An Editor’s Tips on Following the Publisher’s Rules

Today’s “response from an editor” went to a writer who was submitting a story to an anthology. The story length requirement was very clear: the story had to be a maximum of 5 double-spaced pages, in Microsoft Word, and with a Times New Roman 12 font. The story had been returned to the writer with a note that the storyline had good potential for the anthology, but as it was over twice the required length, it would have to be rewritten much more concisely. The writer asked for my help, and this is how I responded:


In response to your request, “Do you think that there would be any other possibilities because I don’t really know what I should do. I really like the story and I’m afraid that if I change stuff then it won’t be the same,” I have written a specific example for you, and given some suggestions….

I have attached a “concise” version of your story that includes all your details, but in which I’ve tightened up your writing so it fits the requirements. I would like you to compare it to your original, and to the edited version you sent me. I suggest you print the three versions out and lay them side by side. I have attached all 3, in order, to make it easy for you. You will see not only the “proofreading” improvements (spelling, punctuation, capitalization, spacing, etc.) but you will also see how changes in phrasing, wording, and sentence structure can make your story far more concise and readable without changing the story line. Study both the changes and the margin comments that go with them. You must not use MY “concise” version (then it would no longer be your story and your voice); instead, you will want to write your own “concise” version using the methods I’ve used. If you really like some of my suggested changes, you may use them as a “beginning,” but develop them in such a way that you make them your own.

Now, on to your question about why, if the anthology editor likes your basic story line, the rules can’t be modified for your story. I recognise that you really feel everything in the story is important, but you need to remember that even the greatest writers are constantly trying to improve their craft, and this is an excellent opportunity for you to do the same. And beyond that:

  • The rules are the rules. The publisher has set the rules for a variety of good reasons. For example, perhaps the anthology is meant for “quick reads” or the publisher wants to include as many stories as possible in the limited size of the book–there are many possible reasons. And if the publisher lets one person break the rules, then other writers will expect to have the rules broken for them, too. Some may want to submit poetry instead of stories. Some may want to change the theme or topic or genre. Some may want to include their own illustrations. Soon there will be chaos!
  • The publisher is taking the risks. Will this book sell? Will it reflect well on the publisher? Will it reflect the publisher’s perspectives and interests? Will it make enough money to pay for editing, design, printing, marketing and so on? Your risk (and effort) as the author of one short story in the collection is much smaller than that of the publisher!
  • One of the skills every writer needs to learn is to make their writing concise, leaving out unnecessary material, rewriting a long phrase or sentence into a short one that says the same thing, using one strong word or phrase instead of a rambling set of words, and so on. Rewriting/editing your story will be a good exercise for you in concise writing. The publisher is actually doing you two favours–showing interest in your story in the first place, and then encouraging you to improve your writing skills.
  • When you start to write for publishers (whether they be newspapers, magazines, webpages, anthologies, book publishers or whatever the format is), they are going to give you word and/or space limits – and you will have to write within those limits, no matter how important or perfect you feel your piece is. As an example, I at one time wrote a weekly newspaper column. One week, I sent in my usual 3-column piece with 6 inches per column, but the editor only printed one column of 2 inches. For one thing, he felt that my writing was too rambling, and included material that he thought wasn’t “newsy” enough. And because of other issues (that week there was more advertising than usual, and some important local events that needed extra space) he also chopped my space almost to nothing – without warning, and without giving me a chance to decide what I wanted to include. Since I was paid by the inch, I got a very small cheque that time. But I learned from it–to keep my writing newsy, to keep it to the point … and to realise that publishers have other concerns besides what I personally feel are important.
  • This request by publishers to make your piece fit their publishing requirements and needs is not unusual. Yes, it may make you feel put out. But it is part of the writer’s world. In this case, you were given precise directions on font, spacing, software and length. You as a writer cannot change those rules to suit your own preferences (unless occasionally you have a really great idea that you suggest to the publisher and get permission for ahead of time).

So it is your challenge to rewrite and edit in order to make your story fit the requirements and to make it the most interesting, concise piece it can be. Please try to see this as a wonderful opportunity to write as a “professional writer.” I know you can do it. Good luck! (Or… you could try submitting to a different anthology, or write a new story … But I still think this is a wonderful opportunity to improve your skills).

Responses and Questions: Have you had experiences like this writer did? How did it work out for you? What other advice would you give? Please feel free to post in the comments.

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