You’ve probably read in several articles that understanding writer’s guidelines is crucial to building a career as a freelance writer. Editors of magazines and newspapers are deluged with submissions every day and receive enough so that they don’t need to even look at those manuscripts that don’t follow their writer’s guidelines to a “T”. Of course, those guidelines can often be confusing and nearly incomprehensible to an amateur, and the trends of writer’s guidelines seem to change on a monthly basis.
To help you in understanding writer’s guidelines, let’s look at a fictitious example:
NOT A REAL MAGAZINE. Crystal Doe. 456 1st St., Ste. 111, New York, NY 11121. Email: email@example.com. Web: notarealmagazine.com. Needs: Fiction to 5,000 words (prefers 2,500). Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Westerns and Horror. No romance, literary, mainstream or poetry. Wants stories about the metaphysical. Include cover letter, brief bio and SASE (IRC’s for international writers). No e-mail subs. Reading period Jan 1 – Oct 1. Pays $0.04 per word OA. RT: five weeks.
In the above example, I’ve included many of the topics often covered in writer’s guidelines, though many will include far fewer. I’ve also listed some of the least-understood guidelines that can throw amateur writers for a loop. The beginning of the guidelines includes the name of the magazine, the name of the editor (Crystal Doe), the address of the magazine’s offices and the e-mail and Web address. That part is fairly straight-forward, but it gets more complicated from there.
Right off the bat, you know from the writer’s guidelines that the magazine is looking for fiction stories of up to 5,000 words. You also know that they would prefer stories of no more than 2,500 words, which means that shorter stories are more readily accepted. Some magazines will include minimum and maximum word counts, such as 1,000 – 5,000, while others will only give one or the other.
Next the writer’s guidelines lists the genres accepted by the magazine. They are looking only for prose in the sci-fi (science fiction), fantasy, western and horror genres, and they don’t want any poetry. They further explain that stories must include metaphysical components. This is arguably the most important part of the writer’s guidelines because submissions outside these parameters are likely to be returned unread.
The latter part of the writer’s guidelines includes a few abbreviations and acronyms that can be difficult to understand if you’ve never seen them before. They want SASE for domestic submissions and IRC’s for international ones. SASE stands for a self-addressed, stamped envelope and an IRC is an international reply coupon. They also specify that they do no accept e-mail submissions (must be sent by postal mail).
Most magazines accept submissions from freelance writers year-round, while others have reading periods, which are the span of time during which they will read submissions. If you sent a manuscript to Not a Real Magazine in November, it wouldn’t be considered.
Next, the writer’s guidelines tell you that the magazine pays four cents per word OA, which means “on acceptance”. In this case, you would receive payment as soon as the manuscript was approved for publication. If the payment guidelines say OP, then you would know the magazine pays on publication, usually within 30 days. And finally, the writer’s guidelines also say that the RT (return time) is five weeks, which is the length of time before you should expect to hear their answer on your story.
Understanding writer’s guidelines means familiarizing yourself with the lingo as well as the standard practices of magazines and newspapers. If you ever run into trouble or are confused by a specification, you can usually “Google” the term and get your answer.