Our Guide to Writing Guidelines

Does your organization need a guide to writing guidelines?

Receiving submissions that do not follow specific writing guidelines is one of the most common and frustrating experiences organizations have when it comes to submission review and selection. In many cases, a submission that does not adhere to the guidelines will disqualify it from being considered—something both the submitter and organization would prefer to avoid. In all cases, a submission that does not adhere to the guidelines wastes both time and money for submitters and organizations.

Making your guidelines as clear and concise as possible will help you get the submissions you are looking for. It will also considerably cut down on the time it takes your team to review and accept submissions and increase the quality of the submissions you receive. On a broad level, writing clear guidelines for your publication, scholarship, contest, award, fellowship, etc., will strengthen your brand and improve your final results, all while making your overall process more efficient. 

Here’s our guide to writing guidelines, from what to include to what you can just leave out. And don’t forget—Submittable has a wealth of resources, including a help center and support staff, that can answer your questions and those of your submitters. 

Keep your guidelines short and sweet

The more complicated and wordy your guidelines are, the fewer submissions you’ll get in total and the more likely it is you’ll receive submissions that don’t meet your requirements. If you have an unending scroll outlining all of the detailed things you need from a submission, chances are that you’ll only receive a handful that follow your extensive instructions. If you value writing quality over a specific font or formatting preference, streamline requirements so that you will have more submissions to consider. 

However, organizations that do need a specific font size, double spacing, or anonymous submissions, should definitely make this clear. Anything that could disqualify a writer should be spelled out clearly. Consider using a larger font or boldfaced font to alert submitters to these non-negotiable requirements. See how that works? And make sure that your requirements are consistent across all of your online and print platforms, so you don’t breed confusion. 

In short, your writing guidelines should: 

  • Say who you are and what type of writing you are looking for.
  • Provide a submission deadline.
  • State whether or not you offer payment as well as how much.
  • Outline your specific requirements, including details such as page length, word count, or any formatting specifications.
  • Provide a time range for when submitters can expect a response.
  • Link to resources that will answer common questions.

Include instructions for setting up a Submittable account

First-time users of Submittable will likely need a little guidance in setting up a new account. For organizations who are already familiar with the platform, this step may be so obvious that it’s overlooked. The Durango Arts Center’s submission guidelines are one good example of how to assist writers in creating a Submittable account. The link they include—How do I Submitdirects users to Submittable’s help center where they can walk through the process step by step. Remember that not all your submitters will be tech savvy—crystal clear instructions break down barriers to submit and increase accessibility. 

Consider necessary information versus excessive information 

Every type of writing requires different parameters. This goes for other mediums, such as film and photography, too.

For organizations that accept poetry, for example, these parameters may include the number of poems a writer is permitted to submit and poem length. Prose submissions might require a maximum page limit, or a maximum word count. For contests, requiring applicants to submit their work without names on the documents or file names will be helpful to keep the process anonymous.

When coming up with guidelines be sure to consider what information is essential, what information is useful for reviewing purposes, and what information might be excessive at the submission stage. For example, requiring writers to submit a bio and headshot will leave organizations with far more information than they need since not all submissions will be accepted, while also making it harder for submitters to apply.

Our blog post Dear Submitter/Dear Organization: Tips from the Other Side provides a lot of useful insight into common frustrations that writers encounter when submitting work. 

Anticipate and answer common questions

Anticipating frequently asked questions (FAQs) can save you a lot of time and resources. Plus, revising your guidelines when you begin to get a lot of the same questions can streamline your process further.

Are submitters asking whether they can submit a previously published essay? Address this in your writing guidelines.

Are submitters asking when they will hear back? Let them know how long your review process typically lasts.

And for Submittable-related questions, don’t lengthen your writing guidelines. Simply link to Submittable’s help center. Common Questions for Submitters covers a lot of helpful information, including topics such as How Do I Return to a Saved Draft and What Does My Submission Status Mean

Use a literary publication guidelines template

Since every organization accepts different genres and has different needs and requirements, there is no one-size-fits-all guide to writing guidelines that will ensure a batch of submissions that perfectly fits your requirements, or a guidelines template for you to fill in the blanks. However, the following example provides general parameters that can be added to or tweaked to suit your particular needs: 

At Lightbulb Magazine we are looking for poetry and prose that illuminates old ideas in new ways. Send us writing that helps us see a topic through an unusual lens. Submissions close on August 30, 2019 at midnight PST. We do not offer payment at this time. 

For prose, please send us one unpublished essay or short story no more than 5,000 words. 

For poetry, please sends us up to five unpublished poems in one document. 

Our review process is completely blind so please make sure your name does not appear anywhere on your submission or in the file name. 

We have a small staff so our review time can take up to six months. Feel free to query us after the six-month mark. 

For questions about your submission status, or other questions pertaining to Submittable, check out Common Questions for Submitters. For first-time Submittable users, How Do I Submit will walk you through the process. 

Improving your guidelines improves your publication

Guidelines might not seem like a vital topic of focus for your publication or organization, but guidelines can either encourage or limit your submissions, and your submissions are what ultimately inform who you are and what you represent. Having clear, simple guidelines with an appropriate barrier of entry can raise both the quality and quantity of your submissions, and therefore of your publication, contest, fellowship, or other endeavor.

To check out how other organizations have approached their guidelines, beyond our guide to writing guidelines, we encourage you to explore our free Discover marketplace.


Emily Withnall

Emily Withnall is a freelance writer and editor. She also teaches poetry in public schools in the Missoula area as well as at the Missoula County Detention Center. Some of her work is available at emilywithnall.com.