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Stay within the guidelines

Take time to get it right

Submission guidelines are not the time to play around with the rules. A picture of a notebook with black lines, a red pen and white and purple ribbons.

The best advice I’ve been given when submitting is don't give the recipient a reason to say no. It’s an overriding rule that encompasses a stack of others – like ‘safety first’ in the kitchen including don’t leave hot oil unattended, don’t test a knife’s sharpness on yourself, and don’t eat the stinky chicken.

I’m coming at this from a variety of angles: I’m a former magazine deputy editor, have judged writing contests, helped administer grants and competitions; and submitted to and queried agents and publishers; applied for grants, mentorships and programs; entered competitions; and helped friends with their submissions, applications and entries.

Here’s a breakdown of how not to ‘give them a reason to say no’ that can be useful for most types of applications.

It takes time

You come across a competition that closes in an hour. You have the perfect piece – it’s on the theme, within the word limit. You send it in, perhaps paying an entry fee. Fantastic! Well done you!

But this is the exception. The more time you can take, the better the outcome. Rushed applications, queries and entries are obvious. They contain errors ranging from typos to unsuitable comparison titles that can make the recipient – consciously or subconsciously – feel like you don’t respect your work or the organisation to which you’re submitting. It’s a reason to say no.

Taking time to get the writing as polished as possible, whether it’s a short story or full MS, is important. Beta readers, writer mates or even manuscript assessments can be invaluable. And putting away the work for a while – weeks, or even months – allows you to step back and approach editing from a more objective viewpoint.

Grant applications cannot be left to the last minute. Most require additional material that can include detailed budgets and quotes, letters of support, and a lot of background information. One person I approached for a letter of support asked to read the MS I was working on – that’s a letter I wouldn’t have received if left too late.

Read the small print

You got your entry/sub in on time, but how closely did you read the terms and conditions (T&Cs)? I’ve been caught my this myself – I spent ages writing and polishing a competition entry, then skimmed the T&Cs. One of the last points was that entrants were residents of a specific region, but this wasn’t made clear in the large print.

The small print can include how the work should be submitted (see Guidelines below), time frames and exclusions, and also what might make you – or your piece – ineligible. ‘Emerging’ writers might be someone who’s published two or fewer long-form works, or published less than three journal articles/stories, for example. Some guidelines will exclude work that’s been previously published in whole or in part– including on a blog; some won’t.

There’s a difference between multiple and simultaneous submissions: multiple means you can enter or submit more than one piece, simultaneous means you can submit or enter one piece to more than one competition or publisher at the same time. If a piece you’ve simultaneously submitted is accepted, or even under consideration, let the other recipients know. A magazine article we’d agreed to publish – and had already paid for – appeared in a weekend newspaper. We had to substantially change the magazine and the writer was blacklisted by both publications, because it’s a small industry and word gets around.

Other small print might include that any piece entered is eligible for publication (with or without a time period); that you may or may not have input over editorial changes if it is published; or even that you lose copyright over the work. This is rare – but worth looking for.

Hint: If in doubt about and T&Cs contact the organisers to clarify.

Do your research

Read past winners, check out the publisher’s list, look at the past grant recipients, or read that magazine you’re planning to submit to. This will save you wasting your time sending a romance story to a crime publisher, for example.

As mentioned above, grant applications take A LOT of time – particularly those administered by large organisations or bodies, or that have many dollars to give away. Many grants or organisations have example applications and budgets on their websites, or hold online information sessions. Some, such as the Australia Council for the Arts, have staff that can assist with your application before the deadline, and can also provide feedback (if available) afterwards if you’re not successful.

If you know someone who’s successfully won a grant/program place etc, approach them for advice. The worst they can do is say no – and most won’t, as long as it’s not the last minute!

Hint: Many competition and grant announcements will include comments from the judges/selectors. These are gold. They not only include what the successful writers did, but also common errors or areas for improvement.


They sound friendly, like they exist to give you a nudge in the right direction, but ignore them at your peril. Whether they’re submission guidelines, T&Cs or an online form, do what they say and give the info requested.

