Monday, June 3, 2013

Submission Tips

If you have me on Facebook, you've probably seen me randomly posting about flash fiction entries. This is the second year I've chaired a flash fiction contest, and I'm afraid it was enough for me. You see, I spent many hours formulating the contest rules, updating everything, making it as clear as I possibly could. I even provided a printable pop-up with a checklist of everything needed to enter the contest.

At least 1/4 of entrants did not follow the rules. A quarter. Which was just that much more work for me, not something I was seeking. 

by OCAL,

I didn't have to, but I made an effort to contact those who had not followed the rules in order to give them a second chance. After all, I felt that ours was a smaller contest, so why not make it an opportunity for entrants to learn so they could do better on the next contest they entered? 

Even more important, I feel that being able to enter a contest correctly, learning to read all of the instructions and follow them, has bearing on submitting to magazines, anthologies, and ultimately agents/editors. In my opinion, contests should be a jumping off point for submitting works to publications later on.

But, again, and in case you haven't noticed over the past couple of months, I've been severely limited on time, incredibly busy. We're all busy, so I'm not saying I'm any busier than anyone else, but I have exceeded my personal threshold for what I can take on. My being unwilling to just drop people who hadn't followed the rules added to that, but I brought it upon myself. I fully acknowledge that. I could have taken their money and disqualified them, which I would have had the right to do, as per the rules, but that hardly seems fair to me. I simply don't have the time to address how to properly follow the rules with everyone who doesn't follow them, not when it's such a large percentage of the entrants. 

So why not lay it out here? I'm fairly certain I did the same thing last year, born of frustration then, too. However, it's a useful topic, right? If you want to win a contest, or successfully submit a piece to a publication of any sort, you need to know the basics.

I can't cover everything, not in one post, but I can touch on some basics. I won't go into synopses or any of that, but what I will do is stress the importance of reading ALL of the rules. Don't read them just the once and blow them off. They have the right to disqualify you based on the smallest thing, and they don't have to let you know what it was, or even that you WERE disqualified. All you'll know is that you didn't win, and you paid for that privilege. That doesn't help you in the future, which means you'll possibly make the same mistake over and over and over again. That's not right.

Now, I couldn't contact every person who did something incorrect. That would be closer to half the entrants. Those who blatantly didn't follow the rules fell into that quarter of entrants. However, all that being said, I didn't disqualify anyone either. I docked points, yes, but there was not one person who didn't get their piece read and judged. Those points are important, though, pretty much guaranteeing that someone couldn't win. That means those points also would possibly prevent someone from getting published. Right?

When I've entered contests or submitted pieces to publication, I've been sure to read every single rule/guideline about a billion times. Then, before submitting it, I've gone over them again, point by point. I absolutely refuse to be booted for not following the rules. If I don't win, I want it to be because there were people with better works of fiction than me, not because I failed to read the instructions.

Let's cover some of the things people had the most trouble with.

Manuscript format. In the rules, I put that proper manuscript format must be followed. I mentioned some important specifics. Even those ones I made a point to mention were not followed. You will not get eyeballs on your story if they take one look at it and see it is a hot mess. They'll set it aside without reading it. First impressions DO matter. Don't write in all capitals. Don't bold your entire story. Don't send it on rainbow paper. Don't put the entire thing in italics. Don't write in size 250 million font. Don't write in size -500 font. Ow, my eyeballs! Don't write in comic sans. Do follow the rules you find HERE. Please? I'm begging you!

Attachments. (This only applies if the contest/publication says no attachments. Always read the rules first. It will likely say whether they want your submission as an attachment or in the body of the email--follow the rules they set.) Last year, I received a lovely virus during contest season. I'd already stated in the rules that I would not accept attachments, but I went ahead and opened them when I received them, anyway, sighing heartily, but still opening them. Not this year. This year, I still stressed that no attachments would be accepted, and this time I didn't allow it. I did write back and state that I could not take their entries unless they re-sent them in the body of the email. Most people promptly did so, thanking me for allowing them the chance (I didn't have to--it could have been automatic disqualification for not following the rules). There were those who complained, though all did ultimately send them back in the body of the email. However, this leads us to...

