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Writing Rules Rule!

December 2nd, 2011

Lorraine Mace (2)I wear many hats in the writing industry, but first and foremost I’m a writer. This means I know what it feels like to invest time, effort and emotion in a piece of writing. I know what it feels like to send my work off to be accepted or rejected according to the whims of some faceless (and, quite often, nameless) person.

Why I am telling you this? It’s because I want you to understand that I understand rejection. I also understand how important it is to follow rules and guidelines. I know this not just because I’m a writer and Writers Bureau tutor, but because I am also an editor, writing workshop leader and run two writing competitions.

I suppose that makes me something of a poacher turned gamekeeper. But it also means I can give insights on what happens when you don’t follow rules and guidelines, whether for a competition entry or magazine submission.

Let’s start with competitions. The first place any writer should go before entering a competition is the rules page. Don’t just skim through and decide they don’t apply to you – they apply to everyone who enters and the organisers will not make exceptions, regardless of how brilliant your writing is.

Entering Poetry and Short Story Competitions

Let me give you a few examples. The Flash 500 Humour Verse Competition states quite clearly we are looking for poems up to 30 lines. Now, you’d think that was easy enough to understand. I mean, it isn’t written in code or anything. Nevertheless, every quarter we receive entries over 30 lines – some of them really good – but they have to be disqualified. Why? Because the rules are clearly laid out on the competition website. It simply wouldn’t be fair to those who follow the rules to allow entries over the line count.

We also get entries where writers have crammed a 60 line poem into 30 lines by doubling up. Don’t do it! Judges can see at a glance when two sentences have been joined together on one line.

The Flash 500 Competition is for short stories up to 500 words. I once had an accompanying email saying: “I know my entry is five words too long, but cutting any more would spoil the story.” Out of interest, I read the entry. The opening paragraph alone contained five adverbs. All five adverbs could have been cut and (if needed) stronger verbs used instead. Hey presto, that would have made an entry with exactly 500 words.

In both competitions the entries cannot have any identifying details on the actual text. Yet time and time again we have entries containing the author’s name! I’m always amazed that someone would pay to enter a competition and not adhere to the rules. You might just as well set fire to the entry fee.

Submitting Your Work for Publication

Sending work to a magazine doesn’t cost anything other than postage – and in these days of internet communication even that has largely dropped away. So you might be tempted to think that, as it isn’t costing you anything, you can send whatever you like. Sorry, that doesn’t work either. Magazines have guidelines for a very good reason. They have a set number of pages to fill each week or month. This translates into a set number of words for each section, which in turn means a set number of words per page.

When the guidelines ask for no more than 800 words the editor doesn’t want anything over 800 words. Put yourself in the editor’s position for a moment. You receive two well written submissions for the same page. One is 845 words and the other is 795. No question, you’d take the one which required the least work.

If you’ve edited your work and it’s still too long for the target market this means one of two things. Either you’re aiming at the wrong outlet for that particular item, or (and this is far more likely) you haven’t yet finished the rewrite, revision and editing process. Put it away for a couple of weeks and then read it again. I bet you’ll be able to cut still more and get the piece inside the word count allowed.

Try to remember that in both competition entries and magazine submissions your writing is going up against other writers as good as you are (I know, it’s hard to believe anyone is as good as you, but sadly it’s true).

What can you do to give yourself an edge? Simples, as the meercat says, follow the rules and guidelines to the letter.

Lorraine Mace is a columnist with Writing Magazine. She is also deputy editor of Words with JAM, writes fiction for the women’s magazine market, features and photo-features for monthly glossy magazines and is a writing competition judge for Writers’ Forum. She has won and been placed in numerous creative writing and poetry competitions.

Lorraine is the author of the Writers Bureau course, Marketing Your Book and co-author, with Maureen Vincent-Northam, of The Writer’s ABC Checklist (Accent Press). She also runs Flash 500, international quarterly flash fiction and humour verse competitions. www.flash500.com

Find out more about Lorraine by visiting her website: www.lorrainemace.com

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