A Guide To The Proper Submission Of Short Story Manuscripts

Read this article for tips on the appropriate submission of short story manuscripts.

Literary journals are a labor of love. Most of them are run by a tiny staff - sometimes only one person - who get paid very little if at all, and the amount of work that goes into producing a quality publication is usually far greater than the capacity of the staff. Many literary journals receive hundreds of submissions per month. The better journals sometimes receive over a thousand per month. It is no wonder, then, considering this situation, that many editors will look for any reason to lighten their workload - including rejecting a manuscript without even reading it if the proper submission guidelines are not followed. This is why, in the highly competitive world of the literary journal, it is imperative to follow certain rules when submitting a manuscript for consideration.

The first rule of submitting a manuscript is to research the journal you are submitting to. This doesn't mean that you have to buy a subscription to the journal, but it does require you to either get down to the bookstore or the library to check out their latest issue. If you've written a realist masterpiece reminiscent of Raymond Carver, it wouldn't make much sense to send the piece to a journal that specializes in experimental writing. By the same token, it would do little good to send a horror story to a journal that only accepts literary fiction. Knowing your markets is a big step in getting your story published.

After you've decided which journals you are going to submit to, you need to learn those publications' guidelines. Sometimes these are printed right in the journal, near the masthead or table-of-contents. If not, most journals have a web presence, so you can go to their website, where they will sometimes have excerpts from previous issues and submission guidelines available for prospective contributors. If you don't have access to the Internet, you can always send an SASE (a business-size #10, self-addressed, stamped envelope) to the editorial address printed on the journal's masthead for their submission guidelines. Once you've established what each particular journal's guidelines are, follow them to the letter. This cannot be stressed enough. If a journal asks for stories under 5,000 words, do not send them a story of 6,000 words, as it will be rejected out of hand. If a journal asks for a cover letter, provide one. If a journal says no email submissions, they mean it. Journals get enough unsolicited submissions without having to deal with authors who can't follow rules. Don't think that your story will be the exception. It won't.

Although most journals provide submission guidelines, they don't always tell you how to format your submission. What do you do then? Don't worry - here are some guidelines to follow that, unless the journal specifically says to do otherwise, are considered the sign of a professional writer by all publications.

First, the manuscript itself. Nothing is easier to do for an editor than to reject a manuscript that looks bad or amateurish. For this reason, always use clean, white paper. It doesn't have to be expensive - just easy to read. Resume, colored, or otherwise fancy paper is the sure sign of an amateur. Make sure that the story is double-spaced throughout, and in twelve-point font. Difficult to read font will send your story to the recycling bin - the most accepted fonts in use are Times New Roman, Garamond, or Courier. More and more Times New Roman is becoming the standard for story submissions, but if you stick to one of these three, you'll be okay.

To format the story itself, begin by putting your name and contact information, single-spaced, in the top left hand corner of the page. In the top right hand corner of the page, indicate the word count. Do not, under any circumstances, put a copyright symbol on the manuscript. Editors are professionals - they are not going to steal your story, and putting the copyright symbol at the top of your story is not only offensive but a sign of an unprofessional submitter. Next, move down about a third of the page, and center the title. Skip another two lines, and begin your story. The story should be double-spaced throughout; remember, your goal is to make the editor's job as easy as possible. Make sure you number the pages, starting with the second page, in the top right hand corner. You should also put your last name and story title next to the page number on each page (in case the editor drops the manuscript and the pages get mixed up).

Before sending out the story, make sure the manuscript is free of typos or spelling errors. This is a sign that you don't care enough about the story - or the journal - to even proofread it before sending it out. Any decent word processing program will have spelling and grammar check - use it. If, while proofreading, you find a mistake, fix it on your computer and re-print it. Nothing gets an editor's goat like handwritten corrections all over a manuscript.

Once you've printed out a clean, professional-looking manuscript, you are ready to make your submission packet. Use a paper clip to keep your story together - unless the journal says otherwise, never use a staple. Again, use a paper clip. This makes it much easier for the reader, the editorial staff if they need to make copies for other editors, and for recycling purposes, should your story not be accepted.

