October 21st, 2011 / 5:38 pm

Modern Submission Convenience

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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  1. Anon2

      I agree, but what’s “right” for the editor and his/her journal is often conflated with “right” or “wrong” for the story. Editors sometimes reject stories that are not “right” for them under the guise that something’s “wrong” with the story. I have a problem with this, because the submitter–esp. the young, naive one–might give up on an otherwise fine story. 

      Can I ask a second question: why is criticism of editors seemingly taboo? It’s okay to bag on submitters, but if you criticize editors, you run the risk of being mobbed. I’m not suggesting that this happening here at all, but it does happen elsewhere, and one often senses that it’s more permissible to criticize submitters than those in charge. What does this suggest?

  2. Roxane

      Editors are as fair game for criticism as anyone else but I will also say that often when writers criticize editors, its out of bitterness so it’s hard to separate genuine, deserved critique from sour grapes. Sure, editors have opinions and sometimes, when they send along feedback, those opinions are wrong, ill-informed, and short sighted but who cares? Why is it such a big deal? Yes editors can be wrong. Writers can be wrong. Lawyers can be wrong. People are fallible. 

  3. Anon2

      Bitterness is complex, though. Some people have a genuine right to be bitter. For instance, when a literary journal like Ploughshares publishes James Franco, thus taking a spot from someone who is actually talented, credibility is lost, and one begins to wonder about issues of privilege and how those issues play out when editorial decisions are made (same for the disparity between # men appearing in journals vs. women, or # racial minorities vs. whites, or the limited range of class experiences represented, etc.). All these deeper cultural issues are tied up in supposedly simple distinctions of taste and editorial “likes/dislikes.”

      If editors are mostly protected from criticism out of a fear amongst writers of being “blacklisted,” then editors get to control the conversation. Instead of both sides having of an honest, frank, critical exchange, the relationship becomes more like a parent (journal) scolding his or her child (submitter).

      I’ve been on both sides, so my beef is that I sense a real lack of genuine critical exchange in today’s literary culture because everyone is so timid and worried about what others think, or offending someone, or being blacklisted and losing a potential line on his CV.

  4. Banango

      I did not submit before the Internet (just started submitting writing in the past year and a half), but I always always always try to make my submissions seem like things I thought about. I’ll save the document under a nice name that doesn’t say “ROUGHDRAFTASSIGNMENTONE” or stuff like that. I’ll make sure there’s nothing in the submission that mentions another journal. Idk. The Internet makes things easier but it also makes people lazy. I’m an EA at Gulf Coast and we get tons of submissions that were clearly sent lazily to 20 journals without caring about trying to cover that up.

  5. Cate

      When I was working on my school’s lit journal, we used to get the greatest submissions bonuses. One person sent us a scary pencil drawing of an old man. Another sent a photograph of some ducks, with a note in the cover letter: “Here is a photo of ducks!”

      I used to have such an issue with waiting till a piece was ready before submitting it (I have now gone in the other direction and take so much time on stories that I’m barely submitting anything, ever). Now I have these awful, shitty stories floating around the internet with my damn name on them and I a) am totally embarrassed and b) can’t now submit the (better) versions of the stories elsewhere. Ugh. At the time I needed the ego boost, but in retrospect…yikes.

  6. Darby Larson

      when i was doing abjective editoring, i internally dealt also with the problem of relative right and wrong and so really never commented on pieces. i kind of have a sense sometimes that what is right is also what is everywhere already, and so it is what is uninteresting. stories impeccably written by a standard are not standard-busting. no typos perhaps means you are perhaps too careful and there perhaps isn’t enough dissonant emotion perhaps left. right = over-edited fluff. dont write in a genre, create an entirely new genre called ‘not-literature’. dont write in english, create your own language. dont write what you know because you are really only writing what you think you know. dont be right, dont be a fit, dont do what yr taught, dont write, maybe i’d consider it then.

