20 April 2019

Please Consider the Attached Story . . .

A lot has changed, in the 25 years I've been submitting short fiction for publcation. The best thing, I suppose, is that almost all manuscripts are now sent electronically, and the worst is that it seems there are fewer short-story markets out there to submit to. Everything considered, I think we writers still have it better now than we did in 1994.

One of the things about marketing short stories, though, has remained the same: our need for the submission guidelines--also called writers' guidelines--of whatever publication we target.

The not-so-thrilling days of yesteryear

For those of you who weren't around, or who don't remember, this was the way short-story writers once obtained submission guidelines:

1. Find a publication you want to submit to
2. Write a letter to them, requesting guidelines
3. Snailmail it to them, along with an SASE
4. Wait a couple of weeks
5. Receive the guidelines via return mail

This reply usually contained a list of requirements about story formatting and content. Sometimes the guidelines were short and sweet, maybe a three-fold brochure; others were long and detailed. I remember requesting and receiving the guidelines for Weird Tales (I think I still have them)--and they were four printed pages, single-spaced.

(Oddly enough, the more detailed the guidelines, the better off you usually were, because there were always those who didn't bother to read them. Those who did--and who followed the instructions--had a definite advantage over the competition.)

Fast-forward to (how's that for a cliche?) the Present Day

Now, obviously, we can locate guidelines merely by accessing the publication's website and clicking on the "submissions" page. Here are some typical pieces of info we might find there:

- wordcount requirements
- font requirements (usually TNR, sometimes Courier or others)
- spacing requirements (single or double)
- editor's name (for the cover letter)
- preferred file type (usually .doc or .rtf)
- whether reprints are considered
- submission deadline (if an anthology)
- genre and theme requirements, if any
- submission type (email, snailmail, website submission box, etc.)
- payment information

Occasionally there'll be further requirements:

- the character(s) you should use to indicate a scene break (usually # or ***)
- what you should put in the header of each page
- what you should type at the end of your story (END, THE END, -30-, etc.)
- what you should use for a dash (hyphens, em dash, etc.)
- whether you should underline or italicize to indicate emphasis
- what you should put in the subject line (if email)

Nitpicky, you say? Maybe so. But they're the buyers and we're the sellers, so they have the right to make the rules. (It's good to be da king.)

Their wish is my command

One quick story, on that subject. I once received guidelines that included this: "Staple your manuscript in the upper righthand corner." That confused me a bit. Guidelines NEVER tell you to staple a manuscript; one of the first things I learned was to always use a paper clip--or if the story was more than 25 pages, a butterfly clip. But I did what they said, and I sold them a story. The obvious question: Why would they put such a strange request in their official guidelines? Was the entire editorial staff left-handed?

I never found out for sure, but I suspect they did it as a test. The writers who complied proved that they could do what they were told. Those who didn't comply proved that they couldn't or wouldn't follow directions, or hadn't even bothered to check the guidelines at all.

I saw an old poster the other day of Mr. T saying, "I pity the fool who doesn't read the submission guidelines." Me too.

Random points

I know what you're thinking. If you submit stories only to large and respectable publications, you don't need to worry much about guidelines for style and formatting. Just do the standard stuff: double-space, Times New Roman, one-inch margins all around, indent every paragraph, etc. Right?

Not necessarily. To use just a couple of examples, AHMM and EQMM still prefer underlining rather than italics, and they also prefer a centered pound-sign to indicate scene breaks. And BJ Bourg at Flash Bang Mysteries likes single-spacing and using two adjacent hyphens instead of an em dash. Small things, yes, but you want to format your manuscript exactly the way the editor wants it.

Another thing: Woman's World has several times changed their maximum wordcount. Romances were once 1500 words and mysteries 1000. Those were lowered years ago to 800 and 700, respectively, and recently the mystery max was lowered again, to 600 or so. Requirements sometimes change when the editors change, so you can't rely on old guidelines.


This is probably a good place to mention Shunn's Proper Manuscript Format, because in their guidelines many publications still point writers to that site and to the sample manuscript page shown there. I don't follow that model the way I once did--I now always use TNR and em dashes and italics and one space after a period unless told otherwise--but Shunn's is still considered by many to be the industry standard.

