08 October 2012

creative writing submissions 101: how to prepare your creative writing submissions

Even though the cover letter is the firm handshake before your submission’s “interview,” the submission itself can suffer drastically if it is improperly formatted. As a former literary magazine poetry editor, I can tell you that any submission, be it poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, can lose the interest of its readers if the author is careless with its formatting.

That said, there aren’t really too many rules for you as a writer to follow when preparing your manuscript for submission to a literary magazine. Typically a magazine will post some specifics on how they want manuscripts presented. The “rules” are often not that different than what you’d expect from any formally presented document (i.e. a proposal or an academic essay). While you should always check with the magazine to which you are submitting to understand the editors’ preferences, here are “the basics” of manuscript preparation:

the quantity

Pay close attention to the number of words, pages, or pieces allowed per submission for the places you intend to submit to. For poetry, the standard request is that you send only three to five poems at a time; some presses will list no minimum, while others set a higher maximum (the highest I’ve seen is ten). Some poetry journals will specify line lengths for poems as well. These can often be tricky to navigate. For example, a press may allow three to five poems per submission, then specify that the submission should be “no longer than thirty lines.” It is sometimes left to you to figure out if the publisher means thirty lines per poem or thirty lines total. The best practice, if you’re unsure, is to send a quick query to the publisher before submitting.

For fiction or nonfiction, submissions are often limited to one piece with a minimum and/or maximum word count; expect anywhere from a minimum of 1,000 to 2,000 words, and a maximum of up to (if not beyond) 20,000 words. Prose submissions tend to be much more specific in terms of lengths, so pay careful attention to the guidelines the editors specify. Some presses will allow multiple prose pieces in a submission but, as with poetry submissions, will still place limits on the number of pages and/or words. Again, if you’re unsure about the breakdown of a journal or press’s submission specifications, always send a query before submitting rather than risking your work making a quick-dash to the slush pile!

the quality

The real nitty-gritty work of a submission often comes down to the formatting of the document itself. It is extremely important here to look for any specific requests from the publisher in terms of spacing, numeration, running headers, fonts, and so forth. But the basic thing to keep in mind, if you are doing a mailed submission, is that neatness counts. Just like you wouldn’t show up to a job interview with a stain on your shirt, don’t send submissions with smudges, stains, wrinkles, or any other avoidable blemishes.

For poetry submissions, the general practice is to limit yourself to one poem to a page, single spaced with a double-space between stanzas. Fiction submissions are generally double-spaced. A standard font should be used, usually something in the serif font family (Century, Courier, Garamond, Times New Roman, et cetera). Some publications will get specific down to the formatting of margins and titles. While you are usually safe bolding your titles, be careful: some places specifically tell you there should be no special formatting in your submission. Similarly, while the standard margin is now one inch on all sides, some presses stick with the former 1.25 inch margin, or will specify other margin alignments.

Mailed submissions, particularly with poetry, will often ask for some kind of running header with your submission. For poetry, presses will sometimes ask that you include your name, address, and telephone number in the upper right corner of the page; often it’s requested you include this information only on the first page. For fiction submissions, you will often include this same information on the first page, plus the submission’s word count (to the nearest 100 words) at the top right of the first page. Pages usually need to be numbered for mailed submissions, usually in the top right; for poetry, you’ll usually include only the page number, while with fiction the running header typically includes your surname, the full or partial title, and page number.

the sundry

Always proofread your submission several times before sending it out. Be aware of any special format requests from the publication: i.e. some will ask for underlining instead of italicization and other formatting rules that might seem small to you but will mean a lot to the publisher. Use left-alignment rather than justified alignment.

Think about the number of pieces, particularly with poetry, you will send in your submission. If the journal asks for three to five poems, why send three when you could send five? Organize your submission top to bottom: the best on top, the good-but-not-the-best on the bottom.

Pay attention to whether or not the publisher wants a cover sheet on your submission. Sometimes a journal requests cover sheets so the actual read of your submission is “blind”; the cover sheet includes your name, contact information, and the title(s) of the piece(s) you submitted.

Whatever you do, always abide by the guidelines set up by the journal or press to which you are submitting! Pay close attention to both the big things and the little things—nothing is unimportant when it comes to your work!

Good luck with your submissions! And as always …

Happy Writing!


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  1. More excellent advice! I can't get enough of this blog. Where do you find the time? Lol!

    1. Oh, here and there ... Mostly I just steal it from my dreams :)


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