Preparing for Submission Season, Part II: Attack of the Bad Advice

Early writers are awash in advice. All you have to do is join some writing forum online or stumble across any number of blogs and, BOOM, advice. Try not finding advice on the Internet. It’s the one place where everyone’s an expert with unequivocal expertise.

When I was twelve and writing my first “book,” I made the poor choice of believing the Internet experts about what a manuscript was supposed to look like. In preparing and brainstorming this series on submissions, I (foolishly) Googled again to find that not all that much has changed in ten years.

The results were horrifying. Even in the last year there have been articles, blogs, and other resources developed perpetuating the same bad advice like a teacher telling you that the key to believable fiction is always using a verb in place of said and tacking on an adverb and a simile at the end of each dialogue tag.

In an effort to both educate and debunk some myths, let’s examine examples of this bad advice.

Terrible Advice I was Given by the Internet:

Submissions should be sent in a monospaced font like Courier. No. Please, no. We live in an age where a lot of editors are reading an increasing number of submissions electronically. We have other fonts! The important thing to consider here is legibility. Use a standard, serif font like Times New Roman or Georgia. While most editors are unlikely to think poorly of you for using a sans-serif font, let legibility be your guide. Courier is actually rather annoying to read for long periods of time, but not quite as bad as Arial. Does your font choice actually hurt your submission? No. But if trying to give your piece a fair read gives the editor a headache from eye strain, they might not keep it up. Courier New/Courier/Courier 12 are actually not all that pleasant to read.

Put your name, title, and word count on every page. With the exception of the word count, this is actually a good idea, but use the running head/footer tools to do it. Where you shouldn’t is where asked not to because of a blind reading system, like certain contests. Your word count can go on the front page, there’s no need to keep reminding the editor.

Underline words for emphasis, don’t italicize. See the previous point on the availability of computers and typefaces. For prose and poetry, this is unnecessary.

Put two spaces after every period. Stop the insanity! The rule is one space after a period. That’s how the Chicago Manual of Style and other authoritative guides have it, that’s how any reputable publisher is going to publish your work. The two-space rule you’ve been taught for years and years is a hold-over from the days of typewriters, and all it does is make your manuscript longer. Your old English teacher was wrong!

Use an exact word count. Round it off. The idea here is to make sure that you’re conveying that you can realistically fit your piece into a journal. Some publications have the space for an 8,000 word story, but most are going to cap you at around 6,000. Respect that. It goes without saying you should be writing to suit the story, not the page length.

Press return after each line for double spacing. Don’t ever do this. Use the double spacing option in your word processor. There’s a difference in the two, and it will drive you crazy when you see it.

Put a copyright symbol on your manuscript. Publishers aren’t out to steal your work. This just makes you look amateurish. Avoid it.

Center your poems. No. Pick up any literary journal. Do you see a centered poem? Unless the form requires center alignment, don’t center it. Centering text just makes it look uneven and ugly, and, in most cases, that’s not the impression you’re going to want an editor to have just by looking at your poem.

Save Paper, put multiple poems on the same page. As a general rule, keep one poem to a page. Especially when you’re submitting a packet of poetry, it’s important for editors to be able to separate them in case they prefer one poem over another. Your name should appear on each, though.

Explain your poetry on each page. Don’t do this. If you feel you have to explain the poem,  you probably shouldn’t send it out. While it’s perfectly acceptable to include a footnote or epigraph explaining or giving context to an allusion in the title (e.g. “After Somebody Cool’s name here” or “In 1492, Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue“), anything else is unnecessary, and might actually hurt your chances for publication.

Real Advice for Today’s Writers:

Print on both sides. Check the guidelines on this one to make sure that a publication doesn’t actually want single-sided submissions only, but generally double-sided printing is good for everyone involved. It means less postage for your postal submission and less heft in the slush pile. Groovy.

Use reasonable margins and tabs. Whatever your word processor defaults to is probably fine. Sure, editors might mark up the copy when it comes time to typeset and edit, but it’s far more likely that they’ll get in touch with you to ask for a digital version, so there’s no need to provide space for large comments.

Don’t use a typewriter. I can feel part of the Internet taking umbrage already. Yes. I said it. Unless you absolutely have to, don’t use a typewriter. I know, typewriters are cool and hip and groovy and nostalgic, but seriously, don’t submit from one. Use a typewriter to draft, but not for a final submission. Typewriters mean you’re going to need to work twice as hard to make sure your submission is free of errors and infinitely harder to create multiple copies of your submission. What happens if your SASE or, worst of all, your submission get lost in the mail? I’ve seen it happen. And when it does, you go from patient writer to a sobbing one, shaking your eviscerated typewriter ribbon at the sun in disgust. Don’t have a computer? Visit your local library. In a situation where a typewriter is your only option? Have other copies.

Back it Up. Word processors start to hate long documents. Especially if you’ve got some Track Changes action going on (which your editors probably will later on). Consider composing and editing your book-length work in separate documents for sections/chapters. Always, always, always, keep another copy on a flash drive or in the cloud.

Obey the Guidelines. If a journal says it considers up to 6,000 words of prose or six poems, don’t send them more than that. Especially for prose, 6,000 words is long. It’s fairly generous compared to how difficult it is to keep a short story compelling for that long, around 25 pages. Caps on length help make sure that journals don’t bite off more than they can print. Oyez Review, for example, only has around 80 pages to play with for submissions across three genres. We tend to divide each issue equally amongst poetry, nonfiction, and fiction. That’s around 25 pages per genre, with the rest left as flex in case something typesets longer or shorter than anticipated.

Stay tuned for our Cover Letter extravaganza as we close out this series and kick off submission season!


About zachtarvin

Zach Tarvin is an editor, writer, occasional designer, and all-around techie based in Chicago. He's currently an MFA-candidate at Roosevelt University where he is the editor of Oyez Review.
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