Okay, you've slaved long and hard over your latest batch of masterpieces, and you think they're good enough to be published. You've examined the market carefully and decided on your first potential publisher. So, what's next?
The next step is to stop being a poet for a little while. Poets, almost by our very nature (and, yes, I'm talking about myself, too), are dogmatic and self-centered. We write for ourselves, for our heart and soul, and damned with the rest of the mundane world. That's fine when you're writing poetry, even expected, but now it's time to change hats. Now, it's time to be a little more prosaic. Writing is an art, but publishing is very much a business. So stop being a writer for a few minutes, and put on your business hat.
Below, you'll find some common conventions of the publishing industry. Some are hard-and-fast rules, never to be broken, while others are simply the way things are usually done. All of these are important and, as a business person, you'll do well to recognize their validity.
When you get ready to go on a date, there's a few things most of us do first. We take a shower or bath, brush our teeth, and put on fresh clothes. Those who have more hair than I do probably comb it. In other words, we get pretty. We know that people aren't going to like us just because we're neat and presentable, but we also know they expect it. Just as we expect it of them.
It's really not so very different when you get ready to submit your poems for publication. Being neat and presentable isn't enough to be liked, but it's also darn hard to like someone if their odor puts in mind of a gorilla on a three-day drunk. And if you submit your poems with atrocious spelling, on canary yellow tissue paper, in a 7 point calligraphy font, it's entirely possible the magazine editor will never get past the stink either.
Please check your spelling carefully. If you're reading these pages, I know you use a computer. And spell checkers are pretty darn common-place items these days. Use yours. Unfortunately, that's still not quite enough. Automated tools can catch the most glaring errors, but a lot of correctly spelled words, that just aren't what you meant to say, will still get by them. A spell checker doesn't understand the difference between your and you're or between their and they're, but you certainly should.
They're are two kinds of errors that seem to slip past an author. The first is from carelessness. We write something that should be plural, but our finger just kind of misses the "s," and we just never catch it. The spell checker won't, either. The only way to catch these kinds of mistakes is to read what you wrote. Usually, several times. It constantly amazes me how few authors go back and take the time to read their own words. I read just about everything I write at least twenty or thirty times. The first few times, I'm looking for mistakes. The kind we're talking about here. Then I read it a few more times for logical errors or to check consistency. And I usually read it several times after that, simply because I like my own writing. (So, sue me...)
The second kind of mistake that slips past authors is from lack of knowledge. Few of us are geniuses, and the English language isn't something that can be mastered overnight. Or even in a single life time. Obviously, there are no simple solutions to this kind of mistake, other than to say it happens to all of us. If you're a writer, and especially if you're a poet, you should have an intrinsic love of our language. So, study it. And excellent place to start is at Common Errors in English (and I can post many others if anyone expresses an interest).
Besides spelling, don't forget that punctuation and capitalization are also important. Indeed, they are far more important in poetry than in any other form of writing. Punctuation, in particular, controls the flow of your poem, the way the reader pauses to take a breath (and, perhaps, to think), and can often change the entire effect of a poem. For that reason, the rules of standard punctuation (and capitalization to a lesser extent) don't always apply in poetry. That's part of of our "poetic license," after all. However, if your capitalization and punctuation don't follow standard English usage, make sure you have a real reason for it. Don't do it simply to be different. Don't do it simply out of laziness.
Now that we've gotten the basics out of the way, let's talk about your manuscript. Few of these are hard and fast rules, but rather are conventions that have become accepted practices in the industry. Following them will show that you are a professional and know what you're doing.
First things first. Use decent paper for your submissions: white, 20 pound, nothing fancy or with a shiny surface. Avoid letterhead and save the graphics or fancy fonts for your web page. Editors look at hundreds of pieces of paper a day and they like things simple. In the same vein, make sure your type face is clear and easy to read. Use a font like Arial, Times, Helvetica, Courier, or something similarly simple. A font size of 12 point is good. Your printer should produce clear, black print. A laser printer is good, an ink jet is fine, but if you have to use a dot matrix, you should use its very best letter-quality mode.
Most manuscripts do not include a letter or cover sheet. The exception might be if you have previously published work, in which case it's fine to tell the editor of it. Don't use a binder or staples. Paperclips are acceptable, but usually unnecessary.
Set your margins at 1.5 inches on all sides. The upper left corner of your first page should contain the information that every editor is going to need. List your legal name, address, phone number, perhaps an email address, and your social security number. Editors need the latter in order to pay you. If you intend to publish under a pseudonym, you still need to give your legal name in this area. For some types of writing, the right hand corner of the first page will contain additional information, like word count, publishing rights offered, and a copyright notice. None of that is necessary for poetry, however.
Drop down about one-third of the page and center the title of your poem. Beneath that, and still centered, type the word "by" followed by the name you want used. This is where you will put your pseudonym if desired. Drop down two lines and begin your poem, using what ever indentation seems appropriate to your format. Unlike every other kind of writing in the world, poetry is not normally double-spaced, except between stanzas. That's because, unlike every other kind of writing in the world, the editor won't be editing it. The words of the poet, unlike those of the article writer or story-teller, are sacred.
If your poem requires more than a single page, subsequent pages follow a slightly different format. You need three pieces of information on each page, but exactly where you put them is pretty loosely defined. The three pieces of information are your name (last name alone is fine, unless your name happens to be Smith), the title of your work (usually an abbreviated version for long titles), and the page number. Typically, I will put my name in the upper left corner, and the title and page number in the right. Then, simply continue with your poem.
A short word about page numbers: with most forms of writing, page numbers alone are sufficient. But poetry, I feel, is slightly different. It's not unusual to submit more than one poem (but not too many), which will begin page numbering over again, and even more importantly -- it's not always easy to tell when a poem is done. Pages get shuffled around, and I would hate for an editor to read two pages of my poem and not ever realize there were a third and fourth. For this reason, I would use a slightly different page numbering format for poetry than for other submissions. Page 2 of 3, or something similar, so the reader knows how long the poem should extend.
If you are submitting four or less pages, a standard #10 envelope is considered acceptable. I rarely do this, though, because it's so tough to stuff a SASE in a #10. If your are sending more than four pages, it's more proper to use a full size envelope, with the pages sent flat. It's also easier to buy a slightly smaller, flat envelope to use as the SASE.
Just one final thing. When I first started submitting my writing for publication, everything was prepared on typewriters (uh, any one heard of those?). Laborious, time consuming work. So it was important to get the manuscript back in good condition, to send to the next market without needing to retype the whole damn thing. Times have changed. It's now quite common to center the word "disposable" in the bottom footer of your manuscript and enclose just a #10 envelope for the response. It's cheaper to reprint the document than it is to pay for postage.
That's it, my friends. You now know all the standard rules and conventions for submitting your work for publication. So what are you waiting for?