Submissions: The mechanics

Lars O. (CC/Flickr)

Submission has got a lot easier since most markets moved from hardcopy to electronic submissions. Their guidelines can be relied on to explain the process, but there are still a few points of mechanics worth being aware of.

Formatting the manuscript

Editors will expect their manuscripts to arrive in a particular format. The default is standard manuscript format, best explained by William Shunn. I find it helpful to summarise this document into a set of bullet points, which I work through when a manuscript is ready to go. If a publication wants it in a different format, they will say so in the submission guidelines. If they say nothing at all, they won’t object to standard format.

Some markets request a cover letter and some don’t seem to care. I always include one, as it won’t do any harm. I keep it brief because whether the slush reader or the editor sees it first, it’s one of many that just arrived in their inbox and they don’t care about my life story or a synopsis of the story they’re about to read. I have a standard cover letter which I copy and paste, filling in the blanks as required:

Dear Editors,

Please consider the attached short story, titled [STORY TITLE], for publication in [PUBLICATION TITLE]. It is about [WORD COUNT] words long and is probably best classified as [TYPE].

Yours sincerely



When I say ‘subgenre’, I typically mean a two or three word description on the off-chance that someone thinks, ‘aha, I know which slush reader likes that sort of thing’. Thus Steel in the Morning was ‘historical adventure’, Newgate Jig was ‘historical crime, The Endocrine Tyranny was ‘present day science fiction’. It probably doesn’t make any difference to what happens to the story, but it can’t hurt.

If you have anything relevant to add, such as previous publications or having attended a well-regarded course, it’s worth a sentence or two to mention it.

Most stories are published with a brief biography, and a few markets ask for it to be included in the cover letter. That’s not an excuse to tell them your life story, even if you feel inclined to. A hundred words either as a paragraph of the cover letter or appended below will cover it. If they don’t ask for it, don’t give it to them.

Goodbye and good luck

Alex Abian (CC/Flickr)

With the manuscript formatted and the cover letter written, a button on the website or sending an email completes the submission process. The job is not finished. I keep a detailed record of what went where and when, because I don’t want to mistakenly send a manuscript back to the same market or worse, send two manuscripts to the same market at once. A table in a word processor or spreadsheet is essential. Some submissions systems assign a ticket number to each submission, in which case I record that as well. While the Submissions Grinder provides a manuscript tracker which is useful for keeping track of current submissions, it’s a format that gets saturated very quickly so I keep my own records.


I set up a calendar reminder for when to query a manuscript. Most markets give a response time, which is worth comparing with the stats on Submissions Grinder to see if they actually keep to it. Some are explicit about when to query. Based on what they say and what they do, I decide when is a reasonable length of time to query if I haven’t heard back from them.

After waiting for an editor to pass judgement on a story, sending a query can feel a bit like poking a sleeping tiger with a stick. While querying too soon won’t make any friends, nobody is going to object to a query after a reasonable length of time, especially if the time is specified in their guidelines. With the best will in the world, communications do go astray and there’s no point in sitting on your hands for months only to find either the submission or the response got swallowed by a junk filter.

While sending a query can feel intimidating, the editor is not going appreciate having to wade through layers of apologies before you get to the point. Like the cover letter, it’s best to keep it brief and polite:

Dear Editors,

I am writing to query the status of the short story titled [TITLE], ticket number [TICKET NUMBER IF ONE WAS ISSUED], which I submitted [EMAIL ADDRESS OR WEBSITE IT WAS SUBMITTED FROM] on [DATE OF SUBMISSION].

I would appreciate it if you could let me know if a decision has been made.

Yours sincerely



I usually get a response in a day or two.


John St John (CC/Flickr)

If the story is good, someone is going to accept it sooner or later. However, the chances of any given submission being accepted are very low, so be prepared for the dreaded form rejection. One of my stories was rejected 65 times, and was then published by a well-regarded editor who forwarded it for a major award ballot. It didn’t make the ballot but the point is that just because one editor, or a lot of editors, didn’t like it doesn’t mean another one won’t. The only way to get published is to keep pushing it out until it finds that editor. In case that sounds discouraging, 65 rejections is unusually high, and quite a few of those were simultaneous submissions so I wasn’t waiting for it go through 65 markets one at a time.

With a list of markets already prepared and the manuscript formatted, it’s easy to turn the story around and send it back out as soon as it comes in. It needn’t take more than ten minutes. Just make sure you check that the next market in the list is actually open for submissions before you send it, as some have limited reading periods.

Once in a while, you get a personal rejection from the editor. Whatever it says, it’s usually worth a moment of self-congratulation because one thing it tells you is the story made it to the top few percentiles. On a different day, against a different pile of stories, it would probably have made the cut.

Personal rejections can be dangerous because it’s tempting to revise the story based on the sentence or two the editor felt obliged to put in to explain rejecting it. It’s worth bearing the comments in mind when working on future stories, but It’s not always a good idea to revise the rejected story around them. If something in those sentences hits you between the eyes and makes you think, ‘yes, that’s what it needs!’, then it’s worth going back and editing. If not, there’s no point in trying to rewrite to the views of an editor who won’t see it again. Just take heart that it that it impressed someone almost enough to accept it, and concentrate on getting it in front of someone who will be just that little more impressed.

Keep writing

Christian Gonzalez (CC/Flickr)

The best way to deal with rejections is to do what writers do: keep writing. Remember how we made the decision that it was time to submit the story: it was the best we could get it. It’s time for it to make its own way in the world, and it will be a while before you hear from it again. Now it’s time to work on another story. The best way to get published with any sort of regularity is to keep a few stories in circulation, so what are you waiting for?


Summarise Shunn’s document on standard manuscript format into a step-by-step guide. Follow your guide and format your manuscript, checking that it looks like Shunn’s document when you’ve finished. When markets don’t want standard format, they usually describe what they want in terms of deviations from it so it’s easiest to have a standard format document as a template.

Check the formatting guidelines of the market on the top of your list. If it’s different to standard manuscript format, save another document with the format for that market.

Submit the manuscript. If you’ve decided to send it to several markets simultaneously, repeat the process for all of them. For each submission, record the date you sent the manuscript, how you sent it (your email or an online system of their own) and the ticket number if they issue one. Set a reminder in your calendar for when to query.

Consider signing in to the Submissions Grinder and recording your submissions there. It can be useful for tracking the progress of individual submissions, and if you’ve been using their market data it’s only fair to contribute your own.

Now dust off one of the other two outlines you haven’t looked at since you wrote that first draft and get to work on the next story!

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Posted in Story development, Writing

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