Submission Guidelines and the Hopeful Writer – Writing Tip

So, you’ve got your story written, and you’ve chosen someplace to submit it for consideration. You go to the Submissions page on their website, or in their publication, and you see these things called Submission Guidelines. What’s a submission guideline, you ask?

Submission guidelines are the sets of rules each editor or publisher posts to the public, stating just what you should be sending them for consideration, and how it should look. Sometimes different publishers can have very similar guidelines, but they can vary wildly, and may, on occasion, seem rather arbitrary.

  • Some may want you to send them an .rtf file, while others are accepting only Word documents (i.e., .doc, docx files).
  • Some may request submissions to be in .12 point, Times New Roman font, double-spaced, while some may want .12 point, Georgia font, single spaced.
  • Some will allow multiple submissions (sending them four or five stories at a time), or maybe simultaneous submissions (sending them a story while, at the same time sending it off to other publishers for their consideration) while some hold these to be no-nos.
  • Some will accept only original, unpublished work, while others will accept reprints (something you’ve published already, and are now reselling).
  • Some will require you to email them your submission standing on one foot, picking your nose, and wearing a pink, CHOOSE LIFE t-shirt, purchased at a Wham! concert in 1983 when you press SEND, while others prefer a black Taylor Swift tee from 2011, tied up into a belly shirt.

Okay, I was kidding on that last one—I just wanted to see if you were still paying attention. But it is true that the guidelines they put out for submissions may seem rather arbitrary, and sometimes downright silly to writers. “Look,” the writer says, “they’re getting my words, my quality words, no matter what font it’s in, or what the spacing is. As long as they’re getting my story, what does it matter?” But it does matter, for two simple reasons, and I’m about to tell you what they are.


Number one: they’re people. Busy people.

When we press SEND on the email with our story attached, or fill out the Submittable form, there’s a person at the other end, waiting to receive it. In most cases they’re requesting certain things in order to make the file easier for them to work with, especially if the story is accepted, and they would then have to edit it. Maybe that person just has a favorite font and spacing to read in. Who knows?

“But wait,” the writer says. “If they know exactly what they want, why can’t they just change it? Why do I have to do it? I’m busy writing, I don’t have time!”

If you think you don’t have time, try editing an anthology, or a magazine. Your editor/publisher might only have twelve or fifteen fiction spots to fill, but they may have fifty, a hundred, or even two hundred submissions to read—and they may be under a deadline. If I’m your editor, and I pull two stories out of the slush pile, and one of the writers has followed the guidelines I thoughtfully provided with my submission call (making my overall job easier), while the other did not (making my job harder), I’m going to read the one that followed the guidelines first. That second story may be fantastic, it’s true, but I have a hundred and ninety-eight more stories I have to get through, and that second writer, essentially, just handed me more work. If I can get my anthology filled without anyone making my job harder, then I call that a win. If I happen to do that without ever even getting back to your story, then not only is it my win, it’s your loss. If I see you’ve not followed the guidelines and immediately send your submission back unread, with a rejection letter (as many editors do), because, as the writer above claimed, I just don’t have time, then, again, it’s your loss.

Number two: you want them to like you and your work.

You’re not going into this blind, wondering what this editor/publisher is looking for. They’re telling you what they want. Why in the world would you handicap yourself by giving them anything else?

“But wait,” the writer says (my God I’ve invented a surly writer!). “If my words are the important thing here, what does it matter what they like?”

Try to look at it from their point of view. They told you what they want, put it right out there for you to see, and you ignored it. I know we’re all adults here, but how does that work face-to-face, out in the real world?

  • You go to the movies with a friend, and you go in first. You put your coat on the seat next to you, to save it for your friend, but this guy just slaps your coat aside and takes the seat, even though you had clearly marked it as “saved.” You look at this guy and think, What a jerk!
  • You’re in the middle of something at work, when a coworker comes in with a file for you. Your desk is covered with what you’re doing, but you nod at the one empty corner. “Put it over there, would you? Thanks.” Your coworker, however, just drops the file right into the middle of what you’re doing, turns and walks away. You stare at his retreating back, and think, What a jerk!
  • You take the time to delineate exactly what you want in a submission, make it just as clear as day, but when you open the file this new writer sent you, it’s clear they didn’t do a single thing you asked for. You stare at the page before you thinking, What a . . .

Exactly. And how do we react to people we think of poorly? Well . . . poorly. If that guy at the movies drops his popcorn, are we likely to feel bad for him? Not me. Later on, if we have the chance to let him get out of the parking lot ahead of us, do we feel inclined to let him go? I don’t.

By the same token, an editor may be less inclined to give your work the fair shake it deserves—and the next time they see you, just like in the movie parking lot, they may remember you, and not in the best light.

The writing world is a competitive marketplace, and becoming more so all the time. Editors and publishers are people, too, and you don’t want them to set aside your work due to either expediency or pique; you want them to like you and your work. You want to get published: you want to get paid. Following their submission guidelines is an easy way to at least start off in their good graces. Let the other writers piss them off: it’ll just make you look more professional by comparison, and that you can call a win.

Now, get out there and buy a pink CHOOSE LIFE shirt. I hear you can find them on eBay!


Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, winner of the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
His latest work, a story collection titled Echoes of Darkness, is available now from Books & Boos Press.
For more about Rob, including links to his published works, upcoming events, and a series of very short—but free—stories, please visit him at


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