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Writing: Presentation and First Impressions

Today I read my 400th submission for Clarkesworld Magazine. That's since September 20th, 2008, and with four other people reading incoming slush; we were even closed to submissions from December 1st through January 15th. So that's what, three months' worth of reading, and only one person's part of it? We get a lot of stories! As you may imagine, some are presented well, and some are presented not so well. I'm going to write some of my thoughts on the subject, and I hope no one will take this to be any sort of official policy statement from the magazine, because it isn't.

All of our submissions are electronic, so some of my issues are specifically related to that submission style, but many of them apply to the postal style, too.

The first thing I want to say is that Standard Manuscript Format matters to me. It matters a lot. It matters enough that I capitalized all three words of it, and linked to the easiest and best example of it to be found online. Standard Manuscript Format is an easy-to-read way of presenting a story that makes life much nicer for the people who read hundreds of submissions. I'm never surprised when new writers don't use it when they send in their stories, but I find it kind of shocking when experienced, published writers don't. It isn't just a stupid rule you have to follow when you're starting out; it's a courtesy. Making your submission as easy to read as possible is a way of being kind to the people who are doing the reading. It also makes you look better, and more professional. Even if you hate the way Courier New looks on your screen, you can compose in whatever font you like and then change it for the final version that you're going to send out.

Another thing to consider, if you want to look really polished, is the file name of the document you're going to send. Let's say your name is Farvel Manuscriptor and your story is called "The Seventeen Half-Dogs of Wachilia." Here are some possible file names for your final, submitted story that you're sending to Clarkesworld:

A. Manuscriptor - Seventeen Half-Dogs.doc
B. The Seventeen Half-Dogs of Wachilia.doc
C. The Twelve Half-Dogs of Wachilia - draft three.doc
D. Manuscriptor - Seventeen Half-Dogs - WotF Version.doc

Do you see how A and B are more professional-looking than C and D? No? Here's what looks a little funny about C. Everybody knows that writers write multiple drafts of stories. It's just a little weird to send in a rough-drafty file name, with a draft number and a different title than the final one that appears in the manuscript. Then there's D: why would you ever need to leave in the name of the other market that has already seen and rejected your story?

A little thing like a weird file name isn't going to get your submission rejected, but the little details add up toward the reader having a positive, or a negative, first impression of your work. Which would you prefer?

Two more things remain on my list. Cover letter, and title.

I'm sure there are a lot of different opinions about cover letters, and I'm sure that not everyone will agree with mine. You don't have to. Again, it won't be a deal-breaker no matter what you send, because the story is the main thing. Just let it be known that I like a minimal cover letter. For an aspiring writer, my ideal cover letter for the story above would be the following:


Dear Neil Clarke,

Please consider my previously-unpublished story, "The Seventeen Half-Dogs of Wachilia," for publication in Clarkesworld Magazine. It's about 3,000 words long.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Farvel Manuscriptor


From a previously-published writer, it's nice to see a short paragraph in the middle with the best three markets where their work has appeared, along the lines of, "My stories have appeared in Weird Tales, Fantasy Magazine, and Electric Velocipede," or a mention of which novels you've had published most recently. There's no need to paste in your entire publishing history. Extra information doesn't help.

There are some variations that work just fine, too. If you want to be more formal, send the note to Mr. Clarke. If you've met him at a convention and feel comfortable, send it to Neil. If you want to acknowledge the whole team, "Dear Clarkesworld Team" works (listing all of our names is unwieldy).

Sometimes a writer doesn't know the editor's name. Sometimes it's difficult to find, or there's a whole list of editors on a website, but it doesn't say which one handles fiction. I get that. Just try really hard to get the information before sending in a cover letter that starts with "Dear Editors," which makes it absolutely clear to the reader that you don't know who's in charge. I admit that I've done it before when submitting stories, and now I have regrets. If you really don't know the right name to use, maybe try starting the letter with "Greetings" instead. But first, try again to learn the name of the fiction editor.