Last but not least: I'm not sure I could get by without my friend Sandra Seamans's My Little Corner website. It's a great place to find anthology calls and writers' guidelines for publications in many different genres. I check her site at least several times a week, and as a result I've sold a lot of stories to markets I probably wouldn't even have known about otherwise.

That's my pitch for today. Good luck and good hunting! May the odds be ever in your favor.


  1. Good reminders, John. But my problem is I wish they would all have the same or very close guidelines or be a little more flexible. It really annoys me to have to reformat a story to submit to this place or that. I might do it, but through gritted teeth.

  2. Good advice as always.
    The modern way of submitting has taken a good deal of the interest and excitement out of checking the mailbox.

  3. This is great advice for newbies, John, and there are old pros who could benefit from it, too. Back in the ‘80s, when I was editing my TOP anthologies, I remember getting submissions from the legendary/notorious Mike Avallone, and a single story might involve four or five different colors and sizes of paper, multiple fonts, many handwritten additions and deletions, and lots of scotch tape. (I knew Mike and liked him and read the stories and bought several of them, but if I’d gotten hot messes like those from authors I didn’t know, they’d’ve gone straight into the circular file....)

  4. Me too, Paul. I constantly reformat stories to fit whatever place I'm sending them to.

    Now and then I'll see guidelines that just say something like "standard formatting" and let it go at that. But I seriously do think some publications specify odd formatting requirements just to be sure submitters have done their homework. It's a crazy business.

    Janice, you're right! In the old days, I remember asking my wife not to check the mail before I got home from work, because it was such a thrill to open the mailbox and see if there was an acceptance letter in there. And, as someone recently observed, submitting a story is now so easy EVERYone is doing it. Long ago, it required a real effort--printing the manuscript, addressing an SASE, putting it all into a 9 x 12 envelope, standing in line at the P.O. to buy the right postage, etc.

    Easy or hard, though, I still try to keep twenty or thirty submissions out there at any one time (currently, I'm waiting for 37 replies--mostly from anthologies).

  5. Hey Josh! Yep, as a real-life editor I bet you've seen some crazy manuscripts. I agree that most folks wouldn't have put up with the kind of thing, in a submission. I've heard that in the really old days, editors would (as you did) overlook some of those lapses if a story otherwise showed promise. I bet that rarely happens now.

    Congratulations, by the way, on your continued run of great stories and award nominations!! Stay in touch.

  6. Oops. THAT kind of thing, not THE kind of thing.

  7. Oops! I didn't even know that AHMM preferred underlining to italics - I've been doing it wrong all these years. Still got published, though. Thanks, Linda!

  8. Eve, I'm probably remembering that from something I saw there long ago. Maybe now they really don't care, either way. Brings up a good point, though: As Josh mentioned, editors are way more flexible when they already know the person who's submitting.

    What's really aggravating is when you get a rejection from someplace that (for instance) wants dashes done a certain way, and then you reformat the story such that it's now ready to submit to a place that wants things a different way--and you forget to change all the little things that need changing. That's something I of course only realize after I've hit the SEND button to submit to that second market. Again, the main thing is do the best you can to satisfy whatever guidelines you have and don't worry about it beyond that.

    I read a set of guidelines a few weeks ago that said to use Arial font in the manuscript. That was the first time I'd seen that particular requirement.

  9. A terrific piece, John. The staple example is real eye opener. I have spent way too much time looking at certain sub guidelines thinking, Do they really mean that?

  10. Great stuff, John. I concur on the importance of Sandra Seamans's blog. I submitted something this week to a piece I saw there. Oh, and some of yu may re ember this: http://criminalbrief.com/?p=17140

  11. Thanks, Larry. I guess the best approach is to just do whatever they ask, whether it makes sense or not. (But hey, even if you do, there are no guarantees . . .)

    Rob, she does a great job with that site, doesn't she? As for your CB post, I DO remember that one. Especially the "submit and grovel" item.

  12. John, great stuff. Keep 'em coming.

  13. I laughed out loud at your Mr. T quote, John.

    And I don't think EQ and AH want underlining anymore. That requirement disappeared from both magazines' instructions a few years ago, first EQ then AH.