  7. Roxane

      That makes sense. I will say there are many factors that go into selecting work at some magazines. I do not like James Franco’s writing. I don’t see the merit but as an editor who knows how hard it is to move copies, and who understands that there is a certain amount of caché to publishing a James Franco, I understand why Ploughshares would publish his work. As a writer, sure, I swallow that with a little bitterness. There is definitely a tier of magazines only interested in a certain kind of writing from a certain kind of writer. That is definitely worth critiquing. I’m reading Best American Short Stories 2011so I can write a follow up post to what I wrote about BASS 2010 and it’s… interesting. Many of the cultural issues you raise play out in the selections but saying editors can be wrong is not the same as saying there are real issues with bias and privilege in how work is selected for the top tier magazines. You’re really talking about two kinds of editorial critique. 

  8. Anon2

      Good response. I look forward to your follow-up post on BASS ’11.

      James Franco getting into the forthcoming Winter Ploughshares really, really kills me. It makes me want to just quit. For so long, I worked my ass off to break into that tier (Ploughshares, Tin House, etc.) and yet all it takes is his friend from Pal Alto, Alice Hoffman, to pluck his name out of a hat. His writing is so dead and soulless…he literally doesn’t care…and he gets into Ploughshares because he’s rich and connected. 

      Ploughshares can also hide behind its “guest editor” policy and thus avoid taking any responsibility for the solicitation, or hold up one of its token “emerging writers” as proof that they do publish unknowns–that is, as long as you’re willing to read a James Franco story. 

  9. Lincoln Michel

      I really don’t think criticism of editors is “taboo”, indeed it is quite prevalent on sites like these. Agree that many editors (and critics) conflate their own tastes with some universal right or wrongness. 

  10. Goodh51

      I’m one of those PANK has rejected a gazillion times. Your explanation as to why is that I’m sending you second- or third-rate work that I just shit out. That isn’t the case at all. Do I ever write something quickly (not hurriedly, but quickly). Yes, thank God. But the usual submission of mine has gone through multiple drafts  — that is, much anguished rewriting. You suggest that a rejection from PANK means that the writing is mediocre, and it’s mediocre because I haven’t tried to make it better. Maybe it simply means I should stop submitting to PANK because you think my stuff is second- or third-rate even if I (and a couple others) don’t think so. PANK is a terrific publication. You’re a smart and rigorous editor. But because PANK continues to reject my work doesn’t automatically mean — again, as you imply — that I’m not a careful or committed writer. In fact, I’m both.

      Btw, I’m also a careful and committed teacher of writing and have been one for 30 years.

  11. Roxane

      I was making a general statement that you are personalizing. I can’t count the number of writers who have been rejected more than 20 times but the number is well above 100, mostly because we respond quickly enough that some writers just get on a merry go round and submit over and over immediately after each rejection and when they meet with the same response, believe they’ve been blacklisted. They haven’t. In general, the writing of writers who have been rejected that many times is mediocre in our staff’s very subjective opinion. Other times, our aesthetics just aren’t compatible. We have a line of readers who read each submission and offer opinions and then I go in and read something (unless Brad has read it in which case, he can make those decisions too). It’s never one single person saying no over and over. It’s also never personal. I’m a writer  (and I write fast too) and there are plenty of places I try over and over and meet with rejection every time. It hurts but I do know it’s not personal. My writing isn’t a good fit for those magazines and it never will be no matter how hard I work.  Sure, once in a while I’ll give in to folly (Caketrain, Smokelong) and submit but because I read those magazines I can, these days, also take a step back, and understand why my work may never be a good fit. I’m not saying that’s the case with you and certainly, you’re right in that there’s a handful of writers in the oft-rejected cohort who are sending in their best work that simply doesn’t grab us for whatever reason. All of this is very… subjective but someone on staff has to love a piece for us to accept it. They have to love it like crazy. 

  12. susan

      I think the “not suited to our magazine” rejection, while seemingly offhand and elitist sounding, is often the most true. I’ve submitted to certain magazines over and over again, Pank being one of them, and have realized that while I love to read the stories in Pank, it’s just not my style of writing. Like honest, it really is not suited to Pank’s (and other’s) and unless I learn–or want–to write edgier, younger, narrative, I shouldn’t be wasting your time and mine. Every writer has a style that is their own voice and it’s what their makes their writing best in that style. It all goes back to one of the first rules of submitting: know your own style and research the market.