You will now need a cover letter. Unless the journal's submission guidelines say they are not necessary, always include a cover letter. The cover letter need not be extensive. Use the same paper you used for your manuscript. Do not use fancy letterhead or stationery. Format it like a regular business letter, and address it to whomever the guidelines tell you to, or if the guidelines say nothing, the editor in charge of fiction manuscripts. This name is usually found in the submission guidelines or on the masthead. Sometimes the journal will say to simply send it to the "Editor," or "Fiction Editor," and you can probably get away with this, but it is usually better to address it to a particular person. This is not because they will be more likely to read it, but because it shows you put a little effort into researching the publication, and didn't blindly send dozens of copies of your story to journals all over the country.

Begin the letter "Dear So-and-So." Use the editor's full name, and make sure it is spelled correctly. Sometimes first names are ambiguous, and your story will get off on a pretty bad foot with a female editor whom you mistakenly referred to as "Mr." Your letter only needs to contain a few things. First, present the story and give its title. Do not summarize the story, say what it is about, give a history of how you wrote it, provide anecdotes about what inspired you, etc. Editors don't care about this; they want to the work to speak for itself. If you have a legitimate connection to the editor (for example, the two of you met at a writing conference or you have a mutual friend), or a well-known writer suggested you send the piece to the journal, you can mention it here.

Next, provide a brief list of any publications you may have, and provide a sentence or two bio. Only list publications that are relevant to the story and the journal you are submitting to. If you've published in literary journals before, by all means mention this - succinctly. If you've published letters to the editor of a farm magazine, you'll be wasting the editor's time writing this in a cover letter. With the bio, list any special writing programs you attended or workshop experience you have, or if you don't have any, you can just say what you do for a living, or say nothing at all.

If the journal allows it, inform the editor if this is a simultaneous submission (meaning you're sending copies out to other publications at the same time). Most journals nowadays accept simultaneous submissions, so long as you mention it in the cover letter. If the journal specifically states they don't accept simultaneous submissions, don't send it to them. Finally, tell the editor if they need to return your manuscript or can recycle it, and then thank the editor for taking the time to consider your manuscript. Don't forget to sign the cover letter.

Here are some things not to do in your cover letter: Discuss pay rates; say something like "this is an exclusive, first-look at my new story," or something equally off-putting; use fancy paper or letterhead; say who else you have submitted the story to; mention how much your boyfriend or girlfriend loves the piece; give a history of how you came to writing; provide long autobiographical tales apropos of nothing; or misspell the editor's or the journal's name. Again, keep it brief and simple.

Attach the cover letter to the manuscript, using the same paper clip. For your SASE, use a #10 business-size plain white envelope (editors like the kind with the peel-off glue strip), unless you really want your manuscript returned, in which case you should send an envelope (9x12, plain manila envelope) large enough for the story, with the proper postage. This, however, usually is not worth the expense, and there is very little chance that an editor is actually going to make comments on your draft. Regardless of the type of envelope you enclose, do not put the journal's return address on the top left hand corner of the SASE. This seems counterintuitive, but if you put the wrong amount of postage on the envelope, it will be sent back to the journal - and they hate this.

Double-check your manuscript and cover letter for typos, make sure you have a stamp on your SASE, and enclose the entire submission packet in a 9x12 manila envelope. Do not use bubble envelopes, padded mailers, over-sized envelopes, or 5x7 envelopes with your manuscript folded in half and wedged inside of it. Address the envelope to the editor you addressed the cover letter to and send it first-class mail. Sending your manuscript priority mail, registered mail, certified mail, or express mail makes a writer seem both paranoid and clueless about the submission process.

Proper submissions are a critical first step to getting published, but no matter how well you format your submission, the story still has to be worth publishing to appear in a literary journal. However, if your story is worth publishing, and you don't how to submit it properly, the world may never find out.

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