by Winnie Kay
A valuable lesson
Read the Instructions!
I learned a valuable lesson from an old teacher of mine when I was in the fifth grade at Resurrection School—a lesson I carry with me today in most everything I do. Read the instructions!
“Boys and girls,” Sister Regina said with an Irish brogue as she passed out our geography tests, “read the instructions!” I hated geography and couldn't have cared less what the capital of Uruguay was. But you’d think by the fifth grade, I would have learned to listen to Sister Regina’s commands. She was a tough, no-nonsense kind of nun who cracked a mean ruler atop unsuspecting students' desks. Typed in purple mimeograph ink at the top of the first page was the following: Turn to page fifteen and read the instructions before you begin the test. I’d read her tedious instructions a hundred times before this particular test, so, of course, I just skipped page fifteen and proceeded to sweat through fourteen pages of multiple-choice and true-or-false questions over the next hour. I’d glanced up every now and then, while trying to remember if the Nile River was in South America or England, and I saw that some students had their pencils down and were just sitting there. That’s odd, I thought. They couldn’t possibly be finished. I figured they had just given up. Well, not me. I was going to put some kind of answer next to each and every question.
As I reached the end of page thirteen, I jumped when I heard, “Time’s up. Pass your papers to the front.” Sister Regina collected the tests from each front-row seat, as if she were a military drill sergeant—well… in a way, she was. She floated back to her desk and proceeded to form two stacks of the gathered test papers. The smaller stack contained only three students’ pencil-scribbled documents, one of which was mine—I could tell by the sweat stains and the eraser smudges. The room was so quiet all you could hear was Sister Regina’s red pencil scratching across the first page of those three test papers. She rose and walked over to my desk and laid my hard work in front of me. Then she proceeded to deliver the fate of the other two unfortunate students. I stared down at the big, fat, red F and the big, red circle around the message Turn to page fifteen and read the instructions before you begin the test.
Huh? I thought. She didn’t even look at my answers. She just gave me an F. What’s the big deal about the instructions? I flipped over to page fifteen and felt my face turn red as I read the following:
#1 Read ALL instructions before you do anything.
#2 Proceed carefully and cautiously.
#3 Write your name in the upper left hand corner of page #1.
#4 Answer all the questions from Page #1 through Page #14.
#5 Ignore instruction #4.
#6 Sit quietly until I call for your papers.
I later understood that the tough little nun was preparing us for the harsh reality of Life. Literary publishers go through a lot of time and effort setting forth specific guidelines and expectations for those writers and poets looking for acceptance. They receive numerous submissions, and invariably there are some who did not read the instructions set forth in that publisher's submission guidelines. Just as ruthless as Sister Regina, editors may find it necessary to reject a skillfully written submission due to the author’s failure to meet their expectations regarding certain criteria:
genre and content rating
basic story structure
poetic depth and fluidity
technical requirements regarding type of word-processing attachments
inclusion of cover letter and brief bio
submission to correct editor’s email address
Whether it’s assembling that toy on Christmas Eve, submitting applications for College Scholarships, preparing your taxes, or taking your medication, failure to read the instructions can lead to devastating results. So slow down and heed Sister Regina’s words. It just might save your life… and your success as a writer.