Thursday, January 18, 2018


I've been editor-in-chief for 5 or 6 years now.

The worst part of my job?  The submission guidelines.


1.  Too many authors choose simply to ignore them.
2.  Too many authors don't understand them.
3.  No matter how I tweak the guidelines there will always be someone to complain about them.

Before I wax poetic about submission guidelines, let me address these three reasons for my dread.

We receive over 8000 submission a year.  That's a lot of submissions.

I personally sort through every one of those submissions.  No, I don't read them all. I check the submissions for glaring errors and 'Noob' mistakes.

Guess what happens to the stories with errors and mistakes?

They are unceremoniously marked for rejection and dumped into the trash.

No, I will not give your story another chance.  No, I will not tell you why I rejected your story.

Remember that 8000 stories?  I don't have time to pay the price for your mistake.

The lesson here?  Don't make a mistake.  Carefully read the guidelines and make sure you understand them.  Double and triple check your submission before you hit "Submit."  Make sure you know submission etiquette.  Don't EVER feel your name and credentials will earn you a golden ticket to the editor's "Magic Inbox."

If you're new to submitting, don't ask me about submission etiquette.  Google it.  Join writing groups and forums and learn from others who've been doing it before you.  But learn about it on your own.  8000 stories.  I don't have time to teach you things you should be learning on your own from one of, literally, hundreds of sources.

BUT, here I am, writing a post on the very thing you should have learned before you ever submitted a story.  I'm going to share with you some nuggets of slushpile wisdom, and guide you through a typical set of submission guidelines to make sure you understand not only what they mean, but why they're there.


Submission guidelines can vary widely.

Some markets seem to have no guidelines.  Others have guidelines that consist of, quite honestly, more flaming hoops than it's worth an author's time to jump through.

I've often erred on the side of more extensive guidelines, and it's PURELY an effort to save myself time and aggravation.  I'm inherently lazy.  I think most humans are.  Hence the invention of the dishwasher, the telephone, the safety razor.  I like to make things easier for myself.

If I see a problem occurring regularly in the slushpile I address it with greater force in the guidelines.

But I'm discovering my efforts are useless.  I've tweaked and toned and added, I've underlined and capitalized and bolded.  Still 20% of authors choose to disregard those guidelines.  I even have a button in our submission form that requires authors to indicate whether they've read the guidelines.  The only available answer is 'yes.'  Which means every time an author indicates that they have, indeed, read the guidelines but show, very clearly, that they have NOT actually read the guidelines, I gleefully tag that story with a neat little "Reject."

So I'm trying something new.

I'm streamlining the guidelines. I'm not including explanations or definitions.  I'm not giving you all that extra information that other editors don't give you, because they assume (as I should) that authors have done their homework and already know these things.  They don't give you the benefit of the doubt.  They don't give you a second chance.  They don't forgive little errors. They don't care if your story is rejected because your ignorance keeps you from properly submitting.

So I'm going to demystify the submission guidelines for you.  What is stated and what is meant, what you should know, what glaring errors make sirens go off--and those sirens scream, "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOB!"

1.  "We Accept Original, Unpublished Fiction"

ORIGINAL:  Original fiction means YOU actually wrote it.  It means your story is NOT a riff on someone else's copyrighted fiction.  It is not fanfiction.  It means you haven't stolen it from someone else and slapped your name on it.  It also means your story is NOT a translation of someone else's work, living or dead, public domain or not.  The story is yours and only yours.

Can it have themes, even characters, borrowed from the public domain?  Absolutely.  But I want it to be more than just an updated retelling.  I want it to have an original twist that makes it a new and unique story.  Your story.

UNPUBLISHED:  That seems pretty self-explanatory.  At least it should.  But in today's world of easy access to instant audiences, publication means something a bit different.

Once upon a time we could say, 'please don't send me your story if it has been published elsewhere,' and it meant that you had not sold your story to another magazine.

Let me take a moment to explain why we don't want your previously published story:

I'm going to let you in on a little secret.  The purpose of a magazine is NOT to throw money around.  It's not our purpose to stick stories on the internet with no reason other than a charitable goal to boost author egos.  FIRST, we do this because we LOVE great fiction (or poetry, or non-fiction, or artwork, or essays, or articles).  But WHY we do it doesn't pay the bills.

Very few literary magazines make money, by the way.  But that's the ultimate goal for most.  The goal is to grow and to, hopefully, attract income sources.  Those sources include advertising, magazine sales, fundraising, and sale of promotional items.