Don't complain about the rules. Don't email the person running the contest and tell them what problems you have with the rules. Don't enter if you don't like it. Find a different contest or skip them altogether, but don't complain. Don't bitch at me because you don't like that you had to paste the entry into the body of the email. I've seen publications require this for the entirety of a short story, a novella, even the first x number of chapters of a book. People don't like receiving viruses! Don't tell contest administrators that you think you should have to do x, y, or z. Don't write back expecting leniency. When I wrote to people asking them to re-send in the body of the email, not as an attachment, I had a few people tell me they hoped I took into account that they couldn't format their pieces in the body of the email like they could in their document writer. Funny, 99.9% of people had it correctly formatted in the body of the email, which means it's entirely possible to do. 

Cover letter. I didn't just ask for a cover letter; I made a bulleted list of what should appear on the cover letter. Now tell me if you think it was followed by everyone? I will say, the majority of people followed it pretty well, but there were still people who didn't do it correctly. If they ask for a cover letter, first look to see if they have any rules for what's expected. If they don't, do an internet search and you will find plenty of good examples, most of which are pretty similar. For me, the cover letter simplified entry into my spreadsheet for tracking of entries (it's a blind judging process). I needed the entry to give to the judges and the cover letter for me to have the pertinent information on. Make a bunch of extra work for a different contest chair, they'll drop your entry like a hot potato. 

Name on blind submission. If there are notes saying this is blind judged, or anything saying not to put your name on the entry (yes, I stressed this), don't put your name on the entry! In these cases, it belongs only on the cover letter. If your name is on the entry for a blind judged contest, the administrators can choose to black it out (possibly) or disqualify you. They don't want the judges to see your name. What if it's a buddy? What if it's an enemy? What if you talked smack about their mom? You see, it behooves you to keep the judging blind by following the proper rules. Follow the theme. If there is a theme to the contest/submission (say, for an anthology), follow it. Don't just b.s. your way through it. If you have to send me a letter longer than the 100 word flash fiction contest explaining how your piece fits the theme, it probably doesn't. Let's not stretch here. If your piece doesn't fit the theme, either write another one or skip this particular contest/publication. Don't waste their time.

Handwritten additions. No. Just no. Every part of your entry/submission should be neatly printed. If you make a mistake, correct it on the computer and print it up again. I know this kills trees. I know it costs money. Believe me, I wince when I have to do it. But I do it. I do not take a pen and scribble the corrected information on it. This applies to the piece, itself, as well as to the cover letter. I received an entry where they printed up their work bio in lieu of a cover letter. They then scribbled some notes across it, and yet still managed not to have the requested information covered. Not only that, but the bio print-up was badly printed, the paper must have folded up in the printer, and I couldn't read their email address or name. I still have no idea if I sent the contest results to the right person, but I did my best.

Deadline. Meet it. Don't write after the contest is done and ask if they'll take one more entry, because you just saw it. Sorry, it does not work that way. Or maybe it does and I'm not privy to it. That's entirely possible. Somehow I doubt it, though.

by OCAL,

Word count. Meet it. Don't go over the maximum (or under the minimum) word count and expect them to take it. What's the point? You just paid to enter a contest just to have it disqualified because you couldn't bear to cut out two words! Word count gives judges a convenient out if they're working to narrow down winners. Don't give them that out. Edit, edit, edit! Cut words. Kill your darlings. Meet the word count.

Follow-up entries. Do not send a second copy that is "corrected." Get it right the first time. Just because this second entry is properly typed, doesn't mean it's okay or that we will be willing to supplement your first entry. This, again, is making extra work for the contest chair. And it looks bad for you.

by OCAL,
Double, triple, quadruple check it. Check those guidelines and insure you followed them. Then check your writing for typos and mistakes. Check your grammar and spelling (if spell check can catch it, it shouldn't ever be on the final copy). Have someone else look it over. Make sure it is visually pleasing. If it looks bad to you, it will certainly look bad to a judge. Juuuuuust check it!

Extras. Don't send them. Send only what is requested. Don't send a summary of the backstory of your 100 word flash fiction piece. Don't send copies of your research. Don't send a second story "just for fun." Don't send a story with a note that you know it doesn't meet the theme or guidelines, but you just had to send it. Don't waste people's time that way. Don't send it in a nice plastic cover or folder like you would a high school paper. While it tickled me that people would do that, it also created extra work, and was just overall unnecessary. 

