This page is broken down into the categories which experience has demonstrated need the most attention: Deadlines, Length, Manuscript Appearance, Organization, and Shipping.
Every contest has deadlines. Their most important purpose is to keep the process moving in an orderly fashion and permit enough time for a fair reading. Reading manuscripts for contests is not leisure reading, it’s frantic. Every reader in the chain has his or her own obligations outside of this contest. Given that and given that there is always a mad rush (by authors) to mail manuscripts on the deadline date (as much as we would like it to be otherwise), common sense says it does not benefit an author to wait until the last minute to mail a manuscript.
Having said that, here is an interesting statistic that has proven to be true over many years of running contests: About half of those who enter wait until the final week to do so.
Of course, everyone is working on their own time schedule and at their own convenience. What authors need to know is: because SO MANY wait until the very end to enter, those who enter early tend to get more of a readers’ attention. It’s simple math. Imagine having a week to read 15 manuscripts. That’s roughly 2 a day, easily manageable. Then the last week of entry arrives and suddenly you have the same timeframe to read 75 manuscripts. Just the thought can be oppressive and overwhelm a reader’s schedule. It is mathematically impossible to devote the same amount of time to each manuscript when the volume is increased, but the amount of time available to read them is not.
Recommendation: Don’t wait until the last minute to send your manuscript.
The MSR Poetry Book Award guidelines call for between 48 and 80 pages of poetry. Most often, the manuscripts that make it through to the final round are in the 60-70 page range. There is no way to say across the board why this is, but it could be that these authors have culled out weaker pieces and concentrated on quality rather than filling the maximum number of pages. From a judging standpoint, the deciding factor between quality manuscripts can come down to one or two or a handful of poems that don’t seem to belong with the rest. It’s that competitive.
Also, for a full-length contest, poets will tie a group of chaps together and submit them as a book. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The deciding factor can be how well these sections relate to each other.
Recommendation: Instead of concentrating on filling the page requirements, edit for quality, strength, connectivity.
Manuscripts arrive in every format from saddle-stitched booklets with colored covers to something resembling a stack of post cards. We will read them all because we did not place a guideline that specifies a page size. Unless it specifically appears in our guideline (which some do) consider the following to be suggestions.
- Use white paper. Light weight–the lighter the better. Don’t add to the expense of entering contests by using heavy, expensive paper. Quality paper won’t impress us the way a quality manuscript will.
- Print on one side only. Type–no handwriting should appear anywhere on the manuscript.
- No more than one poem on a page. Note: I did not say every poem should fit on a single page–I said don’t put two poems on the same page.
- Use a readable font in a readable size. 12pt is fine for entry, but we print most of our books in 11pt because 10pt can be difficult to read and 12pt takes up too much space. A simple Roman font is best (Times, Times New Roman). A sans serif is also okay (Ariel, Helvetica), but they don’t register italics very well and many of us use italics somewhere in our work.
- Numbering pages saves us the trouble of counting.
- Remember page dimensions. Almost every entry comes in on 8.5 X 11: standard letter size. I’ve had people downsize fonts and change leading to fit more lines on that size page so they can fit a larger manuscript into our page limitations. The final product can only fit (about) 40 lines per page. The more artistically inclined have skipped lines and words all the way across the page. The final product will be between 5.5 and 7 inches wide. Minus margins, that means between 4.25 and 5.75 inches of printable space. If you want to have your work remain exactly as you laid it out, keep page dimensions in mind when you create and/or edit your work.
- Keep your manuscript free of distractions like white out and magic marker. MSR’s contests are judged blind. That means that readers don’t know whose manuscript they are reading. In many cases, only one person knows the authors’ names right up until a decision has been made—and that person is not a judge. Aside from the fact that using white out or marker to cover a name looks sloppy, if it doesn’t hide this information completely, it can result in disqualification.
- Stay away from binders, staples, manila folders, clips, etc. We want all manuscripts to look alike when they go to readers and we prefer a particular size clip. To that end, we unstaple any stapled manuscripts and throw away binders and folders. No need to send clips, either. We have accumulated hundreds over the years and reuse them.
