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Five Fatal Flaws that Can Lead to Rejection
by Moira Allen

Return to Polishing Your Prose · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Most editors will tell you that the best way to avoid rejection is to research the market, proofread your manuscript, and avoid grammatical errors. But what if you've done all that, and your submissions still bounce back?

Articles with excellent ideas and information can still be "marginalized" by underlying structural flaws that knock your article into the "good but not good enough" category. The good news is that these flaws are usually easy to correct, once you learn how to spot them. Following are five flaws I often see in otherwise well-written manuscripts:

1. Rambling Introductions

If your introduction wanders on for three, four, or even five paragraphs, you have a problem. Such introductions often fall into one of these categories:

  • The personal introduction, in which the writer introduces herself, her background, her credentials, or a personal experience that "sets the stage" for the article itself (such as "how I discovered the solution to this problem").

  • The analogy, in which the writer compares what she is about to discuss with some other process -- perhaps in an effort to find "common ground" with the reader. For example, I've received many articles that compare writing to, say, gardening ("learn to prune") or cooking ("choose the right ingredients").

  • The "setting-the-stage" introduction, in which the writer takes several paragraphs to explain the background of the problem.

If 500 words of your 1500-word article is "introduction," you're cheating the reader -- and quite possibly yourself. The reader loses because he or she gets only 1000 words of "real" information -- and you lose, because if the editor cuts the introduction, you'll only get paid for 1000 words instead of the 1500 you actually wrote.

Solution: Limit your introduction to a single paragraph, or two at most. That should be enough to establish the topic. Generally, you don't need to spend a lot of time describing how you found out about a problem, or how you talked to five people to get your information, etc. Cut to the chase as quickly as possible, and pack the body of your article with information too useful to cut!

2. Explaining "Why" but not "How"

Another common flaw is the tendency to write about the importance of doing something -- without explaining HOW to do it. For example, a writer may offer a 1000-word explanation of why one needs to develop believable characters, or evoke emotions of the reader -- but not one word about HOW one can actually do that. Such an article leaves one thinking, "Yes, you've convinced me -- but now what?"

Solution: Limit the "why" part of your article to the introduction -- e.g., a single paragraph on why believable characters are important. Then use the rest of your article to show the reader exactly how to solve whatever problem you've established. Instead of giving the reader "ten reasons why characterization is important," offer "ten steps toward building stronger characters."

3. Not Asking the Right Questions

Even experienced writers can fall short of a reader's expectations by failing to ask (and answer) the right questions -- specifically, the questions a reader is most likely to ask about a subject. Often, this is due to the writer's own closeness to the subject: It's easy to forget what it was like to be a beginner, and to know nothing about a topic. It's not enough to simply write about what you know; sometimes you also have to spend some time figuring out what the reader DOESN'T know -- and what that reader wants and needs to know.

Solution: Put yourself in the reader's shoes. If necessary, find someone who knows less about the subject that you do, and ask that person what he or she would want to learn from your article. Common "reader" questions include:

  • What is it? (Background, history, overview).

  • Why should I be interested? (What does it mean to the reader, or offer to the reader?)

  • How can I get involved?

  • What do I need to know/learn/buy/obtain to get started?

  • What are some of the perils and pitfalls, if any?

  • Where do I get more information? Whom do I contact?

An article that answers all of these questions, on any subject, is likely to please readers AND editors.

4. Lack of Organization

An article that asks all the right questions can still fail if the answers aren't presented in a logical order. Some articles appear to have been jotted down as ideas and information came to the author, without any subsequent reordering. Even if an article contains good information, most editors don't have time to reorganize it paragraph by paragraph. If a piece has to be rewritten for it to make sense or to read well, it is likely to be rejected.

Solution: One approach is to "think in subheads." Most articles (like this one) are broken into three to five subtopics. By identifying the likely subtopics (and subheads) for your article, you'll find it easier to organize your information under those headings.

For example, the list of questions in the previous section might make an excellent set of subtopics, giving you the perfect structure for an article that answers those questions. Another approach is to organize your material into a list, such as "Five Ways to Create Memorable Characters" or "Ten Ways to Housetrain Your Dog." Creating a list of steps is also a good way to organize an article. If your material isn't "how-to," consider whether it might be organized chronologically, or in order of occurrence. A travel article, for example, might be organized in terms of places visited on day one, day two, etc. -- or in a logical sequence based on the route one would follow. If an article is too short for subheads, consider presenting it as a bullet list.

Once you've established your basic subcategories, you can look at each paragraph or idea and determine where it belongs -- or whether it belongs at all. Quite possibly, you'll find yourself with material that doesn't "fit" into your logical structure. If that happens, consider creating a sidebar -- or save it for another article.

5. No Conclusion

A surprising trend in articles crossing my desk is the lack of endings. All too often, when an author runs out of information, the article just stops.

Like that.

While I've never rejected an article for lack of a conclusion, I have sent them back to for a rewrite. Endings are important: They bring closure to a piece, wrap up the loose ends, and help the reader make sense of what has gone before.

Solution: Always provide a conclusion to your material, even if it's just a couple of sentences. One way to conclude an article is to summarize what you've already said. Another is to refer back to the introduction: If you opened with an anecdote or analogy, consider closing with a related anecdote or analogy. If you asked a question in the introduction, recap the answer in the conclusion. If your article describes a process that will benefit the reader, recap those benefits in the final paragraph. But do something; don't leave the reader wondering whether the typesetter somehow lost the last paragraph of your article!

While these five flaws aren't the only reasons for rejection, they offer a useful checklist to keep in mind the next time your article comes back with a polite "no thank you." And by avoiding them in the first place, you'll greatly increase your chances of getting an acceptance letter the first time around!

Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen

This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.

Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.


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