Withholding information. Don't withhold information (unless, of course, they're asking for something out of line, like your social security number or the names and birth dates of each of your children). If they ask for an email address, give them an email address. This is often how you're notified of whether or not you've won. If they ask for a physical address, give them a physical address. This is where they send the check! Most contests/publications won't ask for unneeded information. There's usually a reason they need it. It would cost me a small fortune to pay postage on every single notice I had to send were I unable to send it via email. The cost of envelopes and postage comes out of my pocket, as does the cost of ink and paper for anything printed up. I'm willing to cough that up to send it to the winners, but that's the extent of it. Sorry, I'm a cheapskate. Post note: If you don't HAVE an email address or other requested bit of information, do note this in your contact with them so they know you aren't just being stubborn, and they can decide which other option they will use.

by OCAL,
Entry fees. If there is an entry fee, pay it in its entirety. Be sure you've calculated and re-calculated the amount you need to pay. Pay only by the methods listed as acceptable. Don't ask to be the exception to the rule. Don't just assume you can be and send it the way you want to send it. Pay the way they ask you to. Pay the correct amount the first time. Have someone else check it if you're unsure. If you don't pay enough, your entry will be disqualified, and you will not receive your money back. Be clear on what entry fees are required and which are optional (for instance, an optional critique vs. a required entry fee.) Be sure you write the check to the correct person/entity. Be sure you sign the check. Check your check or PayPal payment as thoroughly as you do (should) your story/cover letter.

Side nitpick: Don't staple the pages together. I shredded my nails messing with staples so I could separate the cover page from the flash fiction piece. If you must attach the pages together, use a paper clip. This one's a side nitpick because I didn't remember to put it in the rules this year, so technically I couldn't (and didn't) count it against them. But boy was I not a fan. It took up extra time and effort, and it ripped up my nails. Darn it.

There are probably five billion other things I could mention, but I think this sets a good basis. Above all, please, please, please, just thoroughly read the guidelines and follow each of them. If something is unclear, send an email to the listed contact to ask about it and verify the information. Don't, however, contact that person repeatedly and expect them to continue having a conversation with you. Ask the question you need the answer to and apply it. Just because the chair/editor was friendly, doesn't mean they want to be best buds. Please keep it professional and brief. And follow those guidelines!

If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them. I'll answer them to the best of my abilities. Obviously, each contest and publication will have their own rules, but these are a few things to look at to insure you the best possible chance.

Do you have anything to add? Anything to ask? Have you chaired or judged a contest? Are you an editor? What are your rules or nitpicks? What problems do you see most often? Have you made any of these mistakes? 

May you find your Muse.


  1. Oh boy...hate it when peeps don't follow the rules.

    Hugs and chocolate to you,

  2. Great advice~ thanks for posting this and sorry you had to deal with so many rule-breakers! On a side note, this reminds me of how my stepson cooks with recipes. I've told him to read the recipe all the way through and THEN begin because something always slips through the cracks if he just dives in :)

  3. Seriously, how hard is it to follow the rules in a flash fiction contest? It's not like you've got a 10 page list of rules and bylaws that you must follow.

    "Don't bitch at me because you don't like that you had to paste the entry into the body of the email."

    If copying and pasting something into an e-mail is "too much work," then you don't deserve to be a writer.

  4. You are a brave woman for instigating these things! :) I truly don't think the average person is aware of just how many submissions are received for writing contests, etc.

    Furthermore, submission etiquette is often seen as mindless hoops, or as not essential to the content. The bottom line is that you can't focus on the content--even if it's the best story ever written--if you can't get beyond the formatting. And there's very little time to accommodate for individual entries with unusual formatting.

    And then there's simply the observational fact that people who don't take the time to read submission guidelines are not all that likely to have invested the time in learning how to write or polish their entry. :) (Yes, you are most definitely being judged in these things.)

  5. You are a brave woman for instigating these things! :) I truly don't think the average person is aware of just how many submissions are received for writing contests, etc.

    Furthermore, submission etiquette is often seen as mindless hoops, or as not essential to the content. The bottom line is that you can't focus on the content--even if it's the best story ever written--if you can't get beyond the formatting. And there's very little time to accommodate for individual entries with unusual formatting.

