How to prepare your writing for submission

Short answer: Include your contact details and page numbers on typed, fuss-free copy that meets individual submission guidelines.

Long answer:

There are some rules that apply to submissions regardless of whether you’re sending out a poem, a short story, an essay, an article, or a complete manuscript.

Rule #1: Always read individual submission guidelines. Literary journals, competition judges, media outlets etc. are usually very specific about what they’re looking for and how they want it formatted. These aren’t whimsical requests. They reflect everything from a preference to reading submissions on a phone to requiring a certain size margin to accommodate typesetting plans. Follow these guidelines closely.

Rule #2: Type your work. Always. The only exception is if you’re submitting some kind of hybrid / soundscape / performance / visual piece that doesn’t lend itself to text. Do not under any circumstances send something handwritten otherwise.

Rule #3: Use a standard font. Readability is key. You want something that is clear and easy to skim, which often happens on an editor’s (or intern’s) first pass over your work. An editor also wants to be able to picture your work within the context of their publication, and it’s unlikely they’re going to be using an outlandish font themselves. For second, closer readings, it’s easier on the eyes to digest fuss-free copy.

Rule #4: Use a standard font size. With poetry, you can sometimes get away with slightly smaller, but for everything else, 12-point is the best option. No editor is going to get out a magnifying glass to read something microscopic.

Rule #5: Go easy with the formatting. Editors these days use their phones and ereaders a lot. The more formatting you use, the more you limit an editor’s options to read your submission. You also make things hard for the person typing up your work for print. Again, if you are submitting a poem where a graphic form is essential, fair enough. But don’t be tempted to do anything tricky or strange just because it’s fun to hit the tab key or change font colors.

Rule #6: Use page numbers for any prose longer than a single page. I usually center these in the footer. Never put them in the upper left corner as that’s where an editor is going to put a staple or binder clip on a printed copy.

Poetry has slightly different rules. If you choose to put page numbers in the footer, you could paginate them as 1/3, 2/3, 3/3. However, I prefer to put a line and page count in the upper right corner under my contact details eg. 51 lines / 3 pages. I like this method because on subsequent pages of a poem, it’s helpful to mention whether or not there’s a stanza break. I put this in the upper right corner, too, like so: (“Poem title” – 2 – no stanza break)

Rule #7: Include a word count for everything except poetry. On shorter pieces (stories and articles), this tells an editor how much space they’ll need to publish you. It also helps someone work out how much you should be compensated if they’re paying by word.

For long-form fiction, a word count gives an editor some idea how many hours it’s going to take to get through your manuscript. Additionally, it tells them whether you understand genre conventions eg. if you’re pitching a 140K-word romance novel, it’s the wrong length for that market.

Generally speaking, you have a better chance of publishing a debut on the shorter rather than longer side as there’s less investment in reading, editing, print, distribution, and stocking costs, so publishers are more willing to take a gamble on an unknown writer. The only exception is fantasy where extensive world-building is usually necessary to tell a particular story.

Rule #8: Include the title of the piece you’re submitting on every page. This is self-explanatory. Editors receive hundreds if not thousands of submissions and pages can and do get separated. Make it easy for someone to collate your work again as needed.

Rule #9: Include your complete contact details unless anonymity is required. Your contact details should go on the first page of a prose piece or every individual poem (except when included as part of a collection) unless the submission guidelines specify anonymous submissions only. This happens most often with contests where a publisher wants a judge to read submissions with no information about the author whatsoever.

— Nicole Melanson