Wednesday, May 16, 2012


I had an incident this week that highlighted a specific area of professionalism.

Somebody sent me spam through a social media direct message system. Which is a little impolite in and of itself, but which I take as an occupational hazard of using social media. This was not on Facebook, it was on a specialist, professional site.

In the spam, he called me 'Jenny'.

There is one person on this entire planet who is 'allowed' to call me Jenny, and that's only because I can't stop her. My mother.

I have not used that form of my name since I left home...and I don't remember not hating it. Call me Jennifer, call me friends call me Jenna. Do not call me Jenny. Ever. Bad things happen. I might just turn green and grow a foot, just like a certain fictional Jennifer.

But the real point here is that what this person did was not professional. Using somebody's first name is common with companies these days. It makes the communication feel personal. However, using a form of their name that they don't use? Completely unprofessional.

And if you do that to an editor, it may not matter how good your story is... So, how do you avoid name foobars?

1. Always use the form of a person's name they use themselves. If somebody has their name on their website as 'Robert', don't call them 'Bob'. But if they sign all their blog posts 'Bob'...then by all means, use 'Bob'.

2. On initial communications, use first name and last name unless you know for sure what the person's correct title is. I have screwed up this one before...addressed Stanley Schmidt of Analog as 'Mr. Schmidt'. Oops! He has a PhD... This also avoids the Mrs/Miss/Ms issue. Leave the title out unless you know the correct one to use. And make sure to spell the name right.

3. Don't assume what somebody's name is. I know one editor who has been called Ms. more times than she wants to think about. Always check.

4. If an editor's name is not given, then 'Dear Editor' is acceptable, but always look for a name first. In some cases, periodicals don't reveal who the editor actually is (most common with literary periodicals where a lot of the editing is being done by graduate students).

If you're asking the question of 'when can I switch to an editor's first name only', I personally follow a simple rule. If they address me by first name only and we have a relationship (I've sold something to them in the past, discussed a project with them, etc) then I use first name only. It's simple enough and allows for the different comfort levels with intimacy and informality. One of the interesting things I've noticed is that some genres are more formal than others. Mainstream and literary editors tend to be the most formal, whilst horror? I know more than one horror editor who likes his writers to call him by...his internet handle. Horror people just tend to be very laid back, for some reason. Perhaps it's contrast to the subject matter.

In any case, be careful with names. People can get upset out of all proportion when somebody gets their name wrong...

"Hello, Jenny"