How you organize your work can be a deciding factor. We get many very good manuscripts, sometimes it is the sequence in which the material within a particular entry is read that makes it more or less appealing to the reader. That may mean having separate segments, but it may also mean sequencing in a more interesting format to create a rhythm or a sense of anticipation.
Make sure you have reliable contact information on a separate cover letter and nowhere else on the manuscript. DO NOT include acknowledgements. If you are selected for publication, we will ask for them. Many people who enter contests have wonderful credits and credentials, but if they include their acknowledgements, we toss that information at check in without reading it. Why? Because contests such as this owe it to those who pay a reading fee to judge on the basis of the quality of the work and not who wrote it or what their reputation is.
If acknowledgements or anything that identifies the author get missed at check in (and it happens) first round readers are instructed to disqualify the manuscript.
Contests are expensive enough, why add to the cost by using expensive postage? I’ve received things Overnighted ($14) and 2nd Day Air ($10+). That’s one reason why we don’t return manuscripts and ask for a #10 envelope for notification (if no email address is available), why we notify receipt of the manuscript by email, why we tell folks they don’t need to bind their manuscripts or include any kind of clips, and why we accept entries via email. Weight equals cost.
Recommendation: Mail at least five business days before the post mark deadline. If you must wait until the last day to enter, send it USPS 2-3 Day to guarantee it arrives before our receipt deadline (see guidelines).
Other items worth mentioning:
- When manuscripts arrive postage due, we send them back.
- Standing in line to pick up a signature receipt manuscript is a major inconvenience, so we don’t. They will be returned… whenever the US Postal Service gets around to it.
- First Class postage on an average manuscript should be no more than $5. If you send it Media Mail, it’s under $3 –BUT– if you wait until the last day and send it Media Mail, your manuscript may not arrive in time to be judged.
- We won’t return manuscripts regardless of what size envelope is sent. So why waste the cost of a manila envelope and the extra postage? Use a #10 business envelope.
We only started accepting emailed submissions in 2010. What we’ve learned is: not everyone is skilled in the use of writing programs and it can make a mess for us on the receiving end. On top of that, some folks pay a reading fee electronically, then find they can’t format according to instructions.
Recommendations: Please read the file formatting information FIRST. Give yourself enough time to be sure you understand the instructions (in other words: don’t wait until the last minute on–even on this submission option). If you are able to format your file according to those instructions—which is how you should be organizing your manuscript anyway—and want to submit via email, then pay the reading fee. If you are NOT able to format according to the instructions, it might be best to enter the old fashioned way: by snail mail.
Below are some comments made by judges. Some are direct quotes, some are paraphrases of comments made by several judges. Some of these comments were specific to poetry contests, others to fiction contests (which we no longer sponsor).
Manuscript was longer than it needed to be.
Good poems, but nothing binding them together as a group.
“There is a wonderful chapbook in here.”
“I wish some of these writers would learn to use spell-check.”
“This writer needs an editor.”
Uneven. Some beautiful poems, but others that don’t seem to belong.
“The form and flow are nice, but the writer doesn’t take any risks with the material.”
Nice sound quality to many of the poems, but they don’t actually go anywhere or say anything new.
“No plot or character development, this is not a short story.”
“I have no idea what this title is about.”
“I know this is an acceptable style of poetry but it has little if any punctuation so it just leaves words on a page…”
“Has a lot to say, but isn’t very poetic.”
“Too many incomplete sentences.”
“The poet threw in a form (apparently) for demonstration sake because it didn’t fit with the rest of the collection.”
“There are a lot of epigraphs that show the author is familiar with other people’s work, but they don’t appear to have any purpose other than demonstrating how well-read the author is.”
“Paints pretty pictures without any emotional attachment.”
“Subject was vague and I couldn’t relate to it.”
“I Sure wish this author knew how to use a word processing program.”
I hope that those who read this page will consider this information the way that it is offered: as a reference to help them improve the quality of their manuscript and give it a better chance to be selected for publication.
M. Scott Douglass
Main Street Rag Publishing Company