Think like an editor when submitting

Update: 6/25/20 Pig in a Poke Magazine is no longer active.

As the fiction editor for Pig in a Poke magazine, I receive a variety of e-mail formats introducing story submissions. I find this curious because our submission guidelines give specific directions for submitting. Even so, most writers do not follow the guidelines. The norm is to diverge from what we ask. Why? Why don’t writers pay attention to details that could help to get their work published?

Guidelines are not meant to make writers’ lives more difficult. Rather, each editor has his or her own process. The way they ask writers to submit work streamlines that process. Hence the need for guidelines. Editors may ask for a certain phrase in the subject, ask for attachments or not, or request certain formatting because it makes it easier to read the submission and reply more quickly.

Editors are busy, just like writers. Many of us have day jobs. We receive hundreds of submissions each month. We ask that writers submit work a certain way in order to help us. We appreciate writers that make our lives easier by submitting as we ask. And when we get our way, we are in a better mood when we read your work.

In general, I suggest fiction writers do the following when they submit their work for publication. I think these steps will at least increase a writer’s chance of receiving a reply and will likely increase their chance for publication.

  • Follow submission guidelines carefully.
  • Personalize your e-mail. Do not use your husband’s, wife’s or work e-mail.
  • Include a cover letter with the name of the story and word count. Unless the editor states otherwise in the guidelines.
  • Put your bio in the cover letter. Unless the editor states otherwise.
  • Put your name and contact information on the first page of your submission and in the cover letter. Unless the editor states otherwise.

Follow submission guidelines carefully.

I ask that a story be submitted as a Word or .rtf file to I like attachments because I don’t want to have to scroll down an e-mail or read a story that has lost its formatting. I like to see italics and bold where they belong. I want paragraph breaks, which can be lost embedded in e-mail. Harry doesn’t mind poems embedded in e-mail. Neither of us care what font is used, so we don’t state a font choice.

Subject line

Pig in a Poke asks that in the subject line writers list the genre and their last name. Example: “Poetry: Calhoun”. We ask this, not to make extra work for you, but so that we can easily match up the submission with the e-mail when we reply. About half of the fiction submissions I receive do not have the correct subject line. This means that when I am ready to reply to the writer I have to search through my e-mails to find the person’s submission. Unless it is an exceptional story that I want to accept, I may not have the patience to sort through all those e-mails in order to reject the story.

Name and contact information

It is important to put your name on the first page of the story submitted. About a quarter of the fiction submissions I receive do not have a name anywhere on the story. This makes it difficult for me to reply. Even if the writer put his or her name in the subject line of the e-mail, I still can’t quickly find the e-mail submission. I have to open every e-mail until I find the attached story in one of them. You can imagine my mood if I reply after wasting time looking through dozens of e-mails.

Cover letter and bio

I ask that in the body of the e-mail, writers introduce the story, themselves, and include a brief bio. The cover letter is for me to get to know the writer and his or her work. If the cover letter is humorous and conversational, I can expect the same of the story. It adds interest for me if the writer tells me something about themselves. For example, I received this letter recently.

I generally write in an attempt to be humorous, though most of those with whom I have shared my work inevitably ask me how drunk I was at the time of writing the story.

Although I ended up rejecting this submission, I was more excited to read it than I would have been had he sent in a standard note. And I offered ideas for revision that I might not have otherwise.

More than half of the fiction submissions I receive do not include a bio. I don’t care what publications, if any, writers have. That is not the reason for the bio. The reason we ask for a bio in the cover letter is so that we can run it with the story if we accept it. When the bio is not in the cover letter, if I accept the story I have to ask the writer to send a bio. Then, when I lay out the story in the magazine, I have two e-mails from the writer to keep track of: one containing the story and one containing the bio. This gets messy.

All in a name

Please personalize your e-mail when submitting. For example, if your name is Sally Smothers, your e-mail should be something like: or or With free yahoo and Google e-mail services, there is no excuse to submit your work with an e-mail that does not match your name.

I recently received this cover letter for a short story sent by John K:

Bio included in work

Nothing more, just that the bio is included. I did not know how long the story was or anything about the writer. This did not stop me from reading the story, although some editors might have hit the delete key. And they would be justified in that. If a writer can’t bother to follow the guidelines, we should not feel compelled to read his or her work.

The story was written by Elizabeth B, whose bio read:

I am now a practicing attorney in Weston, Florida. I have published in The Florida Bar and the journal for the state’s lawyers, and I write regular monthly legal columns for local magazines. I am currently working on a collection of short stories.

I liked the story, but decided it wasn’t quite right for “the Pig.” When I tried to reply to Elizabeth, I realized I had no e-mail in her name. Nor had she followed the guidelines by putting her name in the subject line. So, I had to open every submission until I came to an e-mail sent by John K with simply “submission” in the subject line. If Elizabeth had personalized her e-mail with her own name or followed my guidelines by putting “Fiction: Elizabeth B” in the subject, I could have easily found her e-mail and replied.

