Thursday, 11 February 2010

Guidelines schmidelines

You’ve heard it so often your eyes roll automatically when you hear it again: make sure you read and follow the guidelines before submitting. You know about guidelines, you follow guidelines, and you wish everyone would just shut up already. I mean, that’s the easy bit, right? Times New Roman, check; 12 point, check; double space, check. Why can’t they spend those precious minutes telling you about something useful, that pearl of wisdom that’s going to make the ideas write themselves?

It’s because many writers still don’t seem to get it. Sure, we all make mistakes and where editors are rejecting no more than 1% of submissions, perhaps this is the case: writers simply make mistakes.

But what about the editor who rejected 10% of submissions because they didn’t comply with the guidelines? And do we really believe that they are all mistakes when 11 journal editors reported that 2% of submissions don’t follow guidelines? When you consider that literary magazine editors receive anything from 90 to 1000+ submissions, 2% might be quite a lot.
The good news is that most writers do follow the guidelines. On average, 98%. But, even if you’re one of them, you might occasionally make a mistake. And when that happens, what are the chances your submission might be considered anyway?

It depends on the mistake.

If you fail to meet the deadline, forget it. You’re also wasting your time if you email a submission when it's supposed to be in hardcopy, or vice versa.

There’s a slim chance a submission that’s over the word limit might be read.

If you send more than three (or other maximum number of) pieces, you risk the editors reading just the first three or discarding the entire submission. If it’s a newer magazine, they might read all the pieces, but they’ll also remember your name and be wary of your future submissions.

If you’re lucky (and you sent it long before the deadline), the editor may even give you an opportunity to resubmit correctly. But don’t hold your breath. While some editors might try to nurture new writers in this way, most believe that "if you’re serious about being a writer, deadlines, styles, word counts and restrictions are things you’re going to have to get comfy with."

It is less common for editors to be strict about the font used, and several publications don’t include a specific font in their guidelines. For those that do, some will automatically reject and some won’t. But it was noted that these pieces "don’t generally get accepted, more as a result of poor quality writing".

Here are some of the things that editors believe/say:
• People who write well present well
• Most editors prioritise "painless" manuscripts (ie those that are well written and edited)
• Most editors are well read, so multiple submissions are at your own risk: if your submission is published, an editor could well see it in another journal
• If you can’t wait, only send your work to journals that allow multiple submissions
• It’s worth remembering that if your piece is published, it will be published in the style and font of the journal.

One editor said, "If something is poorly edited, I assume:
 the author is a hobbyist who doesn’t care about their work or
 the author is an idiot who couldn’t tidy it or
 the author has delusions of grandeur and thinks they’re above the rules and hence, that
 the author will be difficult to deal with."

One editor made a suggestion that other editors might like to try. Provide a sample document on your website to show writers what you expect.

Some editors who were less strict about general submissions felt the reason might be because money wasn’t involved. Yet, when it comes to competitions, and the introduction of money, administrators are tough.

If you’re thinking of entering your story/poem in a competition, it’s even more important to follow the guidelines/conditions/rules.

If you forget to include the entry fee, mistakenly send work with your name on it, or your entry is late, you’ll be automatically disqualified. There are exceptions. A few administrators might offer you an opportunity to resubmit correctly. One administrator noted that they re-photocopy entries without names before passing them on to the judge(s).

But most administrators don’t go to the trouble. Particularly as many are volunteering their time.

Competition administrators generally agree that most writers follow the rules. Most I spoke to don’t keep statistical records, but of the few who do, they disqualified 0%, 4%, 6% and 14% of entries in their most recent competition, due to incorrect formatting (font type and size, spacing), a name on the piece, theme requirement not being met or due to the piece exceeding the word/line length. This means they weren’t read by anybody.

The administrator who didn’t disqualify any claimed to have been strict in regards to limits and spacing and that all entries received were okay.

One administrator welcomed entries that failed to meet the guidelines as an easy first step in their shortlisting process.

In a competition, the main concern is for the quality of writing and it was noted that "entries that have numerous spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors don’t generally win".

In case you’re still not sure, I’ll leave you with the advice of one competition administrator. "Imagine your entries will be processed by everyone’s idea of an old fashioned, 'stickler for the rules’ bureaucrat. Published rules have to be enforced to give procedural fairness to those who go to the effort of conforming to them."

And, good luck.

This article was originally published in the february edition of the Victorian Writer, the Victorian Writers' Centre's member magazine.

Journal submissions
I surveyed, via email, 20 national literary journal editors.
Of those:
- 4 publish poetry only
- 1 publishes fiction only
- 3 are online journals
- 8 had produced less than 10 issues, including 3 that had produced only 1 issue.

Literary competition administrators
I approached, via email, 15 national competition administrators.
Of those:
- 9 responded
- 4 are poetry-only competitions
- 2 are fiction-only competitions
- 3 are poetry and fiction competitions


ashleycapes said...

Great advice, Tiggy - crystal clear I reckon. It was also interesting to read the figures for your source data - I bet it's quite representative of literary outlets across the country/world


Tiggy Johnson said...

That's an interesting thought Ashley. Once you've done the research, be sure to let me know :)

ashleycapes said...

Will do, just give me a couple of years and I'll be back :)