Modern Submission Convenience

Posted by @ 5:38 pm on October 21st, 2011

We just finished our first workshop in my fiction class and now my students and I are talking about revision and what students should consider, if and when they choose to submit writing to literary magazines. I want to make clear to my students that publication isn’t what they should be thinking about right now but I still want them to start to understand what it means to submit work, receive editorial feedback and face rejection or acceptance. Most of the students are, understandably, intimidated by the submission process and what it means to put their work out into the world. Hell, I’m still intimidated by the submission process. For newer writers, it is hard to grasp what editors really want. It’s hard to break yourself of the mindset that you need to worry about what editors want. I went over some of the basic etiquette of submitting–address the proper editors, spell their names correctly, don’t explain your story, don’t ramble, proofread your work, read it aloud, proofread it again, research the magazines where you’re sending your work, read the magazines where you’re sending your work, and more than anything, make sure you’re submitting writing that matters.

When I first started submitting work, there was a ritual to it. I’d print a story out on my dot matrix printer and tear off the perforated edges dotted with tiny holes. I’d consult my Writer’s Market, write a cover letter, address a return envelope affixed with enough postage for a response and send off a story I now know had no shot in hell of ever being published by the likes of those glittery magazines I foolishly hoped would love my work. I am not nostalgic for that time. It was pretty terrible. I did learn, though, that becoming a published writer required patience and effort and sometimes that effort was secretarial.

For the past several years, it has become very easy to submit writing via e-mail or some kind of web-based submission manager. I appreciate that ease, the convenience of modern submission. With the advent of Submittable, nee Submishmash, your submission information is now centralized for every magazine who uses their system and that is easy too. I like that with a few clicks of the mouse I can send my work to one magazine or eleven magazines. I keep my cover letter in Google Docs so I don’t have to retype it every time. I copy/paste/attach or upload/submit. There is, I suppose, some ritual to submitting but submitting my writing requires a fraction of the effort it once did. Submitting work is now exceptionally convenient and I appreciate that convenience.

I can tell when a bunch of writers have reported their submission responses to Duotrope because shortly thereafter, we’ll get a small surge of submissions. Sometimes, the cover letters are addressed to other magazines. Dear Grist Editors. Dear Kenyon Review. Dear Agni. I write back, “We are not Grist.” “We are not Kenyon Review. “We are not Agni.”

Cover letters have changed too. When I had to physically mail the majority of my submissions, I typed out a letter with my contact information, the name and length of my story, and a brief biography. I had no idea what to say about myself. In 1996 when I first started submitting seriously, I had no credits to my name so I just made things up, not about publications but about my love of writing and my devotion to the written word and other embarrassments. I saved most of those cover letters and as I wrote this, I opened that folder, read one letter and was sufficiently mortified. By 2000, I had one essay to my name in a small magazine no one had ever heard of and another essay in an anthology no one had ever heard of, and a bunch of genre writing credits no one in the literary world would give a damn about. There’s a message in that, I’m sure. I consulted the back of literary magazines I owned for guidance and my ovaries shriveled a bit (Paris Review! Gettysburg Review! Review! Review! Review!) so I took the literal approach and talked about being an editorial assistant at a literary magazine. I referenced my love of miniature objects. I name-checked my one magazine credit and hoped I was striking the fine balance between fact and whimsy. I belabored over these letters because I thought they were really important and I was especially careful to check for typos and other evidence of carelessness. Again, I’m not nostalgic but I do remember that I cared, very much, about how I sent my work into the world and I was certainly a lot more careful than I am now.

As an editor I enjoy cover letters. I’ve written about this before. Cover letters add a bit of warmth to the cool pixels of electronic submission; they soften some of the anonymity of the process. Sometimes, though, writers simply say, “Thanks,” or “See attached.” Sometimes they say nothing. The data field for Cover Letter does not demand much care. It doesn’t demand much of anything at all.

