The current market situation being what it is paying markets drowning in slush, more writers than ever competing for the few available slots. Unless you're Steven King, Mort Castle, or the like, you know response times are stretching and "yes to no" ratios are definitely leaning toward the down side.
What can you do to better your chances?
I hear the biggest part of that answer from editors almost every day follow the guidelines. Okay, I think most of us are pretty good about checking what genres, themes, word lengths, no-no's, etc. a publication requires, but what about the little things?
There are two basic kinds of submission formats today, hard copy and electronic. Paper submissions haven't changed much over the years. Still, you must watch for snares. While it is normal to paper clip your pages, some editors want them loose. You'll even find one or two who want them stapled. Some may require a specific font, or italics indicated differently than normal underlining, or no author name after the first page. Whatever they want, or don't want, do comply. Read the guidelines with a magnifying glass and customize your pages to fit the bill.
I remember a magazine whose guidelines required all manuscripts be bound with two rubber bands. Elastically deficient stories were disposed of unread -- SASE and all! The reason for this demand was simple. That editor wanted professional work -- and pros read and follow guidelines to the letter. No rubbers, no readers. Say what you like, that editor never had a slush pile problem -- 85% of all submissions took a dive straight into the recycling dumper.
Want to learn more? In the long list of page links in the right frame at Ralan.com (yes, I know everyone else has theirs on the left!) you'll find two very helpful links for this subject, "Writing Help" (which you've already found if you're reading this!) and "Market Notes." If you're unsure how to format a submission I suggest you read the "Writing Help" page thoroughly. Both of the basic manuscript formats are described, hard copy and electronic. Just remember that these are standard formats -- you still may have to customize them for individual markets. The "Market Notes" page has a lot of technical and legal stuff about Ralan.com -- which is important -- but it has fun things, like a list of the Abreviations I use, and where and how I get my information. Oh, hum.
Next time we'll look at electronic submissions, where the term "standard format" is a bit more slippery.