough to think authors aren’t submitting to more than one agent or editor at a time. I certainly do, but I never list them so everyone knows. By the same reasoning, don’t ever, ever, send material to all the agents at one agency. We do talk to one another.

I recently received a query stating the author had done his homework and investigated dozens of agents and agencies. It boiled down to me being the perfect person to represent his masterpiece. (Yes, that’s what he called it.) Unfortunately for him, he addressed the query to Ms. Gallagher. Lesson: Be very careful before you press the send button.”

– Joyce Holland, Literary Agent.

When you submit directly to a publisher, unless they specifically state which editor you are submitting to, you don’t know the editor’s name. If you know the editor’s name, use it. If it isn’t obviously provided for you – don’t use a name. Just say Dear Editors. Assume that more than one will see your submission.

9. Have a Complete Manuscript

If you write fiction you must have a complete manuscript before submitting (the same is not true with nonfiction). Because most publishers and agents don’t require you to submit the whole manuscript when querying, many authors decide to submit before the manuscript is actually complete, figuring that if the agent or publisher likes the partial they will be willing to wait a little bit for the completed version. This is not in fact true. It is poor etiquette to submit this way, and if a publisher or agent finds out, it can result in your work being blacklisted in the future.

10. You Have to be Willing to Submit

“If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then you’re done before you start.”

– Mark Manson, Writer

This might seem obvious to some readers, but not to others. One of the mistakes many authors make is not submitting their work at all. Here is the thing, rejection is part of the publishing process, there is no avoiding it entirely. It is actually a good thing because it means that you are putting your work out there. Many authors “self-reject” by not submitting. So as long as you know you are putting your best foot forward and following the submission guidelines and practicing general literary etiquette, start submitting.


If you are ready to submit your manuscript, this article walks you through the process.

Emily Harstone is the pen name of an author whose work has been published internationally by a number of respected journals. She is a professional submissions adviser and spends much of her time researching manuscript publishers. You can follow her on Facebook here.


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