Four or five times a day a writer will withdraw a submission to PANK. Our submission manager has a comment field that allows writers to tell us why they are withdrawing that story. Three or four out of those four or five times, a writer is withdrawing a story because they have changed their mind about submitting that piece, because the work is not ready yet, because they’re still revising, because they found a few typos, mostly because they submitted their work prematurely. They have no compunction about sharing this information and the honesty is almost charming. Often these writers will say, “I am resubmitting immediately,” the irony of that statement lingering.

Students at universities across the country will submit work with the class information still included in the file: English 210, English 440, English 4007, English 880, Mr. Thomas, Dr. Jones, Ms. Carlito, Mrs. Jones, 10/12/11, 9/9/11, 08/15/11. 03/21/11. I know when and for whom and where they wrote the story or poem(s) because they didn’t take five seconds to delete this information. They didn’t take care. I wonder if they even know that there should be a difference between work produced for a class and work submitted for publication.

I especially love when I see the phrase, “Rough draft,” on one of these academic work products. There’s a lot of information being conveyed in those two words.

Submitting writing is a seductive. It provides a gambler’s rush because no matter how unlikely, there is possibility and possibility offers hope, hope that an editor will love your writing, that they will validate your work and what inspires you and how you choose to convey that inspiration. Being published is seductive–there’s a bit of the exhibitionist in most writers–our work, out in the world, being read, and maybe, just maybe, being appreciated feels good. I get it. I get why newer writers (and I certainly have done this), throw their work out into the world with a heavy hammer, hastily sending off a newly finished story or poem because they’re so flush with the excitement of completion that they don’t pause and think about what they’re sending, where they’re sending that work, how they’re sending that work, and why they’re sending that work.

The process of submitting writing these days is generally so effortless it is easy to participate in the business of being a writer, while being completely careless. The difference between now with our modern submission conveniences and the ancient era of physical submissions is that there was a level of effort that could, in some circumstances, serve as the necessary pause for reflection and consideration. I recently submitted a story to The Paris Review for the first time since I was in my early twenties–nearly fifteen years ago. They kick it old school, so you have to print out your story and cover letter and do the envelope dance. I also prepared a submission for Ecotone, and in performing that submission ritual, I realized that in the time between printing out the story, preparing the envelope, writing and printing the cover letter and so on, I had plenty of time to work through any anxieties and give my work another look to see if it was truly ready to send out. While I used to hate having to go to all the trouble, I actually appreciated putting the physical submissions together and I felt like I was sending work that, in some small way, matters.

Yes, now I am being nostalgic.

Today, most of the reflection and consideration takes place after you click Submit. Only then do writers quickly re-open a file and perhaps take the first hard look at their work and find that it isn’t ready, or that it hasn’t been proofread or that they haven’t taken enough care. Some writers will take the time to withdraw and resubmit. Others will simply let the sloppy work stand. In the end, it’s fine. We are all human. Lord knows, I’m right there with most writers, finding embarrassing mistakes in my work, realizing I may have rushed a submission, hastily trying to remedy the situation.

There are writers who have been rejected by PANK more than twenty or thirty times. The buzz of conspiracy makes its way back to me every few weeks; there is an idea that somehow these writers have been blacklisted. Such is certainly not the case but it is strange that the message isn’t clear—writers shouldn’t submit more, they should submit better, not just in terms of producing polished work, but in terms of producing work that matters, work that isn’t the virtual equivalent of a scrawl on a napkin. I’ve also talked about how so many magazines and presses are currently operating. There’s always more high quality writing to read. I have a to-read stack in my apartment I will never get through. Amidst such a competitive landscape, I want to read things that matter as an editor. I want to get better about writing things that matter. More than anything, I want a small bit of code inserted into all these modern submission conveniences, a virtual stroll to the mailbox, a warning screen that pops up before the act of submission is complete, something that says, “Have you truly written something that matters?”

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