  13. postitbreakup

      I really liked this, especially the ending.

  14. L.

      As Roxane says, she is talking generally not about you. As an editor for other publications, I can definitely confirm that a large percentage of the slush pile is work that quite clearly is in a draft stage, often replete with spelling or grammar errors. 

  15. ryder collins

      Personally, I don’t understand this mentality. Artists change and their art changes or can be said to “mature”… We all know this so why should we look back at pieces that were published when we were younger and feel shame? Yes, you’re going to look at your “juvenalia” with some chagrin, but you should be damn proud you had the guts to get it out there & that you had the heart to love your work enough. I teach undergrad intro cwers & I encourage them to submit their work cos a) it’s good practice & b) the ones that do are the ones that really believe in their shit. I do tell them to do their research & not firebomb the world; I also show them how to write a short, succinct query letter and how to look “professional.” I also show them my submishmash account with the list of acceptances, rejections, and withdrawals so they can see that it’s a lot of work, and that published authors get rejected, too. I’m all about making this thing more transparent and helping young writers learn the “ins” and “outs,” even the writers whose work I don’t believe in (just because I don’t doesn’t mean there isn’t an audience for it). There may be a “finite” amount of spaces in one literary magazine, as Roxane mentions in one of her comments, but there is an almost infinite number of readers with new lit mags popping up every day… It’s not up to me to quash my students’ dreams or tell them they’re not “ready” yet, to me that reeks of “gate-keeping” & mama don’t keep no gates round here, yo.

  16. James Lloyd Davis

      Anon 2 says, “The minute you aim to please people is when you lose your integrity as an artist.”  I can understand the sentiment, but I don’t understand why any writer would want to write something that does not please the reader.  “Please” being a rather vague term, I can only assume that it’s used to convey the concept of something a reader would want to read.  I could be wrong, but any time the word, “art” is used, the debate will rage.  Passions flare, bullets fly.

      Loved the post, remember fondly the expense, time and effort involved in plying the literary soil to reap row upon row of rejection slips.  Yes, it’s easier today and probably a more forgiving process.  It’s a good thing.

      I also love a good conspiracy theory to explain my inability to break into ‘certain’ venues.  Conspiracy explanations trumps the work of rewrites and revision every time. 

  17. Anon2

      I hear you, James

      I do want to please the reader, but in order to please the reader, I must first please myself.

      My personal take: fiction is hypnosis, which doesn’t necessarily mean that the writer needs to give readers what they “want” in order to hypnotize or charm them into believing, which is why I don’t put much stock into figuring out what certain journals “want” (outside of basic genre matters), or trying to decipher a preferred aesthetic. If the point of fiction is to create an experience in the reader’s head, then the writer should be confident that he or she can win over any reader under the right circumstances.

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  19. Shannon

      I’ve been thinking about this and I think maybe I’m being a little naive. It floors me when editors say that so many writers send work carelessly. I can’t imagine doing that without being mortified. I know that I do have mistakes on manuscripts on occasion since I am human but the idea that people just throw everything out without care boggles and upsets me.

      Given the convenience of submitting these days it means I can do it more but it has never occurred to me to do it with less care. I still have my submission rituals. I like that phrase a lot, there’s a lot of ritual to it for me and clicking send is the last thought before I start wondering how quickly I get a rejection.

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  21. JC

      Great, helpful post.

  22. LindaS-W

      Great post. As one of the writers who has yet to pass your muster, I appreciate the candid insight into your editorial mind. And I’ll keep trying. Peace…

  23. Americanpoet75

      I think the “what matters” conversation here matters.  “What matters” is far too vague, as is the statement “we publish the best of what we receive.”  If writers are called upon to be specific and excellent in their cover letters, editors could and should craft better statements about the kinds of work they seek to publish.  But we all know it’s really less about any sort of type of writing.  Is there really and difference between the work published in AGNI or PANK or Tin House or Poetry or Alaska Review or Midwest Review or Southwestern Review Paris Review or Gettysburg Review or Sheboygan Review or Chicago Review or Another Chicago Magaine or Poetry East or Poetry Midwest or….

