A Short Guide to Guidelines

By Darlene Cah

You finished your story. That in itself warrants a celebration, so take a minute to congratulate yourself, because the nitty-gritty work is about to begin. You workshop it. Revise it. Workshop it. Revise. Breathe. Revise. Pull your hair out. Revise. Eat bags of Hershey’s Kisses. Revise. Finally, your story is ready to go out into the world, to find a home at a literary journal. Which ones do you target? For some ideas on where to find markets check out my post from last year, This Little Writer Went to Market.

Once you’ve found journals you like, have read a few issues or stories online and you’ve compiled a list of markets you think will be a good fit for your story, you’ll need to read the submission guidelines with a keen eye for detail. I’ve read some guidelines, perhaps because the journals receive so many submissions, that state writers must adhere to the directions exactly (right down to formatting the header!), or the story will be rejected without even being read. Most are not that stringent.

The Breakdown

Intro: If the guidelines include an intro, you’ll get a feel for the journal’s philosophy or mission. Some are like reading a thesis-length manifesto! Others are so vague, the only way you’ll know if your work might catch the editor’s eye is by reading many of their published stories (which you should do, anyway), submitting and hoping for the best. If there is no intro paragraph, read the “About” section on the journal’s website. You want to get to know the journal to see if you’re compatible.

Pay particular attention to:

Word count. Word count may be determined by the magazine’s physical format, readers’ preference, genre, among other factors. Usually, stories in online journals tend to be on the shorter side, simply because it can be tedious to read on a computer screen. The point is if the guidelines say: maximum 3,500 words, don’t send your favorite 8,496-word story. It may be brilliant, but it just won’t fit.

Submission Dates. Some journals read year-round. University publications often take the summer off. Others may read only during certain months. If you submit outside the submission period, your story will not be read.

Generally, 12 pt, Times New Roman, double space is the standard. Unless the guidelines instruct otherwise, put your name, address, phone number and email address on the first page and title and name in the header on subsequent pages. Don’t forget to insert page numbers.

Some guidelines talk about setting margins and how to structure your header. This could be for layout purposes if your story is accepted. I haven’t had any issues with using the standard margins in MS Word.

A word about contests: Submissions are usually read blind, that is writers should not put any identifying information on their manuscripts. Otherwise, they’ll be disqualified immediately.

Simultaneous Submissions. Oh, this is such a touchy subject. For many reasons, it could take months before you get a response from an editor. I received a rejection almost a year after I submitted a story once. Granted it was a kind rejection from a really good journal, but still, that’s a long time to have a story in limbo.

Your odds of receiving an acceptance are higher if you can send your stories to multiple magazines. Most accept simultaneous submissions with the stipulation that you notify the editor immediately should your story be accepted elsewhere. I’ve had to do that and made sure I emailed as soon as I heard. You want editors to know you’re professional.

As for the pubs that don’t accept sim subs, some writers ignore that little detail. Having nuns still in residence in part of my brain, I don’t have the nerve to do that! But that might change. Recently, I sent a story to an anthology that didn’t accept sim subs, and it took a good four or five months for me to get one of the rudest rejections I’ve ever received. The story could have been circulating elsewhere in that time. By the way, it was the same story that got the previously-mentioned kind rejection! So you never know.

Previously Published? Unpublished? More than likely, editors will want a story that has not been published. Read the specifics, because “published” can mean on your blog, your website, facebook posts! So be careful where you share your work. You may not consider it published, but if it’s out there somewhere and people are reading it, no matter how few, literary journals will not take it. However, some will accept an exceptional story that has been published elsewhere, if the rights have reverted to you. Read the guidelines and email the editor, if necessary.

Sending your work out takes guts—and planning. Keep track of where you sent what because it can get really confusing really fast if you have several stories out at the same time. I’m easily confused! So I have charts and lists and scraps of paper. I can spend hours on Duotrope, New Pages and the Poets & Writers website exploring markets.

While all this is going on, keep writing. Start on your next project. Scribble ideas for the one after that. With lots of skill and a little luck, you’ll soon be reading that email that starts, “We’d be delighted to publish your story.”

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  1. #1 by talesfromahungrylife on June 19, 2014 - 6:14 am

    Thanks, Darlene. This will give me the structure I need (and the kick in the pants) that will get me out there and submitting again. Tell those nuns in your head to pipe down — and when you’re done, can you tell the ones in my head to quiet down too? Thanks.

  2. #2 by wordimprovisor177 on June 19, 2014 - 9:10 am

    Thanks for reading, Maria!

  3. #3 by sheilarlamb on June 19, 2014 - 10:53 am

    Please follow guidelines, always follow guidelines.

  4. #4 by wordimprovisor177 on June 19, 2014 - 12:47 pm

    Yes, Absolutely, Sheila. I was the staff writer and editor for a corporate magazine once and you wouldn’t believe how many writers either didn’t completely comply with or totally ignored my directions. Because this was corporate, I didn’t have a choice but to work with what I got, but It was so frustrating to waste my time re-formatting articles, before I could even start editing! Don’t get me started on word count and typos! Definitely, follow the guidelines!

  5. #5 by A Writer With Something To Say on June 19, 2014 - 11:06 pm

    Thanks for sharing. I hadn’t thought of publishing my work in a journal. I have entered plenty of contests, though. I’m struggling to finish two projects I need to complete, but this post has given me some insight.

    • #6 by wordimprovisor177 on June 19, 2014 - 11:52 pm

      Thanks for reading! I’m glad you got a bit of info out of it. Do look into the lit journal markets. You should find lots of opportunities to hopefully get your work published. Best of luck with your current projects.

  6. #7 by Daniel Romo on June 20, 2014 - 7:42 pm

    I just wanted to say hi.

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