Sunday, 23 January 2011

That's the way to do it!

Before I say another word, if you’re looking for magazine guidelines and latest news, then you need look no further than Womag’s excellent blog here.

And for writing competition news, pop over to Sally’s Writing Calendar
here and Patsy’s blog here.

I get about a bit, sat here on my not inconsiderable bum and I’ve noticed a few recurring questions popping up and I thought I’d tackle a few of them.

But be warned. This is going to be Daily Eekish – you know, you get all excited when you read, “Earth to have two suns next year” and when you read the article you find out we might have two suns sometime in the next million years - perhaps.

I’m going to tell you what I know and what I do, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that what I do is right, okay? That I believe is what is known as a disclaimer. So when you see my headline up there “That’s the way to do it” – it might not be. With me?

I can’t tell you how to write a story, but I can tell you how to present it – at least for magazines.

First of all I’ll cover what I know and I’d call these the golden rules. A4 paper, clear print Times New Roman 12 on one side of the paper only, wide margins, double spacing and right hand margin never justified.

So set up your story like that and you won’t be giving fiction editors headaches and that is always a good start. Make your work easy on the eye, easy to read and you’re over the first hurdle.

This is where the uncertainty creeps in. Do you indent paragraphs? Not if you’re writing for My Weekly you don’t. But if you write for them, you’ll know that anyway.

I always indent. I can’t help it. I think it looks better and I can read it back easier, but that little Format facility up there on your top bar means you can do it however you like and change it when you’ve finished. Just remove the tabs.

Speech marks. Double or single? I’ve always used double for speech, single for thought or speech within speech. But Take a Break and Fiction Feast do it the other way round. I don’t think they like indents either. Rather than chopping and changing how I do things, I do it my way then Edit Replace and Format Tabs.

So you’ve submitted a story with the wrong speech marks. Should you panic? No (but you probably will because that seems to be the nature of most writers - we're all Corporal Jones at heart). Most magazines, once a story is accepted, will ask for an electronic copy and if your set up is wrong, they’ll ask you to change it.

However, if the magazine in question has produced guidelines which specifically state how they like a story to be presented and you do it differently – ssseeeess (sucking breath through teeth – ouch, shouldn’t have done that) – you are in effect saying you haven’t read their guidelines.

Title page? Should you or shouldn’t you? I know some very successful writers that don’t and some that do. I’ve always done a title page when submitting hard copy. On it I put the title, my by-line and my name, address and the word count.

If you don’t do a title page, then you need to put that information on the story itself. Adding your email address is a good idea too.

At the end of my story I put the word count again and the copyright sign © I don’t know if it’s necessary to do the ©, but I do. From the first time I sent something off that little © made it real for me.

Covering letter? Again that seems to be a matter of choice. I know writers that don't and writers that do. I do. I doubt there is a fiction editor out there who will say "I'm not reading that story - they did/didn't send a covering letter, pah!"

But what about the little details? One space after a full stop or two? Well I always used to put two, but these days I just use one. And if it’s a problem, as I said before – edit, replace – well it works if you’re changing two spaces to one, but perhaps not so well the other way round.

And to show something in italics do you underline it or actually use italics? That is a difficult one. Usually it is clear which words need to be italicised without doing anything, but I tend towards using italics if I feel it needs to be shown.

Do you need a row of *** between scenes? Sometimes. I know that’s not an answer, but it’s the best one I can give you. I think if you are jumping through time, the *** or whatever you choose to use, can be useful. Generally I leave an extra double space.

I was once told off by a fiction editor because of my over use of exclamation marks. She said she was sure fiction editors in the UK would thank her for pointing out to me the error of my ways. Was I miffed? Yes I blinking well was. Did I stop using so many exclamation marks? Yes I blinking well did.

What you do need to be is consistent in your use of speech marks, spaces, font etc. You don’t want to do anything that will distract an editor from your story by annoying them with sloppy presentation.

For a while many years ago (pre-computer) after my ex-office golfball (oh how I loved my golfball) typewriter went to god, I used a cheap portable typewriter. I couldn’t afford a new ribbon for it and I was sending off appalling copy. I’m pretty sure some words were topless. But some of those stories were taken.

I’m not saying that if you send in rubbish copy now you’ll get published, but what I am saying is that if you have written a good story that a fiction editor and the second readers like, the fact that you’ve used the wrong kind of speech marks or too many spaces after your full stops isn’t going to stop them buying it.

I’d be interested to know how you do things.


