Ink-Dipped Advice: The Beauty of Guidelines

 

Whether you’re pitching an article or submitting a novel query or pitching a script, the guidelines of any particular publisher are important.

Following them properly are vital to success at landing a contract.

I’ve taught entire workshops on interpreting guidelines and following them.

Having worked on both sides of the editorial table, I sympathize with both editors who are frustrated by writers who don’t follow guidelines, and writers who are frustrated by the guidelines.

It’s important to remember that the guidelines and how the writer follows them are the first test to see if the writer and the publisher are a good fit.

The editor wants to know:
–can the writer demonstrate basic reading comprehension and follow instructions;
–can the writer understand and fulfill the requirements of being part of this organization;
–can the writer demonstrate fluency in grammar, spelling, sentence and paragraph structure, understand the purpose of a hook, and distill the necessary information into a single page;
–can the writer demonstrate an intelligence and a flexibility that proves the individual is easy to work with and doesn’t need constant babysitting.

Guidelines are not there to make the writer’s life miserable. They exist to streamline the process for the editor/publication and weed out those who are more trouble than they’re worth.

I took a wonderful workshop, way back in film school, about pitching screenplays. A good portion of it was about developing a logline. A logline is a single sentence (not complex, compound, or run-on) that encapsulates the screenplay while enchanting the listener.

The workshop leader, who worked in acquisitions and development for a major studio, stated that if the writer could not distill the screenplay down into that one simple logline, the writer didn’t know the piece well enough, it needed another draft, and was not ready to pitch.

I remember that every time I prepare a pitch or a query. There are times when I decide not to pitch or query something because I obviously need more time with it, and I can’t distill it down to the basics while making it enticing.

The elevator pitch is more like a paragraph, but the logline is a good test of whether or not something is ready to go out.

On the flip side of guidelines, when I see demanding guidelines that take me so far out of standard manuscript format that I should be on staff for the publication and paid to reformat, it gives me pause. There’s a reason standard manuscript format uses the word “standard.”

I draft in standard manuscript format because it is far easier to format OUT of it than into it, should that be necessary (to create one-paragraph summaries, excerpts for media kits and interviews, etc). And, people, the default in Word is NOT standard manuscript format. It will mess you up. Set the document to standard manuscript format when you start the first words of your manuscript, and it will serve you well.

If you don’t know what “standard manuscript format” is — LOOK IT UP. Don’t expect others to do your research for you. The information is out there. Put in some effort to learn your craft.

Back from that little tangent.

When guidelines are overly complicated, or when there’s an edge of nastiness to them, I step back. I do more research. It’s a hint that perhaps we are not a good fit.

When I see something in the guidelines that I disagree with, with which I’m not willing to suck it up and do it,  I take a deep breath and move on.

I don’t email them to ask for an exception or to argue with them. They have the right to set whatever guidelines that work for them.

I have the right not to submit.

That’s the beauty of the guidelines. They give BOTH sides of the equation necessary information.

As a writer, if the guidelines don’t work for you, DON’T SUBMIT. Keep doing your research, and find a publication/publisher that’s a better match.

Submitting anyway, because you think you’re such a brilliant writer that they’ll make an exception for you will only cause frustration for both of you. You’ll be upset because you’ll get a rejection. If you don’t follow guidelines, chances are it will be rejected unread. They will be frustrated because you wasted their time and proved you’re not a professional.

If you ARE that brilliant, a different publication, where you’re comfortable with and have followed the guidelines, will contract you. If you ARE that brilliant, word will get around, and publications will wind up coming to you.

When you’re simply Very Good, you work a little harder to find the right fit, and don’t bother with publications that are the wrong fit.

Which you can often tell from the guidelines.

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