Frustrated, I sent this note to Elizabeth:

Dear Elizabeth (or John),


Thank you for submitting “name of story” to Pig in a Poke magazine for publication. I’m afraid it does not quite work for us. I found the beginning rather long. The story did draw me in toward the middle and I liked the ending, but overall, it tended to ramble and just didn’t hook me.


I found it confusing that your e-mail lists your name as John K. And I would suggest writing a brief note introducing yourself and the story, especially when your name doesn’t match your e-mail. I had to open e-mails in my in box to find out who to reply to. This can be frustrating to editors.

John wrote back, apologized, and said that he is submitting for Elizabeth because she is busy with her law practice. Indeed. My opinion is that writers should submit their own work. Stories are personal and to pay an assistant to submit work just seems to impersonal. I was further taken aback when I received this cover letter for another of Elizabeth’s stories last week, again sent from John’s e-mail.

John K submitting for Elizabeth B.  Thanks.


Did John and Elizabeth learn nothing from my note? If John is going to continue to submit for Elizabeth, he could at least open a yahoo or Google account in her name, as I suggested. And neither John or Elizabeth bothered to write a note introducing the story. If she is too busy to write a query letter, should I be bothered to read Elizabeth’s story?

To puzzle or not to puzzle

Harry and I came back Monday from a four-day weekend in Topsail Island. We took our black lab Alex and frolicked in the waves with him. It was an awesome break that we both needed. And watching our dog have so much fun swimming and chasing his ball over and through waves was worth the extra expense to bring him. Like the commercial, priceless. Aside from Harry dunking in the surf unexpectedly and losing his favorite pair of glasses, the trip was fantastic.

We didn’t take any pictures on the beach because neither of us ever remember to take them, but here is Alex on the back deck with his favorite squeak toy.
Alex with Squeaky

Alex carried Squeaky around everywhere at Topsail Island, just like he does at home. It is so comical to see a 90 pound labrador with a squeak toy. At one point Squeaky fell of the second floor deck and we had to restrain Alex from jumping over the railing to get him.

And that finally brings me to the topic of this post. When Harry and I have downtime on vacation or even relaxing at home on a Saturday afternoon, Harry likes to work crossword puzzles and I like to read novels. At Topsail, I finished David Baldacci’s latest THE WHOLE TRUTH, which was very powerful, and started one of the PREY series by John Sandford. But I digress, I love to read. If I was to sit and work a crossword, I’d be frustrated and bored and probably end up burning the paper and breaking up my pencil into pieces. Harry says working crosswords keeps his mind sharp and makes him a better writer. I have to agree with him. Harry has the most extensive vocabulary of anyone I’ve ever known. I have yet to find a word that he doesn’t know. So am I missing out by not forcing myself to work crossword puzzles? I find reading novels in the genre I’m writing makes me a better writer. I’d much rather read a book.

Is it better to puzzle or to read? What do other writers do in your downtime and what do you do to sharpen your writing skills?

This question won’t be much of an issue for me for awhile. I simply don’t have a lot of downtime. It has been a busy time for me developing questions for state tests. By the time I sit at the computer for ten hours or so editing test questions, I just don’t feel like writing anything, not even this blog. But that’s what they pay me the “big” bucks for, and I like developing tests–it just means I won’t be posting as frequently for awhile.

Also, I’m looking forward to a trip to central New York to visit my daughter and grandson. I’m leaving on Wednesday and I can’t wait.

Writer’s Block

I haven’t posted recently and can’t decide what to post now. I have too many ideas. I’d like to discuss the spring equinox and daylight savings time or the new TV show, “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader,” which infuriates me from the perspective of a test developer. I heard about paying prisoners for organs on the radio after an article came out in the Wall Street Journal about organ transplants. I am also interested in children and grieving — watch Bridge to Terabithia, an excellent book and recent movie. So, like a tornado my brain is swirling with ideas, but look for them in upcoming blogs because I can’t pick a topic from the wind storm this morning. Writer’s block: too many ideas, not enough time. And I haven’t even begun to discuss my fiction writing ideas. I am still finishing The Magic Quilt, my historical fantasy novel for middle age readers. I’m polishing two short stories. I’ve begun work on an essay, my first true account of my life five years ago. So which do I work on in the hour that I have before I go to work? I can’t decide, so I’m writing this blog on having too many ideas.

I enjoyed Jane Yolen’s Random thoughts on writing and on children’s books , sent to me by a member of my writing group. “I generally do not think out plots or characters ahead of time … I am a reader before I am a writer. I want my own writing to surprise me, the way someone else’s book does. If I think out everything ahead of time, I am–in Truman Capote’s words–‘Not a writer but a typewriter.'”

When it comes to submitting my work for publication, I face a similar overwhelming dilemma. Where do I submit? The market is so vast now with print and Online magazines.

Sweeping Back the Slushpile: a First Reader’s Primer is a humorous piece written from the point-of-view of an overworked editor who must slog through the slushpile. Weeding through 800 to 1,000 manuscripts in order to publish four would seem a mammoth task at any rate, but the slush pile reader is given one-half an hour to finish the job. The advice given to this editor is “Don’t read the manuscript.” I recommend this humorous article for anyone who wants to escape the slushpile.

