Sunday, August 15, 2010


By Lisabet Sarai

This week, Michelle has asked us to talk about our pet peeves. Now, I'm a pretty easy-going person. “Live and let live” is my motto (along with “Sex, Drugs and Rock 'n Roll”). It wasn't that easy for me to come up with anything at all that consistently annoys me.

Then I began grading my students' quizzes and it hit me. What really burns me? People who don't follow instructions.

On this particular quiz, I asked an easy question: which problem were you assigned for your term project? The class had been broken up into five groups, and I was trying to evaluate whether they were in fact working on their projects. Then, just to make sure the students understood, I told them, while they were taking the quiz, “The answer to this question should be one of the following five alternatives”. Then I listed the alternatives – one or two words each.

At least half a dozen papers had answers that had nothing to do with the question. Grr! Where were those kids when I practically gave them the answer?

On my blog Beyond Romance, I host guests twice a week. I have a standard set of instructions that I send my guests when I remind them about their posts a week or so beforehand. The basics are:

  • Send as RTF or text, not as a Word .doc file.

  • Keep the length between 500 and 2000 words.

  • Include your links and a short bio.

  • Include a small cover image (200x300 or similar)

  • Write about some topic that will interest readers rather than just providing a blurb and excerpt.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother. About half the time people send me .doc files. I've gotten posts as short as 300 words and as long as 3000. At least once a month I get a post that's nothing but promo. I have nothing against promo, you understand, but blog readers don't seem to find that sort of post very interesting.

Like I said, I'm pretty laid back. I don't get into a huff about these people, but I will admit to feeling a twinge of annoyance. And I won't ask them back.

I've had similar problems when I've edited anthologies. I will say that the situation seems to be improving but when I edited Sacred Exchange, I might as well have not published any submission instructions at all. I asked for double-spaced, 12 point type. For that collection, we allowed paper submissions as well as electronic (this was back in 2002 or so). RTF or text only for electronic submissions. Standard list of information to be provided about the author.

You would not believe some of the submissions I received, including electronic submissions full of garbage characters, .doc files, complete lack of author contact information, stories typed on paper bags...okay, I'm exaggerating, but not much. I didn't get upset. No, I was relaxed even then. But I did toss some submissions without even reading them. Hell, I literally couldn't read them!

In addition to teaching, I also develop software. I've written a number of software user manuals. It's a difficult task, providing instructions to someone whose background and knowledge you can only imagine. I put a great deal of thought into the organization of topics, the logical connections between sections, the vocabulary I choose, even the grammatical structures I employ. Simplicity and clarity are the primary goals in this sort of writing endeavor.

It doesn't matter how much effort goes into a manual, though. I've still fielded questions from clueless users who somehow can't seem to follow the instructions that are right there, on page 37, in plain English, black and white with color diagrams...

Sigh. I know that Kathleen at least will be familiar with the acronym “RTFM”. Read the Effing Manual, people. Read my instructions, class. Read my email, authors. I don't write these things just to amuse myself, you know. I could be writing erotica, which is much more fun.


  1. Back when I was in middle school, they gave us a test with something like 100 questions.

    Item 1: read all the instructions before proceeding.

    I didn't. I started down the list of questions, providing my answers, and probably fifteen questions in, I heard a couple of kids snicker. I continued a bit more, then it occurred to me that some of the kids were done.

    I paused to read the paper like I should have in the first place, and item 100 read something like Do not answer any of the questions, just sign the paper and turn it in.

    I was kind of pissed at first, I felt cheated. Then I realized it was my fault.

    I felt stupid. Lesson learned.

  2. Lisabet - Every editor is nodding in agreement right now. I wish I knew an answer, because it's been explained many times to writers, yet they seem to pass over that advice as they do the instructions.

  3. Hi Lisabet

    I'm sentimental about the expression RTFM, because this was the first internet acronym I ever learned. This was back in the early '90s when the Internet was very bare bones. Back in the days of the BBS boards. I had a 2400 baud modem and thought I was hot stuff but I couldn't transfer files and the BBS manager said "RTFM idiot." I had to ask him what RTFM meant and it became my favorite phrase.

    I've noticed and mentioned before here that one of the rare and precious qualities of a good critter is the ability to actually read well. Not mere literacy, but to actually read the intent of what has been written. This turns out to be a special skill, one which you clearly have and it has been of great service to me many times.


  4. Great post, Lisabet- can so sympathise. Or maybe sympathise isn't the right word, because I've never been an editor. But I have tried to teach a room full of creative writing students the basics of sending in submissions, and stressed over and over to them how important it is to follow the guidelines.

