Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Guidelines Are Rules Designed To Test Your Limits Of Groveling

Submission guidelines were created with the express purpose of seeing how far you're willing to grovel in order to get your short story published.
Probably said by a multitude of writers but for the purposes of this post was originally stated by me around 2007.

Four years and countless submissions later, I now say this:

Submission guidelines were created with the express purpose of weeding out people who are incapable of following simple instructions, thus leaving those who can follow instructions with a major degree of accuracy an open, honest and level playing field.

For the purpose of this post, I'm going to concentrate on short story submissions, since those publishers have the type of guidelines that don't have a lot of caveats to them and thus make it reasonably easy to submit a story.

I've found over the years that all publishers usually fall into two major categories with their submission guidelines:

New material only!

All publishers are looking for new material to publish in their e-zines, magazines and/or literary journals. However, while some have made it beyond crystal clear in their guidelines about it, others are slightly more ambiguous. While they say they want new material, they don't specifically state that the new material has to be previously unpublished. This in turn creates a small conundrum in that if you have a good story that was say, previously published on a blog in a different form and then you decided to tighten/re-write the story, does it make a new story or a previously published story? Of course, one way the conundrum can be easily solved by e-mailing the editor with that very question. Doing that, I believe, actually gives the impression that you know how to ask for clarification on a particular part of the submission guideline.

The other way to solve the conundrum is to simply e-mail the submission and specifically state in the query that the story was previously published elsewhere (like a personal short story blog for example) under a different title. That way, the story can either be accepted or rejected based either on the merits of the story or on the fact that you're submitting a previously published story.

Personally though, I think it might be easier if publishers made the distinction clearer as it pertains to a story being previously published. As I see it, simply stating that if a story popped up anywhere on the Internet, it's considered published, is overly broad and overly punishing. If a story was previously published in an e-zine, then yes I can see where that's cut and dried. But what if you published the story on your own personal blog? If you still own the rights to the story and you have the ability to pull the story down if need be, how does that count as previously published?

Previously published material accepted!

Some publishers clearly state in their guidelines that reprints are accepted, which I think is a good thing in that these publishers are recognizing the fact that some e-zines/magazines don't last a very long time and sometimes it's good to find another home for a well written story. Some also state while reprints are accepted, the story itself had to originally appear in a magazine with a circulation of less than 5,000.

Still others, while they may clearly state that new material is accepted, they are open to reprints depending on how well known the writer or well respected the writer is, or even with the reverse of how well known and well respected the e-zine/magazine is.

However, the one consistent point that all of these publishers/editors agree on is word count. Unless you're specializing in flash fiction or micro-flash fiction, most publishers/editors want stories that clock in under 5K words. This is by far the easiest part of any submission guideline to meet, and if you can't meet that (like I couldn't for quite a years), then perhaps you should take a class on creative writing (like I should've back in the day).

To sum it up, submission guidelines, while on the surface seem to be nothing more than a sadistic ploy to make sure that you never get published unless you grovel and boot lick, are there to really prove one salient fact: That you can follow directions.

If you can't follow directions to something as simple as submitting a well written short story to a publisher, then really, what's that say about you?



  1. Sounds as if it is not easy, G. :) I tend to think getting work published is a lot like finding a job - it's better if you know someone who can help you.

  2. I did the literary journal circuit a while back, and those guidelines do vary. But I followed them, and did eventually have some of my work published. So keep submitting, and good luck.

    And wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving too :)

  3. I do think the guidelines are largely to weed out folks who can't or won't follow instructions, and to ease the burden of processing on the editorial staff (or single editor). They can ignore the mechanics and get right to the story.

  4. What does that say about those people? It says that they probably called my office and whined when I worked at a publishing company. The worst writers were sure their books would sell zillions of copies and land them an appearance on Oprah.

  5. Chris: Thankee. It does seem like that though, doesn't it?

    Lynn: It isn't.

    Sometimes there is a ring of truth to that statement, only because I was fortunate to know someone that helped me get my first story pubished. That gave me just enough confidence to continue puttering around with my other stories until I was able to get another published.

    Joanne: The literary journal circuit seems to be the most cut and dried of all the ones that I've dabbled in. I've come across a couple that gave me fits in the process, but I followed them all to the letter.

    Thanks and I hope you have a Happy Thanksgiving as well.

    Charles: Precisely. The same principle applies in the business world. It's the simplest way to make that first cut. It's always best to follow the basic guidelines so that they can make an informed decision on your story, which is the way it should be.

    R: We will sell no whine before its time. :D

  6. While I largely agree, I should point out some pretty famous authors would have never gotten published if they follow writing guidelines...

    Was it Joyce who insisted the spaces be left, for example? A bit hazy on that. And while I think that writer, along with some others who ae considered great, are actually pretty poor reads...many people enjoy them and would not have had the opportunity to read them without some guideline breaking.

    Just playing the evil advocate here...

  7. Darth: You're probably right, but I believe they're more the exception than the rule.

    Still, the guidelines are more or less the absolute minimal that one has to meet in order to make it out of that first cull. Why should you make it easier for an editor to reject your story just because you couldn't follow the rules? I would rather have my story rejected 'cause the editor didn't find it interesting enough or compelling enough to publish rather than it be rejected 'cause I couldn't follow a guideline.


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