Many writers DO NOT follow directions. As a conference director and an instructor for a children's literature course, I see it time and time again. I also saw it when judging a contest for Children's Writer. It frustrates me. And I know from editors' and agents' talks, blogs and twitter comments, that it frustrates them. So like Dorothy, who had to stay on the Yellow Brick Road to get to OZ, you have to stay within the guidelines to get your submission read.
Here are possibilities of what might be asked for in writers' guidelines or in submission policies:
• Full Manuscript - very common for a picture book or for a magazine piece. Not so common for a novel.
• Cover Letter - whether it is stated or not, for a book length work, it is polite to send a one page cover letter. Some book editors or agents say they read it first; some last. Magazine editors may or may not care whether there is one. However, if the guidelines ask for one, do it! For a magazine submission you may need to tell what theme you're aiming your article or story--a cover letter is an easy place to do so.
• Query Letter - unlikely for a picture book, and not so common for magazine short stories or articles, but it depends on the magazine. Definitely common for novels, whether submitting to an editor or an agent. But unless you read the specific guidelines for where you're submitting, you won't know. What accompanies the query letter is as varied as the days of the month, but here are six common requests:
1. A Partial - part of the manuscript - yes, they know there is more. The editor or agent will ask for more if she likes what she read.
a. First or First Three Chapters - yes, it's always the beginning of the novel. If those aren't your best chapters, rewrite until they are.
b. Number of Pages - 5, 10, 100 - again follow the directions. If on the last page of what you are requested to submit, you have an incomplete sentence, delete it so you end on a full sentence.
2. Plus Synopsis or Outline - in addition to a paragraph in your cover letter, an editor or agent may ask for a breakdown of your story. Some may want a chapter by chapter outline. Others a one page synopsis. Yet others a longer synopsis. The guidelines may be very specific about this so you'll probably have a number of versions of your synopsizes.
3. Bibliography - of course you'll have this information anyway when doing your research for an article for a magazine, but whether or not an editor will require it depends on their guidelines. You may also have this info for a picture book, especially a nonfiction one.
4. Résumé - some houses and magazines only want a query with no manuscript submission of any kind. They often want a résumé. You'll also see guidelines for queries that request partials asking for a résumé. Before the Internet I never saw instructions on how to do this, so listed a summary of published books, articles and short stories with a selection of titles and magazines for the latter two. I also included membership in writing organizations. Since then, I've found two online resources specifically aimed at children's writers. Here's one from the Institute of Children's Literature: The Dreaded Writer's Resume by Jan Fields. And this one, Creating a Writer's Resumé by Glen and Karen Bledsoe is even more detailed.
5. Clips - article or short story "clipped" out of a magazine - obviously photocopies are acceptable. What they want here is to see some samples of your published works. Some magazines only work with writers after they've seen a résumé and clips, and then they assign articles. Some work for hire or educational publishers want to know how you write before they consider you for a project and will also ask for clips. In some cases you can reference online articles as well, though this is not as common.
6. Samples - a sample of your writing. In this case it does not need to be published. Again, this is so they can determine whether they want to try you out with an assignment.
• Special requests. These could be quite varied. I recently read in one magazine's guidelines that they want "the date of submission on the first page of the manuscript." Of course, many magazines will want to know what rights you are selling. However, if they only buy all rights, that is what they will assume you're selling. Some publishers may request you to give them a marketing plan.
Writers' Guidelines will also let you know the acceptable method of sending your manuscript or query. The standard postal mail aka snail mail is still the norm for many publishing houses and magazines. Agents are more likely to go with email. But email has its caveats: what the subject line MUST say or include, query and/or manuscript portion pasted into the email itself or as an attachment. If an attachment, it must be in a certain format, i.e. Microsoft Word. Mess up on following the "how to" on an email submission and it will probably not be read.
Okay, I know it's not a deep concept, but really READ THE DIRECTIONS and FOLLOW THEM! You'll avoid an automatic rejection by doing so, and perhaps you'll get in to meet the Wizard of Oz, er, Editor or Agent.