  1. Hi, Teresa,

    Cracking advice as ever. I just follow the magazine's own guidelines and hope for the best! As you say, if you ignore their guidelines on presentation then the editor will assume that you haven't read them. The guidelines are there for a reason so a writer would be shooting themselves in the foot if they ignore them, when they should be giving their stories the best chance they can.

    Julie xx

  2. Thanks for this Teresa. I've never been sure if I should include a covering letter as they must all look very similar to editors (although I always do just in case). Well, it's better to be safe than sorry I suppose! The temptation is there to jazz it up and start telling them lots of interesting details eg the name of your pet but I know they are just not interested so I resist and stick to a standard 'Please find enclosed...'


  3. Thank you for the great advice, Teresa. I always worry if I'm setting things out right.


  4. Thanks Julie. When My Weekly started bringing out their detailed guidelines I mis-read them and thought they wanted single quotes. They must have thought I was being fascetious suddenly changing from the doubles I'd always used to singles.

    Yes that's all I put in my covering letters, David. It would be different if you were trying to sell a novel or an article, but for magazine fiction just the bare basics.

    I never used to worry, Suzanne, but I do now! It can spoil the creative flow when you're worrying about tabs and spaces etc. Best to write as you feel comfortable then alter it when you've finished - but then you have to remember to actually alter it and not be so pleased to have finished it that you send it off - like what I do sometimes ;-)

  5. Thank you for the really useful advice. I really worry about getting it right and double-check the guidelines every time. I fret about it when I send something off and then realise too late I've made an error with the presentation.

    I haven't ever sent a covering letter, as I tend to be too wordy and gushing in letters. I just send the cover sheet with all the contact details, title and word count.

  6. I never send a covering letter because it always took me longer to compose a letter than to write the story. What to put in it? Please will you buy this story, or this story is called 'The Cat on the Mat' I hope you like it.

    A cover sheet has everything an editor needs to know and saves them scanning through a letter. They have enough stories to read. Why burden them with letters too unless you have a relationship with them or there is something you really need to tell them.
    At a workshop I gave on writing short stories another writer sat at the back shaking her head at everything I said. She did the exact opposite to me and we both got published.
    A good story will make it every time, unless it's tiny font and colured ink. I reckon anyone with half a brain would thrown one of those out without reading.
    Hey, I should have blogged this, not used it as a comment.

  7. I'm glad I'm not the only one to send things off in haste, Joanna!

    Argh Lynne - I'd never thought of it like that "burdening them with letters", but you're right. The covering letter IS redundant. Will I stop sending one? Well it is also a waste of paper isn't it, so perhaps I will. Thank you - and it just goes to show we never stop learning :-) And yes, turn your comment into a blog!

  8. Great post, Teresa, and a good reminder. I always try and slavishly follow the guidelines and tend to send a cover letter. But I might change my mind now, Lynne!

  9. Teresa, I tend to think, for the post, how would I feel if I got a story back without even a bit of a compliment slip? And for emailing, can you send an attachment without a covering letter? I am the world's worst so there may be a way. Incidentally, my first typewriter was a Corona but how I loved the Amstrads when they cam along.I just wish Lord Sugar would stop faffing about with apprentices and make some more.

  10. I have letters saved for each magazine so all I have to do is change the title of the story. It's very basic - 'Please find enclosed... I look forward to hearing from you in due course.' I also staple my manuscript instead of using paperclips, which I gather is a great sin, but no-one's complained so far!

  11. Lots of good advice there. Like you, I tend to write things my way to start with and then tinker for individual magazines as needed.

  12. Great advice, thanks Teresa.
    I always include a cover letter, but not always a cover sheet. I suppose you could get away with one or the other, but never neither! Maybe. :/

  13. Basically, I find out how a market likes it and I tend to do it that way. But after more than 25 years in the business, unless they've had a change of policy, I pretty much know how they like it now without checking.

    However, as an editor and someone that's worked with lots of editors, the use of any serif font, plain or not, interests me because I prefer a sans serif font like Arial, and so do lots of friends and colleagues. So my standard is Arial, unless I find out they prefer Times.

    I always include a cover letter - I think it's basic good manners - AND a cover sheet for stories (for accounts purposes), but not for articles ... unless I know they want one.

  14. Thanks, Rosemary. You can’t go wrong really if you follow the guidelines can you.

    That’s a very good point, Marian. I always write a covering email if I submit that way. My first computer was an Amstrad too – I hated it at first, but learned to love it.

    Ah, I didn’t cover staples and paperclips did I, Elizabeth. I must admit I’m a stapler too, unless the story is too fat for my stapler to cope with, then I use a paperclip.

