How to finish and format your stories, find markets that want to read them, and send them out in ways that make you look and feel professional.

One of my writers’ group people recently mentioned she had no idea where to start to find people to publish her short stories and poetry; I’ve been on Duotrope (and surrounded by working writers on Twitter) for so long that I’d forgotten what a hurdle it was figuring out how to go about it. I can’t tell you how to write well enough to sell, but the act of sending out your work shouldn’t be as tough to learn as it was for me. It’s strictly business correspondence. Here’s everything I know.

This guide makes the following assumptions:

A) You’re writing short fiction. (“Short” meaning 0-17,500 words, though this method might work for novellas and poetry too.)

B) You will make your story awesome before you send it, in whatever way you usually do. Ain’t my place to say how.

C) You only want to send submissions electronically.

D) You will slavishly follow all market-specific guidelines in preference to these.

I also did my best to refrain from offering tips, but I’m not made of stone. An advanced course might include how to send print subs (ugh), how to choose places to submit to (and what to avoid), when and how to send a status query, when and how to withdraw, and so on, but if you’re reading this with any interest, you don’t really need any of that. YET.

(Question: There’s a lot of writing advice on the Internet. How legit is this? Answer: It works for me.)

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THE TOTAL BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO SUBMITTING SHORT FICTION FOR PUBLICATION

1. Write a story and find a market.

You can do this in either order.

1a: Write first

  • Write a story. Make note of its genre and word count.
  • Do a search on The Submission Grinder (still in beta, but functional). Search for markets that will consider a story of that genre and length.

I suggest limiting the search to semi-pro payment and up, markets that accept electronic submissions, excluding markets that are temporarily closed, excluding fee-based markets, and sorting by pay.

“Pro pay” is 5 cents per word or higher*; “Semi-Pro Pay” is 1 cent per word up to 5 cents per word, and “Token Pay” is less than one cent per word. “None” is what it says on the tin, though there might be royalties and/or contributor copies, and it may or may not be a good target.

  • Choose the first market you plan to submit the story to.

I like to start with high pay and fast response time.

At this point, I also usually choose the next few places to send it.

  • Read the submission guidelines.

1b: Find the market first

I see calls for submission make the rounds on Twitter regularly (including on the public Duotrope feed); there are also a number of newsletters featuring upcoming deadlines, like this one from Hayden’s Ferry Review and Aswiebe’s Market List. Follow a number of very active short-story writers on any social media site and you’re likely to see the most interesting markets mentioned and discussed.

  • Choose one.
  • Read the submission guidelines.
  • Write a story that meets the guidelines.

2. Format the story.

  • The guidelines of the market you’ve chosen will usually include the format they want. If there’s little to no mention of format, use standard manuscript format. (If it’s your first time, you can pay someone to do that for you.) Specific guidelines always trump the standard.

If the market requests the story be typed in the body of an email rather than as an attachment, standard email manuscript format is slightly different.

3. Write a cover letter.

  • Cover letters should include your name, pen name (only if you use one, obviously), mailing address, email address, story title, and word count rounded to the nearest hundred.

You may include pub credits if you have them; be sure they are relevant. Having no prior publications is TOTALLY OKAY. Don’t apologize for it. Just leave out that line.

Biographical information is not necessary unless requested or highly relevant (writing Westerns while being an actual cowboy) and is often seen as a red flag for new writers, as the quality of your story cannot be gauged by the age at which you started writing, your hometown, or your number of cats.

I don’t usually use a salutation because between slush readers, assistant editors, and co-editors, you never know who’ll be reading. Some disagree. Can we get some discussion going in the comments?

**Update, 4/1/14: These days I usually go with “Dear Editors”, as it pretty much covers everyone.

Sample cover letter:

Dear Editors,

Please consider the attached story, Title, at about XXXX words. My work has appeared in [pub creds].

Best regards,

Name

Street Address 1
Street Address 2
email@address.com

(Okay, I can’t help myself: time for a tip. If you don’t have a professional-looking email address–that is, one that shows nothing but your actual name–get one now. I don’t recommend using your day job or student account, because those won’t follow you through life changes. I love Gmail. You can’t go wrong with firstnamelastname@boringdomain.com. And be sure it displays your real, full name to recipients, not initials or nicknames or a blank.)

(Or pen name, I guess.)

More on cover letters from Helena Bell.

4. Do whatever the guidelines say.

  • Other things the guidelines for your market might request include: an author bio, story genre, phone number, PayPal address, synopsis, secret passwords, specific salutations.

Often markets have an additional “Stories we do/don’t want” section. Read that too.

  • Be 100% sure that your story meets their requirements for both content and formatting. (But don’t self-reject.)
  • If the market uses a submissions manager (such as Submishmash or HeyPublisher) or a submissions form, read and follow the directions for uploading your piece.
  • “Simultaneous submissions” means the same story sent to more than one market at the same time. “Multiple submissions” means more than one story sent to the same market at the same time. Most markets do not allow either. If they do and you choose to take advantage of it, be very vigilant with your records.

5. Send the submission.

  • Most markets specify an email subject line. If they do not, “Submission – [Title of Piece]” should be fine.
  • This is the stage where derping happens, so it’s worth it to double-check everything, including the story and the guidelines, at this point. Make sure you included:

Subject line
Email address in the “To:” line
Full cover letter
Attached (or in-line) story
Whatever else they asked for

6. Record the submission.

  • Immediately write down the name of the piece, the name of the market, and the date it was sent. Leave space to record the date you hear back and the response.

I use Excel and Notepad. Duotrope has a tracker; so does Kaolin Fire.

7. Go to Step 1.

There is also a hidden next step, 8a and 8b, which are BE REJECTED and GET ACCEPTED respectively, but you will find out soon enough. Oh, you will find out! I guess now I should warn you that you will be doing 8a A WHOLE LOT MORE than 8b, and that doesn’t (necessarily) mean you suck; it helps to build rejection into your plans in step one by always knowing where to send things next. (How many times should you send out your story? A host of working writers say: A LOT.) I should also warn you that any one story can sit at a market for completely non-nefarious reasons for upwards of a year, so it’s to your benefit to keep writing new ones.

A NOTE ON THEFT: Some people balk at sending their material out for fear that it’ll be ripped off. With rare exceptions, this is not a thing that happens. An editor who likes your work has far more to gain by straight-up buying it. Registering your copyright is generally seen as not worth the cost. Submit, and fear not.

All clear? Not clear? Anything absolutely essential that I’ve missed?

New! Once you get started, you might want to check out these tips to make formatting as painless as possible.

Buy me a coffee at ko-fi.com

Edit: 01/10/13: Duotrope has become a paid service, and while I consider it a valuable one, I’m not comfortable recommending it to the kind of starting-gate beginners I wrote this post for. I’m still using Duotrope, but I’ve updated this post with free and mostly-free services.

*As of July 1, 2014, the SFWA qualifying pro rate is increased 6 cents per word. If Duotrope changes its definitions, I’ll update the post, but I’m leaving it for now.

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