The last thing I'll get into today is the title of the story. The title is not just a label for tracking purposes. It's part of the story, a way to get the reader interested while emphasizing what is meaningful about what they're about to read. It should be neither a spoiler, nor something vague. I'm definitely not a title-writing expert just yet, but I know what I like. It should make me curious, and it should be relevant to the story, of course! I love quirky titles that twist my mind a little bit, so that I need to read the story to find out what's going on there. As far as I'm concerned, the title is just as important as the first sentence of the story.

Everything I've mentioned above has its place in the way that your submission is perceived. The story you send will have its merits and its flaws, no matter how you present it, but think of presentation as sending your story out for a job interview. Would you wear business clothes to an interview, or paint-spattered jeans and a ripped t-shirt? Given two candidates with equal quality but different presentation, which do you think would get the job?


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 15th, 2009 06:18 pm (UTC)
About the only file name violation I think I'm guilty of is appending "_sub" or "_sub_rtf" to the end of the title, so I know immediately which one is my final draft cleaned for submission, and which one I need to grab for a market that prefers .rtf to .doc format.

I've also been hearing, very regularly at writing/publishing panels at cons, that if you're going to add credits to your cover letter, only mention markets that are at least equal in prestige to the one your submitting to, and no more than three total.
Feb. 15th, 2009 06:30 pm (UTC)
Great stuff, Nayad! Thank you for posting it.
Feb. 15th, 2009 08:13 pm (UTC)
A most excellent post, Nayad. RE: cover letters--They need not be a dissertation, either. Ran across one of those last night reading some slush.
Feb. 15th, 2009 09:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing your knowledge!
Feb. 15th, 2009 11:06 pm (UTC)
File name etiquette
As long as I've been submitting to web markets (about 4 years), I've never seen this piece of information. Most authors know that the title isn't merely a placeholder, but it's quite reasonable to think that the filename is.

Since this is new info to many, as far as submission etiquette goes, why don't you add it to the Clarkesworld guidelines? That would certainly help get the word out.

~Tristan Davenport
Feb. 16th, 2009 05:37 am (UTC)
Most of this is pretty standard, but it's nice to be reminded.

But I must say that expending even a few synapse-microseconds on thinking about a file name is over-the-top. All my files have version numbers on them, so that I can keep track of them. I never, ever call a draft or version "final" until someone's published it, and sometimes not even then.
Feb. 16th, 2009 07:42 am (UTC)
Good advice, kind lady!
Feb. 16th, 2009 01:34 pm (UTC)
All excellent points. At _Beneath Ceaseless Skies_, I don't get quite as many submissions as you all do--about 300 hundred a month--but I see these issues all the time. It boggles my mind too--the submissions game is hard enough as it is; why not give yourself every possible advantage?

I do see one particular thing about file names that bugs me--when the file name does not include any portion of the title at all. That makes it a lot harder for me to find the file later, if the story is accepted, because I think of the story by its title. I do think it's worth the extra five seconds for the writer to give the file a name that includes their surname and some portion of the title.

Even-money on whether after this post, you see any change on these issues in your slushpile. :)

Scott H. Andrews
_Beneath Ceaseless Skies_
Feb. 16th, 2009 06:26 pm (UTC)
Great advice from the source, thanks! I hadn't considered the points regarding file name, but I completely appreciate how that can be one of the finer points of overall presentation.
Feb. 17th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)
Speaking from e-slush experience, a file name matters a LOT. If I download your story or partial and my computer is busy transferring it to the desktop when dinner calls or my kid falls off the sofa, as she tends to do, a file name without confusing appendages helps a lot when I'm trying to figure out where I left the damn thing when you ask, "What is the status of my story, General Hundorfa and the Great Troll's Wart?'"

This may not seem like a big deal, but with hundreds and hundreds of submissions, little misfilings add up.
Feb. 17th, 2009 04:55 pm (UTC)
good advice, thanks
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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