Over the Transom

I just completed a short essay about seamier aspects of the chess world and sent it over the transom to one publisher. Normally I wouldn’t write a piece without first securing an assignment, but in this case my pitch letter would have been almost as long as my essay. When I dispatched the mini-manuscript, the wordsmith in me started wondering about the origin of the phrase “over the transom,” which means “unsolicited and unexpected” (and not “unwelcome,” I hope).

A little research turned up a plausible explanation. In Central Casting’s idea of a media bigwig’s office, there is a hinged window above the door, the transom being the architectural term for the wooden crosspiece that separates the door from the window. The earnest writer of yesteryear who wanted to get his hot prose into the publisher’s hands as soon as possible would not trust his writing to the poky post office (this was long before Federal Express). Instead, he would deliver the unsolicited manuscript himself, literally tossing it over the transom of the publisher’s door.

Most over-the-transom submissions probably end up, unread, in the slush pile. But writers live on dreams, and publishers keep the dreams alive by leaving open the transom window.

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