Literary contest judges read hundreds of manuscripts each year. A professional-looking submission makes your work look good. By contrast, a surprising number of contestants ignore the rules, spoiling their chances. Here are formatting tips from Jendi Reiter, editor of Literary Contest Insider and final judge of the Winning Writers contests.
FONTS AND PAPER
Manuscripts should be typed or printed on white 8.5x11" paper. Use a common, legible font such as Courier New or Times New Roman. A good type size is 12-point. If a different size is needed to fit within a contest's page limit, don't go lower than 11-point or higher than 13-point. Legibility will suffer and the judge will think you're playing games.
Most contests expect poetry to be single-spaced. If double-spacing is preferred, the rules will say so. Fancy paper and flowery fonts are a waste of time and money, and can annoy judges who find them hard to read. Gimmicks suggest you are an amateur.
The term "front matter" refers to the cover
page, title page, table
of contents, and the acknowledgments
page where you list the publication credits for poems in the manuscript. Some contests will specify whether the page limit includes the pages devoted to front matter. When in doubt, assume that it does.
COVER PAGES [sample] AND TITLE PAGES [sample]
The cover page should contain the following information, centered on the page:
Author's address, phone number, and email address
You can put "Copyright 2005 Your Name" in the lower left-hand corner. This is not required. Your work enjoys basic
copyright protection at creation.
Underline the title. Both the title and the author's name should be in a larger font than you would use for text in the manuscript. A good size is 24-point type for the title, and 18-point type for your name.
Often, a contest will ask you to submit a manuscript with both a cover page and a title page. This conceals the author's identity from the judges until they've chosen a winner. The cover page, which has your name and address, is filed by the contest coordinator. The title page stays with the manuscript. This page has just the manuscript title on it. You can also put "Copyright 2005" but leave out your name.
TABLE OF CONTENTS [sample]
The table of contents should use the same font and size as the poems. It should list the poem titles on the left of the page, with a line of dots matching each poem to the number of the page where it starts. For untitled poems, put the first line or first few words instead of a title. If your manuscript is divided into sections, the table of contents should also list the page where each new section begins. Most word-processing programs will generate a table of contents for you, or you can do it by hand. Always include a table of contents, even when the rules don't request one.
Place your acknowledgments page after the table of contents or at the end of the manuscript. Set it in the same font and size as your poems. Some contests prefer you to submit this page as a separate sheet. Others may ask you to omit it. This page lists the poems in your manuscript that have been published and where they appeared. It's not necessary to list the dates or issue numbers of the poetry magazines that published your work, but you may do so if you have room.
You can include your manuscript title on the acknowledgments page, but leave out your name and address.
Put each poem on its own page. Placement on the page (centered, left-justified, or scattered around) depends on the style of your work. I prefer left-justified over centered, since that's the way most poems are printed in books and magazines. Number every page. Your word-processing program will do this automatically if you activate its page-numbering function.
COVER LETTER [sample]
Your cover letter should use a common, legible font such as Courier New or Times New Roman. I suggest the 12-point size. Standard white paper is fine.
State the following at a minimum: "Enclosed is my manuscript, [title], which I am submitting to the [name of contest]. I have enclosed the entry fee and a SASE for your response."
You can also include the names of magazines where your work has appeared and books that you've had published.
Some contests prefer that you complete their entry form rather than submit a cover letter.
WHAT'S A SASE?
A SASE is a Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope. (British contests call it a SAE.) Use an ordinary letter-sized envelope for notification of winners, or a 10x13" envelope with adequate return postage if the contest guidelines say that manuscripts will be returned.
We suggest buying a small postal scale at an office supply store such as Office
Depot. You'll save money by not putting too much postage on your packages. Current US postal rates are available at http://www.usps.com/.