    And then there's simply the observational fact that people who don't take the time to read submission guidelines are not all that likely to have invested the time in learning how to write or polish their entry. :) (Yes, you are most definitely being judged in these things.)

  6. ... You'd think this is common sense.

  7. I'm not submitting anything anywhere, but I admire your effort and decided to read this post anyway. And I don't understand how that many, who must have really wanted to be in the contest, would slip up and not follow clearly laid out rules like those you posted here.

  8. I'll just mention (and it will be in a post next week) that my son was recently the only student in his history class to even get a grade on an assigned essay because he was the only one that followed the rules, so to speak. Literally, every other kid in the class got a 0.

  9. Right on! And following rules should technically be the easy part!

  10. That's quite a list. I never open anything with an attachment unless I know the person and what they are sending.

  11. The professor I had for two of my classes this last semester has a policy of blind-grading, and he reported in class several times that some people hadn't followed the rules he stated clearly in the syllabus and in class. How hard is it to remember to have certain things on the title page, put page numbers on the right side, staple the left, and leave your name off the headers? I even went the extra step of using a different font for each paper, so he wouldn't associate me with Palatino and know whose paper he was reading.

  12. Poor baby. Great post on how we should follow the rules.

    One thing I learned in my psych classes, a certain number of people, no matter how much the rules are stressed, and actually unable to follow them. The others, they can feel entitled to not follow rules or have directional learning disabilities...but mostly, people suck. :)

  13. That's a long but EXTREMELY useful list. Everybody should keep it in mind if they ever think on submitting anything.

  14. I think it would discourage me from ever doing this again because I think the same thing would happen. So here you are, a good writer, a kind person, and is it worth it? If all this takes away from your own writing and just leaves your frustrated, is it worth it?

  15. Here, here. Well said. People that are exceptions to the rules SHOULD be excluded. You have the patience of a saint. Some rules are meant to be broken while others are cast in stone. Know the difference.

  16. Following the rules is so important, and it's the sign of a true professional too. Perception is reality - make yours count and follow the darn rule. Dot the i's, cross the t's and pay attention to what you're doing. Nice post, Shannon.

  17. I agree with this principle as it applies to any written rules topic and this sums up my thoughts:

    "If you cannot read, you cannot write"

    Good day.


  18. You're very kind to contact people who don't follow the rules. I would simply have dropped their entries. Your post is very helpful.

  19. Shannon!

    Here I am, yay n'stuff. I have you on 'Farcebook', as you know. And I've noticed you randomly posting about flash fiction entries. And now that I found out what "flash" meant, I feel a lot better.

    Rules should be abided by in this case. It's certainly very good of you to get back to those who don't follow rules and give them a second chance.

    Okay, being so cool, me, a blatant rule breaker when it comes to other things, will now share your posting on said 'Farcebook'. I'm good like that.

    Nice one, Shannon.

    Shy and humble, Gary

  20. I know exactly how you feel. As COntest Coordinator for the SCBWI L.A> branch, I encounter many folks who don't seem to have taken the time to read the rules. sigh.

  21. I shouldn't be surprised I guess, but I am that there are so many who didn't follow the rules. Seems like a basic thing to me! I can't blame you for not wanting to chair the contest anymore.

  22. Wow, this really makes me glad that I'm a compulsive guideline checker. Organizing something like that seems to be a lot of work!

  23. This post sounds right. Follow directions to the fullest. Quadruple check everything, then submit. Running contests takes time and we need to respect that.

    We need to read directions, people:)

    Great post.

  24. This was a great write up! I bookmarked it, just because I may need to reference it down the road. I'm pretty good about following directions, but I think even with that first submission to a contest (for Flash fiction) I maybe made some mistakes. I was really nervous.

    I know I had to contact them, because I had no idea WTF a cover letter was supposed to consist of. At least they were really nice about it. Thankfully I didn't hound them lol

    I don't think I knew you hosted a flash fiction contest (if that is what chair means? Unfamiliar). Shame you won't be doing it again. I can't quite imagine the frustration you had when running into so many people not following the rules coupled with your desire to want to help them and make sure they have a chance to correct their mistakes.

    I won't go to the extremes of A Beer for the Shower and say someone doesn't deserve to be a writer, but yeah.

    Thanks for sharing these tips on submitting!

    Jak at The Cryton Chronicles & Dreams in the Shade of Ink