In order for those sources to have any impact on our income growth, people need to see them.  How do we attract viewers and potential contributors?  By having them come to our website or buy one of our magazines.  How do we attract them?  We dangle great stories in front of their noses.

Let's say you sell me a story.  If I'm lucky you have a couple of hundred friends who are going to be so excited for your publication success that they're going to visit our site or buy one of our magazines so they can read your story.  After that, maybe a few will be so impressed with us they'll buy a subscription.  Or maybe they'll take advantage of our advertisers' great deals by clicking the ads on the site.

If most of your friends have already read your story on your personal blog, they're MUCH less likely to read it on our website or in our magazine.  That's not good for us.

We need money so we can pay authors.  I won't even talk about paying our staff.  No. I will.  VERY few fiction magazines run with paid staff.  VERY few fiction magazines bring in enough money to even pay their authors.  They're money pits.  The only magazines who pay authors AND staff are magazines with BIG MONEY backing--magazines who are part of a larger publishing conglomerate, or who have public funding.

The rest of us do this for the love.

So in today's world, 'publication' means that your story has appeared ANYWHERE publicly available on the internet, including your personal blog, a public writer's forum (membership and sign-in not required to view the site), Amazon, or anywhere on the internet or in print.  If your story was published in your neighborhood paper or family newsletter, we consider it previously published.

FICTION (or non-fiction, or poetry, or ...)

Most submission guidelines will state what, exactly, the market accepts for consideration.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art.  Unless the guidelines state your particular literary or artistic form, don't send it to them.  If they don't specifically say "we accept artwork," don't send your photograph--even if it's relevant to your story.  If they don't specifically say "we accept poetry," don't send your poems.

And if they say "we accept fiction," don't send your non-fiction articles or essays.  Fiction is not non-fiction.

2.  "Story Length"

This should be self-explanatory.  Each market will indicate the length of story they will accept in 'words.'  I'm old enough to have taken an actual typing class on a manual typewriter.  Not even an electric typewriter.  (Only the really eager kids got to use one of the half-dozen electric typewriters that graced the front row of our classroom.)  A typewriter with the little arm that you had to swing from right to left when a mechanical bell dinged.   Like this:

We were taught to count words by actually counting the words on the page.  Every word.  The idea was that all the words together would average to around 5 characters per word, which is, essentially, how words are still counted today.

But with amazing word processing software, it's much easier to count words.

If you don't know how to count words in your word processor, Google it.  (In fact, if you don't have a proficient grasp of using the features in your word processor, take a class.  There are even free classes online, like this one for Microsoft Office: GCFLearning: Microsoft Office Lessons  This site even lets you choose the version of Office you're using, and lets you take classes for any of Office's software options.)

Be aware that not all word processors are the same.  Some will be different by 30 or 40 words in count.  Usually that doesn't make any difference.  A publication that publishes stories up to 7500 words isn't going to care much if your story is 7528 words.  In fact, most short story markets expect you to round your word count to the nearest 50 or 100.

However, a publication that publishes very short stories may have much more stringent requirements for word count.

They may even ask you to use a specific software to count words--Usually Microsoft Word, which is the industry standard word processor.  Fortunately, you don't need to have Word in order to get an accurate and exact word count.  There are a number of free sites that will count words for you.

Here are a couple of accurate ones that I've personally tested against Word:

Why does it matter with shorter stories?  A few reasons.  First, some publishers of short stories publish ONLY stories of exact word count.  69 words, or 100 words, 50 words, 6 words, and so on.

For my magazine, we have specific requirements in order to maintain our qualification for membership in certain writers' guilds.  We are required to pay at a certain rate, and only a certain window of word count allows us to meet that criteria.

Stories submitted with us MUST be submitted with exact and accurate word counts in order for us to honestly determine whether your story and, by consequence, our magazine passes.

If the guidelines do not specifically say otherwise, you may expect to be able to round word count.

3.  "Simultaneous Submissions"

Definition: simultaneous submission:  An author submits a story with more than one market, magazine, contest, anthology, etc., at the same time.

What's the alternative?  Exclusive submission in which you submit your story exclusively to a single market and wait to receive their decision before submitting to another market.

Many markets will allow simultaneous submissions.  Others will not.  If the guidelines do not specifically say otherwise, assume they allow it.

What's the big deal?

The big deal is that once your story lands on my desk I am going to begin expending my time and resources on it.

Let's say I've looked at the 700 or so stories I've received in January and I've narrowed that 700 down to 15 or so.  I've spent hours reaching this point.  I've read, and sometimes reread stories.  I've made notes.  I've sent rejections to the unlucky 685.

