You probably hope to be featured in the highest-paying, best-known magazines. Nothing wrong with that—unless all you know about such is that everyone’s heard of them. Before you offer a story to any publisher:

1. Find a market guide.The premier directory for locating publishers is Writer’s Market, available online and through and most public libraries. There are also guides specifically for fiction writers, religious writers, writers for children, and others. Check subject indexes to pinpoint five or six possible markets; look up the listings; then:

2. Read—and follow—the instructions.Make sure your chosen market actually publishes fiction. Countless editors state “We publish only nonfiction” at every opportunity, yet still receive fiction submissions daily. Never ask nonfiction publishers to make exceptions: would you like to receive a letter stating, “We know you’re a vegetarian, but our meat is so delicious we’re sure you’ll eat it”?

Market guide listings include other basics never to ignore. If someone requests “750-1500 words” and “postal submissions only,” don’t try to get away with 3000 words and e-mail.

Basic market listings are only a beginning:

3. Study what your target market has already published—preferably all the fiction in five or six back issues (most market listings include instructions on obtaining samples). Are scenes short or long, action slow or fast, dialogue polite or profane? Would your pace, setting, and theme “fit in”?

(Never imitate other fiction, though—publishers don’t want “been there, read that” stories.)

Once you target a market:

4. Presentation counts. No neon colors or Showcard Gothic font. Hard-copy submissions require good-quality black print on white paper, in 12-point Times New Roman or Courier text. Double-space throughout, indenting each new paragraph. Use only one side of each sheet, with a page number and author/title note at the top of each—except the first page, which should have full contact information at the top and begin the story proper with the title, centered about two-thirds of the way down.

Format e-mail attachments similarly, in Word software. In the body of an e-mail, deactivate “curly quotes,” indents, and other formatting before copying the text. Indicate paragraph breaks by blank lines.

(For full details on formatting, check your market guide or library catalog.)

If the publisher prefers queries to manuscripts (less common than with nonfiction), format and structure your query as you would a cover letter. In any case:

5. Include cover letters with all manuscripts. Format as you would a business letter; it should be about one page long. Include a brief synopsis of the story; note your credentials (anything else published, experience in settings similar to the story’s); and explain why this story is right for this publisher. (If the story was requested in response to a query, it’s enough to reiterate the facts.)

Even after all that: 6. Have four or five additional markets ready so you can “try, try again.” No matter how good, few first stories sell immediately. The editor may have recently bought something similar, or may just not feel your work is quite right for his magazine. Never argue or demand explanations; just send your story to the next publisher. Keep it circulating constantly (perhaps re-editing every fifth time) until someone says yes.