Fretting (Mistake #77)

“Is my font okay? Should I indent my paragraphs? My margins are all right aren’t they? Shall I centre justify my title? Ought I number the pages? Is my cover letter too long? Too short? Too casual? What did you say about my font again?”

If it’s a font I have seen before, doesn’t have the word ‘gothic’ in its title, and couldn’t pass as the name of a particularly posh pampered pet – “Come along, Tahoma! Walkies!” – then it is probably okay. Indenting? Yes or no – doesn’t much matter. Are those margins about one-inch? They’re fine, then. Sure – justify if you like. Sure – number if you like. A few hundred words, polite, sane, and straight-to-the-point? Then it’s fine. As is your font ….

It’s not that I don’t think the issues above aren’t important – I do regularly tell my students to halve their two-inch margins, for example, which just look silly – but I do think you can get bogged down too much with more trivial aspects of the writing game, and lose sight of what really signifies.

This sort of fretting is fine when it is merely last-minute pre-submission jitters, and perhaps you’re just looking for an excuse to read it through again (you don’t need one – you should read through several times anyway – but an extra time can’t hurt, by any means), but when it’s a more stubborn problem, there could be deeper underlying issues that need to be addressed.

One can be an over-attachment to your idea or article. It feels like your ‘baby’. The cure for this is to make more babies. (No sniggering at the back.) You need lots of ideas on the go, so you feel less emotionally invested in any particular one. If all you have to look forward to after you send your idea or article off is an afternoon clicking the ‘receive mail’ icon every minute to see whether the lucky receiving editor has responded, then it’s time to spread your love around to other ideas and projects, so that waving goodbye to one becomes as emotional an act as brushing your teeth.

The second can be a suppressed suspicion that something may be wrong with the piece. Maybe you don’t want to admit it openly to yourself because you’ve worked so hard on it. But ask some questions of the piece. Challenge it. Is it original? Are you offering something new and fresh? Is it well written, well puncuated, with no dodgy spelling, to the best of your knowledge, and carefully targeted to the reader of your target market? Does your opening paragraph clearly set out your stall? Is the article packed with lots of information? Is it satisfying and interesting? Lots of yeses here indicate you’re probably good to go – but too many nos and you could have identified your problems right there. Be honest. Forget about fonts and margins and address them. If you’re feeling fretful about this, then go off and work on another of your babies before coming back to feed this one with a calmer mind.

Another – particularly for newer writers – can be plain fear. You’re entering new or newish territory. You have no idea what will happen next. It can be scary. The editor may pick up the phone and shout “Never send me your rubbish idea again!” at you – scary. The editor may pick up the phone and say “It’s great – can you let me have 1,500 words by 3pm today?” at you – arguably doubly scary. Neither of these will happen. You may get a polite no thanks. You may get a sniff of interest with an invitation to send more information. You may get a commission (with a reasonable deadline). Only the third of these possibilities could get the butterflies going, but if you’ve come this far, you can go further. You know you can put together a really good article, if only because an experienced editor who is trained to see it in writers thinks you can. So you can. So do.

Editors are forgiving, to a large degree. It’s very difficult to commit a cardinal sin, unless you’ve really paid no attention. If your idea is otherwise good, a good editor will excuse the odd typo, a slightly dodgy cliché, and even your habit of hitting the spacebar twice rather than once between words (I’m far less forgiving when it comes to this…). Remember: he wants to like you and your work!

Make him want to like you and your work by getting the ‘extras’ right, of course, but don’t flap and fret about them too much that he never gets to see that work you want him to like. Get the stuff that matters right, bite the bullet and give it a shot, then switch to the next baby on the production line. It’s how successful writers work.

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