Paul Genesse, at the last two GenCons, developed a catchphrase for each of the panels that I saw him on. The first year, it was “Write good stories!” True enough – all the publishing and agent-finding advice in the world doesn’t do you a bit of good without material to work with. This year, it was about submissions.
There is a standard commonsense “submission format”: 12 point font, double spaced, printed, white paper, 1 inch margins. But where do you put the title? The author name? Page numbers? Staples, paperclips, or nothing? There are horror stories of editors throwing away manuscripts unread for reasons like that the left margin was an inch wide – but the submission guidelines stated a 1.5 inch left margin.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised at the low grade.
I had analyzed two of Faulkner’s works – Absalom! Absalom! and The Sound and the Fury. The comments praised my analysis, complimented me on my insight, and suggested that I grasped far more than my classmates. They also excoriated me for my style. Or rather, the lack of style. The paper was written in a conversational tone, and laid out in a relatively conversational way – not in the proper MLA format. I lost two letter grades because I didn’t follow the style manual.
It happened again when I restarted college a decade later. I had switched disciplines in the intervening decade, and handed in a paper with MLA markup instead of APA markup. (Now I use Doc Scribe’s resources to keep them straight.) As writers – of any type – we have to be aware of our markets. An article on, say, political candidates would be written very differently for Mother Jones, People, Newsweek, or The National Enquirer. I’ve had articles rejected – despite editorial praise – because it didn’t fit the tone or specific style of the publication. When we venture into the world of academia – a great way to expand some horizons – we have to remember that our writing for that market is a different beast as well.
I’ve entered several paper competitions over the last few years. I’ve not won any of them, though I’ve been told privately that the work was well done. In part, it is because these papers were written in a more conversational (or even confrontational) style, not as pure academic research. I’m okay with that – but I have to be aware of it when I get the reviews and don’t get the prize.