Ever heard the saying, you take the first bite of a meal with your eyes? It’s referencing the importance of first impressions, which can shade your perceptions of people, places, and things. Including stories.
To a certain degree, first-readers (aka slush readers) rely on first impressions more than most people do. Tasked with working through large volumes of submissions, they make quick decisions to read forward or stop and move to the next piece in the queue. As I said in my previous article, Pace Your Way to Pro-Level Publishing, if you give slush readers a reason to stop reading, they will. Sadly, many writers sabotage their submissions by making a poor first impression. Before the first line of their story is read, a negative impression has already begun forming in the slush reader’s mind, and the chances of the story getting rejected has increased.
In this article, I’ll discuss three things you can do to make a favorable first impression and increase your chances of publishing success.
Keep Your Cover Letter Short
Once upon a time, when authors were using snail mail to submit their work, editors expected cover letters with story submissions, and there was a standard for what a cover letter was supposed to contain. You introduced yourself with a brief bio, provided a one or two-sentence summary of your story’s plot, and listed any noteworthy publication credentials.
These days, that’s three things too many. The expectations are much more straightforward: the story is all that matters. I reached out to several editors in the industry, and they all agreed: cover letters are more of a hurdle than a springboard for a story. Many told me they read cover letters after they read a story. Why? They don’t want to bias themselves for or against a submission before they’ve had a chance to read it. In that regard, summarizing your story in a cover letter can only work against you.
So, what should a cover letter look like? Assuming you’ve read through a magazine’s submission guidelines and haven’t found any specific requirements, your cover letter should be as short as possible.
Thank you for considering [Title], a [X] word short [genre] story. I look forward to hearing from you.
[Authors contact information]
If you’ve had stories published in similar venues (magazines that pay similar rates for accepted pieces), list them but be brief.
My work has appeared in [magazines X, Y, and Z].
If you have no prior publications, say so. Editors thrill at the idea of discovering new great writers. Not having a publishing history is not a strike against you. Since most editors will read your cover letter after they’ve read your story, it might even be a bonus.
Format Your Manuscript Correctly
The last thing any writer wants is to have a slush reader open their story file and groan. That’s what you risk when you ignore standard manuscript formatting (SMF). It’s like showing up to a job interview in your unwashed pajamas. You’re increasing the likelihood of an unfavorable outcome.
The good news is that what used to be ironclad rules for SMF no longer are. In the digital age, much can be corrected with the click of a button. That said, there are some standard preferences. Formatting your story to match that preference shows both common courtesy and professionalism. This is where the old adage, you take the first bite with your eyes, really comes into effect. When your file springs open on a slush reader’s screen, you want it to look the way they’re expecting it to look. Use Courier or Times New Roman 12-point font, if possible. Use double spacing between lines. Paragraph indentations are ideal but not required.
The biggest SMF sin is to submit a story without a proper header at the top of the first page. Breaking this rule is still a huge no-no in the industry. A poorly formatted manuscript is a gigantic red flag sure to sway a slush-reader against you. If you do nothing else, include a header with your legal name (not your pen name), mailing address, email address (if you have one), and phone number.
Take a look at the template I created in Microsoft Word.
This file meets all the basic SMF expectations. When a slush reader opens that file, they’ll know the writer takes the submission process seriously. You can check here for more details regarding short story standard manuscript formatting.
Apparently, it’s not uncommon for writers to stretch the truth when submitting a story. Lying never makes a good impression, and being published by someone isn’t just about skill. It’s also about trust. Think of your submission ticket like a resume. Whether you’re a qualified job candidate or a hugely talented writer, a lie can cost you the opportunity.
Sometimes writers lie about the word count on a submission that falls outside the min/max length required for the magazine. Occasionally, writers try to pad their cover letters with an impressive but invented publishing background. Don’t do this. Ever. Even if your story is exceptional, if you get caught lying (which is likely), your piece will be rejected on principle. Worse, you will be remembered for all the wrong reasons, and the next time you submit a story, your chances of success will be significantly diminished.
Make that First Bite Look Delicious
A bit of prep work goes a long way toward moving you closer to your goal of getting published. Before you click “submit” on a submission, set the stage for a good first impression by adhering to some simple guidelines. Let the slush readers and editors know you’re serious. Keep your cover letter short. Format your story file correctly (always check a magazine’s submission guidelines). Finally, resist the urge to stretch the truth about anything, be it your background or the length of the story you’re submitting.
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