I sit down at my desk, open my email, and see a letter from you stating that your story (one of those final 15) has been accepted elsewhere.

Some editors are okay with that.  Many editors would rather not spend their time and resources on a good story that might be snatched from under their noses.  They prefer to have exclusive consideration.

What's your responsibility?

To those markets who allow simultaneous submissions, you have a solemn responsibility to inform them immediately of acceptance of the story elsewhere.

You also have a solemn responsibility to avoid sending simultaneous submissions to markets that do not allow it.  As I've said, if they do NOT allow it, they will say so.  Otherwise, you may assume they do.

4.  "Multiple Submissions"

Definition: multiple submission: An author submits more than one story at a time to one market, magazine, contest, anthology, etc.

Many markets accept multiple submissions.  Most of those will put a limit on the number of stories you may submit at one time.

But be aware: unspoken submission etiquette says you should never submit more than three stories at any one time, and it is infinitely more polite to submit only one at a time.

Still, if the market states that they allow multiple submissions, you may assume they will be fine with you submitting up to three.

If they do not say whether they accept multiple submissions, you should assume that they do NOT.

From my perspective as an editor, I'm not particularly keen on multiple submissions, though we do allow them.  Often, authors who submit 2 or 3 stories at one time either make submission mistakes on all their submissions, forcing me to reject them all, or all the stories are equally bad (or good).  If they're equally bad, the author receives multiple rejections, often at the same time.  I don't care who you are.  That hurts.

And, believe it or not, I don't like sending rejections.  I empathize with receiving rejections because I've been there.  It's much easier to send one rejection per author than 2 or 3.  Sure, I understand the desire to run your story through as many slush piles as possible.  You're in a hurry to get published.

But publication isn't a race.  It's a refining fire.  And you should let the heat do its work.  Submit, wait, receive, review.  Submit, wait, receive, review.  Especially if you're an unpublished author, you have a great deal to learn about the mechanics of writing and the ins and outs of the marketplace.  That's better done slowly at first.  Pace yourself.

5.  "Standard Manuscript Formatting"

If you haven't been to college, you may not know what Standard Manuscript Formatting is.

Here's a good checklist: 

And a good visual example:

IF a market wants stories submitted in a modified manuscript format they will clearly indicate the changes they require.

For example, many short story markets require 'blind' submissions these days, which gives them the opportunity to judge a story based solely on the merits of the story.  This method puts new writers on equal ground with seasoned and even professional writers.

A blind submission is a submission in which all author-identifying information is removed from the manuscript.  Be sure you've removed it from the three places it appears on the Standard Manuscript Example: The Byline (your name beneath the title), the Header and/or Footer (appears at the top or bottom of every page), and the Address (appears in the top left hand corner of the first page only and usually includes name, address, phone number, etc.).

From my perspective, I actually hate Courier.  I'd much rather you submit in Times New Roman, and I state so in my submission guidelines.  If you want to know why I hate Courier:  Courier Must Die

I also REALLY want submitters to know how important it is to use some kind of mark to indicate scene breaks.  So I include that, too, even though I should be able to take it for granted.

6.  Bits and Pieces

"We Accept Reprints"

Sometimes magazines will republish a previously published story, or Reprint.  If they do so, they will likely pay considerably less for that story.

Why do they do this?  Remember, a magazine likes readers, and if I can attract more readers with more content that I don't have to pay as much for (and free is even BETTER, which is why we used to publish a PUBLIC DOMAIN story each month) then I'm going to take advantage of that boon.

The other benefit is that I am able to forge a relationship with a seasoned and published author and, hopefully, entice that author to submit original works as well.  Any method I can use to pad my slushpile with great stories, I'll take advantage of that, too.

"I've Received a Rejection.  Now what?"

If you receive a rejection from a publisher you can assume that they do not want to see that same story again.  Sorry.  You are certainly welcome to submit other stories.

So please do not ask the editor if you can revise and resubmit.  If she wanted you to do so she would have asked.

Please do not revise and resubmit without permission.  It just wastes my time and isn't likely to get you any further.

After you've received the rejection you should review the work, maybe revise, and submit (as our rejection letter says) elsewhere.

The Look of Your Story

Big bad NOOB errors include making adjustments to the manuscript to make it 'stand out' in the slush pile.

NEVER do anything to make your story stand out.

WalMartians.  You know what I'm talking about. The drug addict in drag.  The 90-year-old dressed like a hooker.  The black thong under white see-through leggings.

I guarantee you that any alterations you make to your story to make it stand out will be bringing you the WRONG kind of attention.