As the submitter, you don’t know how the backend runs. Are the entries/subs read on paper? On screen? Are they filed into an online drive? Is the email set up to filter anything that does not have a particular word in the subject line? Agents, publishers, competitions can each receive hundreds of subs a week. They want the basic information quickly and easily and don’t have time to spend deciphering funny or cryptic messages. Titling an email ‘CHECK THIS OUT - IT'S AWESOME!’ not only looks like spam, but if the recipient is searching for Adult Sci-fi by subject line, yours will be missed.

Some, such as grants, may ask you to submit via online forms or in addition to your email. Copy the fields and questions into a word processing doc and note the space you have to answer – some will be unlimited, some will be number of words, some number of characters. Refine your answers in this doc, then paste the final version into the form. But don’t go too close to the word/character limit: the forms may calculate the counts differently and you’ll be over.

The best thing about the internet is it’s so easy to submit. The worst thing about the internet is it’s so easy to submit – there’s a lot of work sent out before its ready. Some publishers/competitions still request hard copies for this reason.

If the guidelines say double-spaced 12pt Times New Roman with page numbers, that’s how to format your work. These guidelines are partly to see if you can follow instructions, partly for reader comfort. And when you’re reading a stack of subs that are all single-spaced, the ones with other issues stand out, and not in a good way.

Don't go over the word count. And cutting off a submission or story AT the word count mid-sentence - don't. Just don't. If you can't edit the piece to fit in the word count, it's not the right piece for that opportunity.

Including your name on the pages when the guidelines tell you not to can be automatic disqualification in scenarios or competitions where the work is meant to be anonymous. If you’re asked to title the email a certain way, not doing so may mean it's missed by an automated system.

Hint: If you have the option, send documents through as PDFs (or one PDF, if that’s what’s requested). Word docs can sometimes reformat, so if you’ve submitted 10 pages it could push the text into 11 pages if the reader has a different version.


Stick to them. Late entries will rarely be accepted. If, as happened to me recently with a piece that had been accepted for publication, you are going to miss a deadline – contact the person/organisation. In a week of illness in our household I totally forgot about the deadline until a reminder it was due that day came up on my phone. I immediately emailed the editor and asked for an extra day or two, and it was fine. But I was prepared for a no. Communication is the key – and setting calendar reminders.

Hint: Don’t forget time zone differences – especially for anything international. Make sure the sub/entry is received by the appropriate time. Some postal entries/subs must be received by the closing date and others postmarked on or before the closing date. For example, I’m in a rural area. My local post office couldn’t guarantee on-time delivery within 10 days of the closing date, so that affected my personal deadline.


Be professional at all times. Follow guidelines. If you have a question, ask nicely. Only seek feedback if it’s offered (ie grants). Most entry processes and emails will respond when your entry/sub is received. If you don’t get a response after a couple of days it’s okay to ask if it was received – but do it politely.

As mentioned above, a lot of errors give the impression you don’t care about your work. These aren’t limited to spelling errors or typos (although most recipients will forgive a few in a long MS) – this includes basics, like getting the recipient’s and organisation/publisher’s name right, and including – and doublechecking – your own contact details. Sending an email to Desk Publishing that begins ‘Dear Carpet Books…’ will probably be an immediate delete.

It’s not you

You’ve done all the right things, your entry/sub is perfect, you’ve given no reason for the agent/selectors/judges to say no. But they do. Why? What did you do wrong? The tough answer is most likely nothing.

Whether it’s a competition, application or submission, the process is subjective. Just as you as a reader have your own preferences, judges, selectors, agents, editors and publishers do too. They’ll be drawn to some works more than others, like certain writing styles more, or put different weights on selection criteria.

Here’s an example: A friend of mine applied for a local fellowship and was not shortlisted. With an almost identical application, she applied for an elite program overseas and a government grant to get there – and got both. Six months after she was knocked back for the fellowship she’d entered an international competition and picked up a US agent.

A publishers may have something similar to your work scheduled for release, or be moving away from your readership or genre. She may not connect to your characters, where someone else will. But if you get individual feedback instead of a form response – fantastic. The publisher's taken the time to consider it and let you know – and not everyone gets that.

You have no control what happens after you’ve submitted your work, so it’s important to make sure your application, entry and manuscript are in the best shape possible before they’re gone. Then comes the hardest part – trying not to think about it!

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