  14. Thanks, R.T. Stuff you already knew, I suspect--but things we still have to deal with when we send our stories in.

    Barb, thank you for that note. I bet you're right, there--I've still been underlining for both of them because I've always done that when submitting to the Dell magazines, but it makes sense that it's no longer required. I was once told by an editor that she likes it because it's harder to "miss" emphasized text than underlined text when the manuscript is converted to the final printed copy. These days, of course, that conversion is easier.

  15. I tend to make things complicated: At their stapling instructions I would have wondered “my right or their right.”

  16. Jessica, I think it said the top righthand corner, which made it easy. But it was the only time I'd ever been instructed to staple a manuscript, at all.

    I've always wondered if, when they received submissions, they automatically rejected those that weren't stapled. Who knows.

  17. Like going back in time. I have several boxes of submission letters, rejection letters, acceptance letters in the attic. On, yes. I rmember SASEs. Couple unofficial rules I followed If I was unfamiliar with a publication (or anthology): The longer the guidelines, the less likely I would bother and if they did not mention payment I usually skipped submitting.

  18. O'Neil, I agree that if there was no mention of payment I usually didn't submit anything. And yes, slogging through a page or so of guidelines was enough to put anyone off--which is probably another reason that you SHOULD trudge through all of it, I guess, and therefore minimize the competition.

    I also remember that sometimes you just never heard anything back from your letter requesting guidelines. And that WAS a bummer.

    I have to tell you, I'm impressed that you saved your rejection letters (!!). If I'd done that we would probably have had to move (attic or not).

    Thanks for the comment!

  19. Thanks for an entertaining and informative post.

    Re: tests such as the right-hand stapling, I once submitted to an anthology that instructed writers to include in their cover letters two “secret words” found at the end of the guidelines so the editors would know submitters actually read the guidelines to the end. Sure enough, the secret words—spoiler alert: “Cordwainer Smith”—were there, and still are. (I just checked.)

    As instructed, I dutifully included the secret words. My story was rejected anyway. Oh, well.

  20. WHOA, Peter, I've never heard of something like using "secret words" from the guidelines. Interesting!!

    As for jumping through all the hoops and still having your story rejected, the same thing happened to me at Weird Tales. I read all four pages of guidelines and tried to meet all the requirements, but my story didn't make the cut. Big sigh.

    Thanks for chiming in, here--always good to hear from you!

  21. "Secret words" LOL! I submitted to something once that wanted those! Good column, John! Back in the early 2000s I sent MS to both "Weird Tales" and "Worlds of Fantasy and Horror," and got those nice, big submission guidelines from both! (Same magazine; they just changed their name temporarily when they were floating a "Weird Tales" TV show that didn't happen!) And once I sent out an SASE and a note to a magazine asking for their submission guidelines. The SASE came back---with a rejection letter! :)

  22. Oh, and I still have my postal scale and a few 5 cent, 10 cent and dollar stamps.

  23. Well, Jeff, looks like we both struck out at Weird Tales, old bud--but I bet a lot of other folks did too. And I think you're the first writer I know who got a guidelines-request rejected. Maybe you could send it someplace else!

    I'm afraid I never bought one of those postal scales--I probably should've--but I still have a bunch of unused IRC's for overseas snailmail submissions. Remember those?

    Thanks for the comment--and the memories!

  24. I still have my postal scale and a butter tub filled with stamps of various denominations. I saved a great deal of time weighing my own submissions and not having to explain to postal workers that return envelopes would likely weigh less than the outgoing envelopes (after all, they weigh one envelope less coming back than going out).

    As an editor, I've become less picky about manuscript formatting. At a minimum, though, I like writers to be consistent. (For example, however they choose to indent paragraphs, do it the same every time!) When the formatting is wildly inconsistent, likely the writing also suffers.

  25. Michael, I knew the entire staff of our local post office, back when I was submitting snailmailed manuscripts, because I never got around to buying one of those postage scales. I sure don't miss standing in those lines, all those years.

    Good point, about your preferences as an editor, Sounds as if you can forgive the small stuff if they get the big things right. Thanks for the insights.


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