DO NOT use anything but black typeface.  DO NOT use any font but a generally accepted font type.  In the industry, you're pretty much relegated to Courier (but remember, I hate it), or Times New Roman.  DO NOT include graphics of any kind.  DO NOT 'color' your background or print on colored paper.  DO NOT try to come up with any other clever way to draw attention to your submission.

IT'S A BIG RED NOOB FLAG!!  And I'll forever think of you as a WalMartian

Along with this, please don't submit your own art with your story.  Even if you think it's important.

Cover Letters

Short story cover letters are NOT the same as novel cover letters.

Let me explain the difference.

The purpose of a novel cover letter is to entice the first reader (a publisher's slush reader) to want to read the first three chapters of your novel, and then--hopefully--the rest of your book.  It always includes a one-paragraph story synopsis and a one-paragraph self-introduction.  They are longer than short story cover letters, but only slightly.

The purpose of a short story cover letter is to show you're not a NOOB.  That's all.   Here's what the pros do, every time:

Pros actually INCLUDE a cover letter.  Not to do so is just lazy.  Don't give me the impression that you're lazy.  I'm not impressed by that.  Don't give me any reason not to be impressed.

Pros NEVER tell their life story in a cover letter.  I'm sorry, but I just don't care about your trek along the Silk Road, or the fact that you were raised in Hoboken.  Not even if it's relevant to your story.  The only thing I want to know about you is if you have previous publications, maybe if you've attended a well-respected writing workshop, maybe if you have a degree in creative writing.  If you don't have any of the above, don't say anything.  If your story is about a boy jumping on a trampoline I don't need to know you have a degree in rocket science--unless that boy rockets into space.  THEN that degree in rocket science might prove relevant!

Pros NEVER include a story synopsis in their short story cover letter.  Short stories are SHORT!  It doesn't take much effort on my part to determine if a story is worth my time to consider.  All I have to do is read the first few paragraphs.  If I like those, I'll read more.  At most I've spent an hour of my time reading a great story, which is always time well spent.  Let the story speak for itself.  Never summarize it in your cover letter.

What does the perfect New-writer cover letter look like?

Dear Editor (If you know the editor's last name, say "Dear Ms. Vincent."  Do not use the editor's first name.  He is not your friend.  Unless, of course, he IS your close and personal friend, OR if you've been published by that magazine before.  The keyword is R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  I'm totally channeling Aretha!!)

I respectfully submit my story, "Title of My Story," for your consideration.

(If you have relevant credentials, insert them in a separate, short paragraph here.  If you don't, leave this space blank.)


Your Name

That's it.  Easy.  Simple.  Respectful.  PROFESSIONAL!

Good Advice

Often a magazine will include some good advice on the guidelines page.  Stories we see too often, links to useful articles (like THIS one!), or our amazing YouTube channel, etc.

Take a look at those.  They're often highly useful and can improve your chances of getting published.  Often the information is specifically relevant to that magazine. And the more you get to know a magazine the more likely you are to understand what they want and whether your story might be a good fit.

Here's some good advice:  If a magazine wants you to jump through flaming hoops and sell your first child to submit, AND they don't pay for publication, run the other way.  SO not worth it.

But, if they DO pay, and pay WELL, jump through those flaming hoops, Sister!


William1 said...

Thank you. I have learned. You pointed out my mistakes.
Oh, and I love your sense of humor.

Nick said...

Thank you for taking the time to post this. Had no idea you received so many submissions!

Unknown said...

Ah I remember it well - the old manual typewriter on which I learnt to touch type and a skill that's quite rare today.

cm-chagnon said...

Thank you for the extra guidelines as they are helpful to me. I need to take a look into that information Google is going to give me on submission guidelines. I appreciate you taking the time to write these and publish them. You have let us know in no uncertain terms how busy you are so again thank you.

Flygirl said...

I won't lie. I read your articles like other people read stories. It's so interesting and you're really funny. Even if I never planned to submit a story I'd read every single word on this site. Yes, it might take a while but it's worth it.

Some places gives guidelines like it's part of the 10 commandments.
"Thou shalt not exceed word count."
"Thou shalt not use Courier." (Because apparently it must die...)
"Thou shall respect the editor."

Now the problem is that I spend so much time reading your articles that I have no time to write my own.

And that's okay. Because I spend just as much time trying to learn from HOW you write as from WHAT you write.

I just wanted to share this with you. Thank you for being passionate about your work. I wish we had more people like this.

Have a good day and good luck with the 8000 stories.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. You've helped this NOOB immensely.