Withdrawing stories

In the past year or so, we've received a surprising number of notes from authors that say something like this:

I submitted a story to you a few weeks ago, but I just realized that I submitted the wrong version of the story. Please discard that version. Here's the right version; please read this one instead.

It's certainly possible that that could happen; if you have multiple drafts of a story sitting around on your hard drive, I can imagine opening the wrong draft and saving it as RTF and submitting it to SH. I can even imagine noticing a few weeks later that the RTF file is an earlier draft, and sending a note like the above. It's not an awful thing to ask an editor.

But even though I can imagine those things happening, I kind of suspect that in some cases, that's not actually what happened. I suspect that in some cases, the author was sitting around biting their fingernails about whether the story would be accepted or not, and they decided to take another look at it, and they started noticing flaws in it. So they corrected the flaws, did some revising, and then decided they didn't want us to consider the story they sent us after all, because the changes they've made have improved the story. But they don't want to say that directly, so instead they just say that they accidentally sent us the wrong version.

I could be wrong; it could well be that all the authors who've said that have really meant it. But it always makes me a little suspicious.

And we do also get notes from other authors that say things like this:

I was looking at this story again, and I realized that it's not good enough. So I'm withdrawing it. I'll send you a better version later. [Alternatively: Here's an improved version; please consider this one instead.]

At any rate, it doesn't really matter what happened behind the scenes; the result is, one way or another, that the author is in the unfortunate position of having sent us a story, or a version of a story, that they no longer have confidence in.

Which is too bad, and I can sympathize.

But it's not really fair to us editors.

When you send us a story, we have to assume that that story—and that version of that story—is the story you meant to send us. We put it in our database; we read it; we write comments about it; we spend time on it.

So it isn't a good idea for an author to tell us that the story we've been considering isn't the one they want us to consider.

If they tell us early enough, before we read the story, then in some sense there's no harm done—it doesn't take me that much time to do the appropriate recordkeeping. (But it does annoy me.) But the author who sends such a query generally has no way of knowing whether we've read the original story or not.

So I recommend following this procedure:

  1. Before you submit a story, read through it carefully. Examine it, think about it, look for problems. Make absolutely certain that the story is as good as you want it to be (and that you won't need to change it for at least ten weeks, since that's our max response time). Don't spend too long on this step (or you'll never actually send the story out), but do spend a little bit of time on it.
  2. After you submit the story, don't look at it again until you hear back from us. (Every time you're tempted to look at it again, go write something else instead.) If you look at it, chances are you'll notice problems, and sooner or later you'll get nervous and be tempted to withdraw it. Remember that the story will never be perfect; at some point, if you want it published, you'll have to let go of it.
  3. If you do find yourself looking at the story while we're considering it, and you see a typo or two, or even a clunky phrase or two, just don't worry about it. Few if any editors reject stories on the basis of a couple of typos; we certainly don't. That kind of thing just isn't a big deal. (If there are dozens of typos, that's more of a problem--but if there are a multitude of big mistakes, you should try to find them before submitting.)
  4. Give the system a chance to work. Let the editors be the judge of the story. If it doesn't match our tastes, the worst that'll happen is that we'll send you a polite rejection note. (And then you can revise it to your heart's content before you send it elsewhere.) We won't mock you or blacklist you. If we say no to this story, you can send us another one, and we might say yes to that one.

(I have a theory about why authors send us these withdraw-and-replace notes; I suspect that it's because they perceive online submissions to be more flexible and malleable than papermail submissions. I suspect that authors don't do that with paper subs. But I haven't asked; I could well be wrong. And for that matter, authors used to not do this with our e-subs; it's only been in the past 12-15 months that it's been happening regularly.)

By the way, there've been times when authors have told us that they've done a thorough and total revision of a story, a complete rewrite—and then I've done a document comparison and found that the revision amounts to a few typo corrections, a character name change, one or two paragraphs cut and another one or two added, and a few phrasing improvements. So although I know this isn't universally true, I think that authors often believe that the changes they're making from one draft to another are much bigger changes than an objective reader would consider them to be.

Anyway. I should reiterate that I do sympathize with authors who find themselves in this position. But I strongly recommend that you do your best to avoid finding yourself in this position.

(Wrote a version of this entry in September of 2008; wrote another version in June of 2009; kept waffling about whether to post it, but the withdrawals keep happening, so I'm finally going ahead with it.)

3 Responses to “Withdrawing stories”

  1. Debby B.

    I really enjoyed reading this. As a writer I always love getting an insider’s peek into the editor’s world. My fear, when I realize I’ve sent something that I’m no longer proud of, is I will get a bad reputation. “Oh, that person, who sent us such dreck last time, I don’t think I can bear to open the file” could be going through the editor’s mind. This is not an idle fear since I’ve been on the other side and felt this way. However, it’s my own fault for not following your earlier steps and sending out work I am proud of today and a week from today.

  2. Jed

    Yeah, I think the reputation thing is a common (and, as you noted, somewhat valid) fear. But it works the other way, too: if an author has withdrawn a story before, it makes me less willing to invest time and energy in their next story, ’cause they might decide to withdraw that one too. (One author withdrew the same story twice.)

    Here’s another way to think of it: Plenty of authors look back at their work that was published years ago with embarrassment. They may think that work is awful now, but at the time it was good enough to get published, and sometimes even good enough to win awards. So at some point, the author has to let go—call that story done and move on to the next one. The alternative is to spend the rest of one’s life reworking the same story and never letting an editor see it.

  3. Anonymous

    The most annoying one I ever had was *after I had accepted a story* the author wrote asking me to use *this* version instead. Um… why? I liked the FIRST version! (There was no meeting of minds and thus no publication at all.)


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