Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Read the Guidelines

Kathryn Page Camp

You’ve finished that poem or a short story or non-fiction article or book and are ready to submit it. You have talked to friends, searched the Internet, studied the current edition of Writer’s Market, reviewed the publication collection at your local public library, and complied a list of potential markets. So what do you do next?
Read the submission guidelines.

First, reading the guidelines helps you eliminate publications that are not a good fit. Even if Writer’s Market says a particular science fiction magazine accepts stories between 5,000 and 10,000 words, that information can become quickly outdated. Maybe the magazine recently decided it can publish a greater variety of stories if it limits them to 4,000 words or less. The writers’ guidelines on the publication’s website are the best source for current information. Reading them will keep you from wasting your time, and possibly your money, submitting to markets that don’t buy what you have to sell. No matter how hard she tries, Georgia Washington is never going to convince Romance, Inc. to publish her novel.

The second reason for reading the guidelines is to ensure that your submission gets noticed in the right way rather than the wrong one. I try to follow the guidelines in every detail for this simple reason: if I were the editor, I would assume the departure means the author isn’t good at following directions and will be hard to work with. I won’t submit anything that I would discard if I were the editor.
But that creates a dilemma. If I follow the guidelines, won’t I look like every other submission that comes in? How do I stand out from the crowd?

My response is simple: I write the best query letter I can, focusing my creativity on the hook and the book description. Some writers respond by departing from specific parts of the guidelines, and it may work with some editors—but only if the departures are thought through first. If it will make you sound unprofessional, don’t do it.
What if the guidelines say to submit a hard copy to “Fiction Editor” at a physical address and you submit to a named editor by e-mail? Obviously, if you met the editor at a conference and were given permission to submit that way, you should do it. Some people recommend seeking out the name of the current editor and submitting directly to that person. If you do, make sure you send your manuscript to someone who is involved in the acquisition process. Even then, you run the risk that the person will see the use of his or her name as an end run around the process outlined in the guidelines.

Then there is the issue of simultaneous submissions. If the guidelines prohibit them, I usually put that publisher on the bottom of my list and submit there last. But on the rare occasions where I have ignored that part of the guidelines, I’m honest about it. My standard closing line is “Thank you for considering this simultaneous submission.” If they are going to ignore my submission, fine. But at least I won’t be blackballed if two publications end up vying for the same manuscript.
Whether you follow the guidelines is your call. If you can color outside the lines in a way that screams “innovative” or “creative” rather than “lazy” or “novice” or “not good at following directions,” then go ahead. But it’s still a risk.

Do you have any interesting experiences from the one time—or one of many—when you didn’t follow the guidelines? If so, we’d love to hear them.

Kathryn Page Camp is a licensed attorney and full-time writer. Writers in Wonderland: Keeping Your Words Legal was a Kirkus’ Indie Books of the Month Selection for April 2014. The second edition of Kathryn’s first book, In God We Trust: How the Supreme Court’s First Amendment Decisions Affect Organized Religion, was released on September 30, 2015. You can learn more about Kathryn at

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