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How To Interpret Submission Guidelines

submit_writingSubmission guidelines pages have their own industry-specific lingo, and navigating the process of submitting your poems, stories, essays, and books requires a certain amount of professionalism and etiquette.

Use this article to learn the best way to define (and interpret) the phrases and words that are part of making strong submissions!

Definitions and Explanations of Words You’ll Find on Submission Guidelines Pages

Book reviews Often, literary journals will accept reviews of books, usually of the scholarly or literary variety. However, some journals are not open to book reviews from authors without a query first.

Multiple submissions If you send “multiple submissions,” you’re sending more than one submission to one single editor or literary agent (sending two stories to one editor, for example, is a multiple submission). Few literary markets accept multiple submissions.

Payment – Most literary journals can’t afford to pay their writers due to scarce funding for the arts. However, some do offer contributor copies (copies for people whose work appears in the issue), honorariums (token payments given to contributors as budgeting allows), or subscriptions (a free subscription to the journal in question). Literary agents should not be asking for payment of any kind from writers, so if you find a literary agency that wants your money, beware! Learn more: How to spot a disreputable literary agency.

Reading period The time frame during which a literary magazine is open to reading submissions. If the magazine reads from about September to May, you may conclude that the magazine is affiliated with a university or college and only operates during the school year. If the reading period is all year or one month only, it’s more likely that you’re looking at an independent publication.

Literary agents tend not to have reading periods because many of them read all year long.

Response time – The time it will take for you to hear back about your submission. The response time varies from one literary market to the next. While you can follow up with a literary agent or editor about a submission, it’s generally not a good idea to follow up unless you have a good reason to (such as an offer of representation from a different agency or a big new award for a short story). It’s not unheard of for an agent or editor to hold on to a piece for a year. Others will reply within a week or two. Patience is key!

Sample copy – You can often order a sample copy of a literary journal at a discounted rate to see if your work will be a good fit with the editors there. At Writer’s Relief, our clients have the benefit of viewing literary journals in our lending library free of charge. If the journal is an online journal that does not require subscription, you can simply view the most current issue to get a sense of editorial preferences.

Simultaneous submissions Submitting a given work or group of works (such as a novel or a group of poems) to many editors or agents at the same time.

Submission manager – An online database that manages and tracks submissions. Submission managers are revolutionizing the way that small literary journals do business! However, most literary agents still prefer email query letters. See an example of a submission manager and learn how to use them.

Word count, line count, or page count – For prose, most submissions are measured in word count. Use the word count feature in your word processing program to find an estimate of your word count, and include the estimate on the first page of your manuscript. Some markets will ask for works that are “no more than ten pages,” in which case the word count is a bit flexible. That said, be sure you submit according to industry-standard format guidelines: 12-point, simple font (like Times New Roman), one-inch margins, normal paragraph spacing—you know, no funny stuff.

Poetry is measured in lines, not number of words. You don’t have to count the title or any blank lines as “lines.” Just count lines of text to get the number of lines in your poem.

What do these phrases mean?

“Do not accept genre fiction…” If a literary journal or literary agency says it does not accept genre fiction, this means they do not accept work that could be classified among the commercial genres. Please see our related post on genre fiction rules.

“Only previously unpublished work (or writing).” Most literary journals and agencies want first rights to a given work, so they do not acquire previously published work. See our article What Is Considered Previously Published Writing?

“Query Only.” If a literary agency requests “queries only,” the editors will not look at manuscript pages of a book. Send only a one-page query letter. Writer’s Relief helps our clients compose query letters to literary agents.

“Requires exclusivity, the exclusive right to consider the manuscript, or the right of first refusal.” If a literary agent wants an exclusive, it means he or she wants to be the only person considering your manuscript. See our article about literary agent requests for exclusives.

Literary journals tend not to use the phrase “exclusive” to make such requests. Their submission guidelines will say “no simultaneous submissions,” though they are generally asking for the same thing as an “exclusive.”

Interpreting the language of submission guidelines.

You can tell a lot about the values and interests of a magazine by looking at their submission guidelines page.

If the language is casual and friendly, you might assume the editors or agents are as well. They might be interested in writing that is also a bit casual and unpretentious.

If the language of the submission guidelines page is very formal and standoffish, you might conclude that these editors or agents are less casual about their submissions and preferences.

But don’t judge a market based on its guidelines! Even the stuffiest of guidelines may be hiding readers who have an appreciation for unstuffy prose. At Writer’s Relief, we track exactly what kinds of submissions a given market has shown interest in or accepted, so we know not only what editors and agents say they like: We also know what they are actually acquiring. In a perfect world, there would be no difference between stated preferences and actual acquisitions—but because of market forces, there are bound to be gaps and exceptions.  As always, following guidelines is the best way to break into a market with which you have little to no familiarity.

You’ll need to do a lot of research to really get to the heart of an editor’s or agent’s reading preferences. Or, you can hire Writer’s Relief to help you! You do the writing; we do the (personalized) research!

Writer QuestionsQUESTION: What submission guidelines terms have you been confused by? What did you do?

3 Responses to How To Interpret Submission Guidelines

  1. Thank you so much for the detailed write up on submission guidelines. It is really helpful!

  2. Katheryn, Thanks for sharing your story about interpreting submission guidelines. Looks like you made the right choice! Congrats!

  3. When I submitted my first novel, the publisher asked for “the first three and last chapters”. My problem was I had a final chapter AND an epilogue. I didn’t want to just send the epilogue, because all the conflict resolution happened in the last actual chapter. But I didn’t want to omit the epilogue, because it really showed the happily ever after (the book is a romance).

    In the end, I submitted the first three chapters, the last full chapter, and the epilogue. My editor never commented on that one way or the other… but I got a contract, so I guess I did okay. :)

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