    Only to get back twenty short stories, in 14 point or 18 point or 8 point, in some font I've never heard of, hardly any of them double spaced, etc.

    It's only when you show them the amount of editors and agents saying "this sub went unread because it wasn't formatted correctly at all" that they realise people won't make an exception just for them.

  5. I received that same quiz in elementary school, Craig! I failed too. :)

    I have been known to feel rather, um, anal-retentive (for lack of a better description) about following guidelines for editors. If I find that I somehow overlooked something, it seriously makes me cringe—and sometimes even if I feel pretty confident I did everything they asked, I feel a moment of alarm when I read something like this and think, "Is my indentation set at half an inch so it's formatted like they asked??" or something similar.

    I can hardly imagine submitting something and disregarding what the editor has requested—I have continually felt amazed when I have seen editors describe experiences such as you have here (and you certainly aren't the only one I've seen express such things)!

    Anyway, thanks for sharing. :)

  6. When I've edited stuff I've always had conflicting emotions about this. On the one hand you want the author to do it properly. On the other, you've got the stuff and it's not usually too difficult to fix formats (or edit overlong pieces).

    I do recall one incident, a number of years ago when editing a nonfiction book when the 'manuscript' arrived as three dictaphone tapes.

    I think the only thing in this situation you can do is add an extra point in your note for authors stating that unless the instructions are followed you will have the right to use, not use, edit or rewrite as you see fit without further input from the author.

    Or, as a IT nerd I used to know sometimes did, send the piece back with a note that says 'file not usable due to original sender's headspace error' - and let them work it out. The only problem with that was the number of query emails he then had asking what the problem was.

  7. I note that "RTFM" could also stand for ".RTF, m----s!"
    : )

    [Psst: Lisabet Sarai fans, don't miss L's guest appearance on my blog this Tuesday, August 17! —Advt.]

  8. Craig, there was also a time limit on that quiz; the reason I 'flumked' that quiz was because I didn't want to be the last one. But about the 7th or so instruction, which I think was to tear a corner into 10 pieces, I got suspicious and quickly skimmed to the end. Head slap....

    I'm having the same issue on one of my loops; it's as if people either don't read their mail/digest and I seem to keep repeating myself about chat times, where to email me for blog interviews, etc. Sometimes I end up screaming at the computer 'Can't you READ? I posted the info three messages above...' and my family laughs at me. I just tell them (family) my posts are apparently NOT coming through as English:)

  9. Hello, all,

    Thanks for your comments. Obviously I touched on a common concern here...!

    Craig & Emerald: I've never seen this quiz, but maybe I should give it to my students to make a point! But they'd probably miss it!

    Garce: In all fairness, many IT people seem to love lording it over the humble users. Sometimes, the Manual is incomprehensible, for one thing--or just plain wrong!

    Fulani & Emerald: I don't think editors are going to mind if you give some suggestion that you read and tried to follow the instructions.

    Charlotte: I didn't know you taught creative writing. That must be REALLY hard. I teach research writing, which isn't easy but much more cut and dried.

    Once again - thanks for visiting. I feel much less alone!


  10. Oh, and thanks for the plug, Jeremy! For those of you who are interested, the title of my post is "Oh, no! Not another vampire!"


  11. Lisabet,

    I can imagine you sitting at your PC, quietly seething, and trying to compose a polite email response to an inaccessible proposal. I'm smiling in sympathy.



  12. Just a quick thought about 'electronic submissions full of garbage characters'. My current strategy is to inspect the file in a text editor (TextEdit, Notepad or similar) to see if I can detect what the original programme was - it's often in the first line of the file, within the file metadata. Or there may be a file extension that's a good clue. From there, I use any of half a dozen good online file conversion websites that will convert from any of 30 or so document formats to whatever I need it in - .doc for word, .odt for OpenOffice, etc.

    Google Documents also has a (basic) file convert/export facility.

    But I'm probably telling you something you already know!

  13. *smiles* I am always tickled to hear about those who oopsed on that quiz. We were given the same one in school.

    What kills me though, is the people who go shopping and can't see to grasp the simple instructions on the keypad where they slide their debit cards. It's written in very simple language, but so many people can't seem to follow along. And it's the same people day, after day, after day. "But I already slid my card!" Um, yeah, before it asked you to; you have to select your payment type before sliding your card. *sigh*

    Can we tell I am working in retail to put myself through college? LOL


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