Submission Advice from a Slush Reader

Dear Editor…

Most cover letters or submission e-mails start with these two words, but what most writers don’t know is that most stories submitted to a publication never make it to an editor.

That’s what slush readers are for. Slush Reader, also often called First Readers, are the gateway between you and the editors. Every submission gets read by a slush reader first and then, if they like it enough, they will pass it on to their editors to make the final decision. Not all magazines work like this, sometime submissions are entirely read by the editors, but most editors just don’t have the time to read every single submission.

I’ve been a slush reader for two speculative fiction magazines now and since I’ve started reading I’ve learned a lot about the submission process and how I can improve my own submissions.

1) Keep your cover letter short and sweet.

Here’s a good template:

Dear Editor, I am submitting my short story, “Title” (Genre, Word Count), for your consideration. Thank you for your time. Sincerely, Full Name

A sloppy cover letter probably won’t get you a rejection, but an over the top, thousand-word cover letter just might. Let your story speak for itself.

2) Use Standard Manuscript Format

Most publications want submissions in Standard Manuscript Format. Don’t sweat the small formatting details like making sure your name and the story title are on every page (some submission guidelines call for anonymous submissions anyway) because in the age of electronic submissions that doesn’t matter so much. But as a reader I can say it really helps to have END at the end of a story. Sometimes I feel like a submission just stopped and I don’t know if it was an accident of the author not including the whole document or if that’s really the end. So make it clear, because if I'm left wondering, I'm probably not going to pass on the story.

Standard manuscript format is so common that it’s great practice to start formatting all your stories like this from the start. It will save you a lot of time when you’re ready to submit.

3) Read the Submission Guidelines

I really, really, can’t stress this enough. First of all, the publisher may NOT want you to use Standard Manuscript Format. They may not accept certain file types. They also may not accept attached documents and instead require you to paste your story into the body of an e-mail, or into a submission portal.

And my biggest pet peeve: people that submit genres the magazine doesn’t represent.

Do not submit genres the magazine doesn’t rep!

I read for speculative fiction magazines. Broadly, that means, sci-fi and fantasy are the main genres. They publish some pretty fringe stuff and accept everything from magic realism to horror, but the story must have SOME speculative elements. That doesn’t stop people from submitting historical romance and literary fiction.

A magazine will not publish genres it doesn’t represent even if they are gold. The magazine has a specific audience is appeals to. So please know what genre you are writing and if the magazine you’re submitting to represents that genre. It will save you, and the slush readers, a lot of time.

4) The Summary Test

For the first magazine I read for I had to summarize every story I read in 2–3 lines. This is so the editors can quickly read through the submissions that are passed up to them, find out what they’re about, and see which ones call to them.

Sometimes I come across a story I almost pass on to the editors, a story I really have to chew on before deciding to reject it or pass it up. Most often, the stories I pass on are the ones that have compelling summaries. If I can write three sentences about the story and it makes me say “I want to read that”, then I give it to my editors. But if summarizing it takes more than three sentences or just doesn’t sound intriguing, then it’s probably a no.

From now on, before you submit a story, try writing a 2–3 line summary of it. Is it compelling? What elements in the summary make it unique? If all the stuff you love most about the story isn’t in the summary, then it’s likely your story needs work. If you can write a kick-ass summary of your story in a couple lines, it’s likely that a slush reader can too, and that will guarantee they send it on to the editors.

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