      What it’s about is that editors are whiny and lazy.  If they really want to have better submissions, they need to interact with those who are submitting.  If the same poet submits the same bad work and the same bad cover letter to 100 magazines, all he’s going to get is a form letter back.  This will go on and on and on until someone steps in and responds more specifically, whether that be in a “never write again” sort of way or in a “good, but try this” sort of way.  I suspect that for much of the bad work editors get, the writers themselves will never be able to see that it is bad. 

  24. Roxane

      I disagree. Our statement about the work we want to publish is… the work we publish. We don’t want to limit writers by narrowing it unnecessarily. Some magazines, say a crime fiction magazine, might have a more narrow statement about what they’re looking for but we don’t need one at PANK. We shouldn’t have to include a statement that says, “Please run spellcheck.” Writers should know that and often, the level of carelessness I’m talking about here is really on that level. 

      Editors are not lazy and for you to make that statement makes it seem like you don’t know.. anything about editing. I can’t speak for other magazines, but at PANK, we work really hard on developing relationships with writers. This is the reality: writers do not want to know what editors think about their submissions. We try to send feedback as often as possible, as diplomatically as posible, and you would not BELIEVE the nasty responses we get. More than one writer has, point blank, said, “your opinion doesn’t matter.” Writers want to believe that every piece of writing they produce is a perfect gem. They only want to hear yes or no which is why, on our submission page, we now ask writers to tell us in their cover letter, if they don’t want feedback because I’m sick and tired of writers shitting all over me for telling them why their submission won’t work for PANK.

      Here are some choice excerpts:
      “My goodness, did i ask for you opinion? I like my writing the way it is. Its your Mum’s cunt is sloppy. Go polish that.”

      “learn how to write, you fool.”

      ” I agree the work is one of my weaker efforts, but I had the idea that I might find a place for it if only I set my sites low enough. ”

      I could go on all night. But that’s why editors send form rejections. 

  25. Shannon

      I’ve been submitting to and following the short fiction markets for a decade. There has never been a time when any of the magazines I love have had a dearth of submissions. Editors inboxes are packed. Have you seen the stats for some of the It magazines lately? Go check out some zines on Duotrope and look at the submission turn around rates. The market is murder.

      I don’t expect any editor anywhere to put the entire rest of their life on hold to read my shit or send me a breakdown of why or why not they are going to publish it. I have gotten those kinds of rejections over the years and some of them were insanely supportive and encouraging but it’s not a requirement.

      Writers can’t expect editors to be our teachers. If you want teachers take a class, join a writers group, get a tutor do something else. It’s not an editors job to instruct us.

      I find it’s an unreasonable expectation to need editors to spend X amount of time telling us all the reasons why or why not they can’t use a piece or they didn’t like it. Given some of the bad behavior I see from other writers, I don’t blame editors for not engaging. I wouldn’t either because people can be fucking assholes when they are butthurt about a rejection. Perhaps if more writers could behave themselves in a less butthurt fashion editors would be more inclined to engage on a one to one basis.

      Change in how editors and writers interact can’t be the entire responsibility of editors. If we want more interpersonal contact and criticism we all have to try.

  26. Goodh51

      I’ve edited issues of Right Hand Pointing and also serve as co-editor of Left Hand Waving and White Knuckle Press. Fortunately, I have never been subjected to the kind of personal abuse you quote. I have, however, felt abused by other editors. Sometimes it’s because they don’t reply, even to follow-up e-mails. Sometimes it’s because of the nasty tone of their rejections — almost as if they edit for the pleasure of putting someone down. That’s certainly not the case with PANK, but the reality is that it is the case elsewhere. Every writer probably has at least one rejection horror story.

      As to guidelines, I find a lot of writers who submit to us ignore them, It can be something as simple as our reading period. It’s clearly posted, but people will submit outside it anyway. My suggestioin for anyone who isn’;t clear on what a publication publishes is simple — read the damn publication before submitting. It isn’t exactly difficult to infer from what they publish whether whatr you’re writing is a good fit or not.

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