It is obvious why those nasty form rejection slips sometimes accompany work that we labored over so lovingly. As inspiration to myself, I reread an article I wrote a couple of years ago, To Market, to Market: Steps toward Publication. My advice to myself, then and now, consists of three simple suggestions. First, learn about the publication process so that you are informed. Second, do everything within your power to improve your writing so that it is A plus quality before submitting it anywhere. Third, know your market.

I’ll add a fourth here. Choose a project and focus on it. Easier said than done.

Finding Time

As I listen to friends, family and coworkers discuss their holiday preparations, I am struck by the difference in their holiday plans and my own. I look forward to the four days that I will have off work because I intend to use that time to write. Decorations, gifts, traditions, they pale in comparison to the real gift that I’ve been given, four days to sit at my computer and pound the keyboard.

Usually my fiction writing is limited only to weekends. On a typical Saturday, when the phone rings, I don’t answer it. Three loads of laundry rest in the hamper, ready to be folded and put away, another in the washer. I look at my watch and stretch my legs. I’ve been sitting at my computer four hours. Harry has been waiting all morning for me to walk with him around Lake Johnson. If I stop now, I will have time to get my hair cut after we walk. I look at my watch again. Ten more minutes — all I need is ten minutes to finish this chapter — then I’ll get my day started.

An hour later I glance at my watch in horror. My ten minutes have turned into an hour, an hour that I could have spent completing the chores that will have to be done before Monday morning.

We make time for what is important to us. Priorities get done. My passion, and therefore my priority, is writing. Finding time to write means sacrificing something else, something that is important.

Entering “finding time to write,” into Google’s search engine, I was surprised that so much has been written on the topic. I read suggestions like those below:
• Make the time — most people don’t make writing a high enough priority.
• Figure out the best times of the day for you to write.
• Don’t answer the phone or read e-mail.
• Eliminate time wasters like television, videos, opening junk mail, reading magazines and running errands.
• Treat time as an investment, examine your time budget.

I agree. These are excellent suggestions, but time is not the only solution. Last Friday I was listening to the Morning Edition segment on NPR. The authors of Great American Writers and Their Cocktails were discussing their book. One of the authors suggested that writers may drink in order to forget their work so that they can relax at the end of a writing day. Could it be, then, that we need a cocktail to get our minds out of writing mode and out of our imagination?

Following that logic, if we drink in order to escape the imaginary world that we create when writing fiction, how then do we get into that writing mode and into the world of our imagination. A simple button on the menu of our cell phone changes the options. Where is the button for the option of “imagination on”?

As writers, we’ve all struggled with a scene that isn’t working, or a paragraph that is overwritten, dialogue that won’t come together, or worse, the dreaded blank screen. Why? We may have made the sacrifice in order to have an extra hour at the computer. Yet, once there we can’t get into the writing mode. Imagination off.

Right now it is 5 am, yet I am not completely in the mode. Awake an hour before the alarm, I am at the computer, empowered to write, just as I wrote my short story “Pulse of Autumn”. I woke up at 3 am with the story in my mind, already in writing mode even before I woke. I wrote the first draft of the story before my work day began.

I have an hour yet before I need to wake my husband and start my day. I’d like to work on The Magic Quilt, my historical fantasy novel for middle age readers. It is so close to being finished. Only a few scenes need rewriting and the ending needs some revision. Yet, past experience tells me that it will take too long to get into the mode. I need to see my characters, smell Colonial Boston of 1775, and hear the criers as they sell their wares. An hour is not enough time. By the time I organize my historical references to be close at hand, get into a scene, and go back to the past in my imagination, my alarm clock would ring and I would spend a frustrated day wishing I’d had more time.

So I decide to write a blog entry about finding time.

I wrote a sketchy draft of The Magic Quilt when I was in graduate school and then didn’t look at it again during the 14 years that I taught middle school. I never even tried to write fiction when I was teaching. I wasn’t alone in that, Stephen King couldn’t write when he was teaching either. In his book On Writing, King said,

“…for the first time in my life, writing was hard. The problem was the teaching… by most Friday afternoons I felt as if I’d spent the week with jumper cables clamped to my brain.”

And so The Magic Quilt waited. My mind was on lesson plans and worrying about whether I had put out all the materials that I would need for the next day’s lab activity. Did I copy the lab handout before I left school, or would I have to go in early and copy it? Then there were the calls to parents about students I was concerned about, and the calls to encourage those who were doing better. And that endless stack of papers to grade that took up all my free time in the evenings.

So it was that after resigning my position as a science teacher, I reread my original draft of The Magic Quilt, rewrote a couple of chapters and brought them to my fiction writing group. With their help, I decided the novel could be good and starting researching the American Revolution, the setting for the book. After finishing the second draft of the book, I took a workshop on writing historical fiction books taught by Philip Gerard, an expert on Paul Revere, and found that I had some historical facts wrong. Fixing the history trickled down through the entire novel and I had to rewrite much of the book. Now, The Magic Quilt is finally so close to being finished that my goal for my holiday vacation is to finish her.

Thank you, Harry, for your support.