Submission Protocol: Length-Wise

Rejectomancy points deducted for FTFFD or SSD: -10

In this installment of Submission Protocol we’re going to discuss another no-brainer, or so you’d think. You’ve probably been told length doesn’t matter (rim shot), but that’s not true. When submitting your stories for publication, it definitely matters.

In virtually every set of submission guidelines, the publisher will usually be very specific about the length of story they publish. By length, they almost always mean word count. In general, the word count does not include anything but the story and excludes the extra stuff you’ll have to put on your manuscript when following standard manuscript format (more on that later). How do you figure out your story’s word count? Every single word processing program on the market has a built in word counter. It’s easy to find; just look for it. If you’re typing your manuscript on an old Victorian typewriter all ironically and shit, I don’t know what to tell you. I guess make sure you’re a real good counter.

Let’s look at a typical example of this guideline:

[XXX] is an online magazine published quarterly. We are seeking fiction 1,000 – 6,000 words.

Seems simple, right? Don’t send a story under 1,000 words or over 6,000 words. But I guran-fucking-tee you this magazine and others like it auto-reject loads of submissions because they don’t meet this incredibly simple guideline. You might wonder how that can possibly be since these are directions a sea sponge could follow. The answer is most likely a condition I’ve covered previously in my blog. It’s called SSD or special snowflake disorder.

The thinking process for SSD goes something like this: “Well, sure, they’ve got very explicit word count minimums and maximums in their submission guidelines, but my 13,000-word masterpiece is so stupendously awesome, the editors won’t even notice how long it is because they’ll be utterly enthralled with my god-like talent.” Maybe that’s not the exact thinking process, but it’s what I hear in my head every time I see these rules flaunters in action.

Don’t do it.

You are not special. Your story is not that great. Please, color within the fucking lines. If you don’t, your story is likely going to get rejected unread. Are there publications that don’t mind if you go over a bit or under a bit? Probably, but you can’t know that when you’re looking at the submission guidelines, so just don’t do it.

Let’s look a little closer at this particular guideline. They’ve got quite a range, from what is generally considered flash fiction all the way to a lengthy short story. Is there a sweet spot? In my opinion, yes, I think there is. Having run a magazine for years, I can tell you space is always at a premium, and I’d prefer to run two 3,000-word pieces over one 6,000-word piece. Why? Simple economics. If I can get two good medium-sized pieces of work in my magazine rather than just a single longer one, I’ve doubled the chances of my readers finding something they like. Readers that like stuff buy magazines. On the other end of the spectrum, the 1,000-word story takes up too little space, which means I have to find something else to fill pages, and a bunch of short pieces by multiple authors is more work for me. Each one requires the same work as a larger piece: I still have to edit it, lay it out, get all the necessary paperwork from the author, get the author’s bio, (sometimes edit that), and so on and so on.

With the above in mind, if I were submitting a story to this publisher, I’d shoot for between 2,000 and 4,000 words. That’s not to say they wouldn’t publish a story at their minimum and maximum, but I’ll bet most of the stories they publish fall into this range. In the case of this particular magazine, I know it; I checked. Again, based on what I know about the magazine business, I’d guess they publish the minimum end when they come up short for an issue and publish the maximum end when they encounter something that really blows their socks off. I could be wrong, but I’ll take my chances in the middle, thank you very much.

Is there an aspect of submission guidelines you’d like to see covered? Let me know in the comments.

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