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Understanding Editorese
Translations of the Phrase "Not right for our list"
We all want to know WHY our work is rejected. Some writers include a checklist and ask editors to check off a reason, but even then, what we most often receive is a photocopied form that includes the phrase "not right for our list."
"Not right for our list" can mean a lot of things. Here, in descending degree of desirability, are the possible translations:
1.   "Not right for our list"—written by an editor on a personally signed letter.
a. Translation: Something about your work—the idea or the writing itself—was good enough to make the first cut.
  Suggested actions: Send that editor another manuscript. In your cover letter, include a phrase like, "Thank you for your personal reply regarding my manuscript Gone With the Breeze. Enclosed is another piece I hope you will find of interest..." (This is how I sold my first book. The editor rejected a picture book manuscript with a personal note; I sent her a query for my novel manuscript within the week.)

AND, send the first manuscript out again. If one editor liked it enough to write you a personal note, it just might find a home at another house
  b. Translation: We just accepted another book on exactly the same topic ... and I don't even have time to add one sentence to this letter to tell you so.
  Suggested action: Again, if your manuscript has gotten far enough to merit a personal letter, follow action "a" above.
   
2.   "Not right for our list"—on a form rejection
  Translation: Many possible meanings ...
a. I (the publishing house's first reader) didn't get any sleep the night before reading your manuscript because of my sick child/irate spouse/flooded basement. I therefore failed utterly to recognize the quality of your work. Boy, will I kick myself when it wins a Newbery Medal/King/Printz/National Book Award. (This is the kinder interpretation; variations impugn the first reader's mental health, moral fiber, and/or intelligence.)
  Suggested action: Print a new copy of the manuscript, write a new cover letter, and submit to another house.
b. The idea is good, but your writing isn't.
c. Bad idea.
d. Bad idea, poorly written.
3.   "We don't do folk tales/non-fiction/poetry."
  Alarm bells:This translation means that you have not done your homework. If you obtain publishers' guidelines before submitting, this shouldn't happen.
  Suggested action: Take the trouble to get those guidelines—if only to eliminate one possible reason for rejection. More and more publishers have their guidelines online. Not knowing what a house publishes is inexcusable.
a. Translation: We only glanced at your manuscript because it was unprofessionally presented. It was single-spaced/handwritten/crayoned. You used a fancy font that is difficult to read. You sent it on hot-pink paper hoping to catch our attention; instead, you blinded us. We don't really care how good your manuscript is because we don't want to deal with someone who does not approach his/her work professionally.
   
Suggested action: Get a book on manuscript submission. There are several dozen available; they all say pretty much the same thing. Follow the guidelines. Simple. The easiest part of submission—getting your work to look right. You'd be surprised how many people ignore this part.
Okay, now we get to the nitty-gritty. With form rejections, how do we know whether it's translation 2a)—offering a slender thread of hope for your manuscript—or one of the other, less desirable translations?
Well, we never really know for sure, but here's a general rule of thumb. If a first reader's lack of judgment is truly the reason for a rejection, and a manuscript shows merit in and of itself, eventually you will receive a personal letter from an editor. How many times you submit the (unchanged) manuscript depends on the individual. But for the truly resilient among you, I would say that between ten and fifteen form rejections means either an awful lot of sleep-deprived first readers—or a manuscript that isn't yet publishable. It may well be that translation 2b), c), or d) is involved ... in which case, it's back to the keyboard and your critique buddies
(Of course we've all heard stories about the manuscript that was rejected umpteen times and went on to win the Newbery, like Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. But take a good hard look at your manuscript. Are you saying, "This is so sweet! I don't know why it keeps getting rejected!" or even, “This is at least as good as most of the books my kid is reading now.” Sorry, no dice. It's got to be better—a lot better—than most of the books you're seeing now because you're a first-time non-celebrity author with no track record.)
And if you recognize yourself in translation 3 a), it's time to back up a bit. You're not ready to be submitting yet.
Keep writing. Keep reading in the genre in which you wish to write. With a little talent, a great deal of work, a lot of time, and a stroke of luck, someday you'll write something that will be "just right for our list."
—first published in Keystrokes online magazine, 1999
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