    Best way to do it, Helen. I was just about to email a story off just now and realised I’d forgotten to set it up properly for that particular market – phew!

    I’d advise to always use a cover sheet, penandpaints. The letter seems to be a matter of personal preference, but I think a cover sheet with all your details is essential.

    That’s how I feel, Diane, but then I suddenly find out I’ve been doing it wrong all these years! Interesting about the fonts. I don’t like the serif ones so much, but I think courier is another acceptable option for those that don’t, but it is interesting to have your opinion as an editor – thank you :-)

  15. This was such a funny bit, Teresa:"Was I miffed? Yes I blinking well was. Did I stop using so many exclamation marks? Yes I blinking well did."

    I think I've finally got the single quotes/double quotes sorted. I'm afraid I do 2 spaces after a full stop which I've just read is WRONG. I use paper clips. No covering letter. I always indent - makes me shudder not to. The only time I don't is when I jump from one scene to another in a serial, for example. Then, I leave a line and don't indent as that's the way I've seen it in Woman's Weekly.

  16. What a useful and detailed post, Teresa! (Note exclamation mark - which I persoally only use to indicate someone is shouting!).
    I used to send covering letters but don't now as I think editors are increasingly too busy to read them, but I always send a brief cover email with email attachment subs.
    Formatting can be a very personal thing. I'm with Geri - not indenting paragraphs brings me out in a rash!
    Best advice is definitely to read guidelines BUT as you say - if the story's good enough bad fornatting won't stop it being bought - it's just following guidelines is basically good manners isn't it? x

  17. So, a cover sheet is more important than a letter? That's interesting. I'm glad you've told me that's okay because I do think editors must be so fed up with reading virtually the same letter over and over!
    Thank you!

  18. Whenever I've submitted I've gone for the simple cover letter principle, with the important information on the cover sheet attached with a paper clip.
    I've never been too sure on how much to indent by, so go for four spaces.
    But following the magazine guidelines is the essential I follow.
    My stories may have been rejected so far, but at least the editor won't complain about bad formatting...:-)

  19. When I look back now at my first subs and how they were formatted, the indenting was all over the place, there were blank lines between paragraphs, the quotation marks were double or single depending on my mood at the time etc, etc.
    It wasn't that long ago and I still had some of those stories accepted.

    Now I do what the magazine asks. If they are not specific then it's TNR 12 point, double spaced, indent all but the first para of each section, blank line between each section (but not between paras), single space after full stop, double quotes for speech, single for thought. Cover sheet but no covering letter on hard copy subs to mags I've been accepted by before, brief cover email on electronic subs with cover sheet as part of the story document. Name, email address, story name and page numbers in smaller font in the footer of each page, stapled unless asked not to.

    However, I still believe that a good story badly formatted, as long as it is neat and legible, is unlikely to be rejected because of it (though I can't speak for those editors who specify very detailed formatting requirements in their guidelines!)

  20. Thanks for the plug for my blog!

    I do some things your way, but not all. I do agre with your golden rules. A clear readable font and consistency in presentation are very important, I think.

    The main thing though is the story. I doubt a great story would be rejected because of a small 'error' in formatting, but editors might stop reading work from authors who regularly submit dog eared, difficult to read work. I wouldn't blame them.

  21. Lol – well it was true, Geri! I know what you mean – I can’t type anything without indenting and have to change it when I’ve finished – if required.

    Thank you, Lydia. I have tried not sending covering letters, but it always feels as if I’m sending the story out naked if I don’t.

    Yes, penandpaints, I’d say so. They probably don’t read the covering letters half the time, but they need the info on a cover sheet.

    I have huge indentations, Carol – about 7 spaces which is probably way too many. I hope it isn't too long before this all pays off for you - you're doing everything right. It's just a matter of time now.

    Interesting, Bernadette. I never send a cover sheet with an emailed story - I've never even though to! Perhaps I should. Good idea to add the footer (or header) with all your details. I do agree – a good (and crucially as you say legible) story won’t be rejected if the format is wrong.

    You’re welcome, Patsy. And as well as being dog eared and difficult to read it must be horrible to get stories with coffee stains, greasy marks and crumbs – I bet they do too!

  22. Hiya all, I'm new here but really appreciate the chat as I've just submitted two stories to People's Friend and had one returned, so I guess the other is being considered.
    If anyone knows anyone who'd like a critique parter I'm looking for someone! I'm Lynne on
    and I'm very friendly! Lynne

  23. That sounds like a brilliant idea, Lynne, hope someone will get in touch - and it sounds hopeful for your other PF story :-)