22 October 2012

creative writing submissions 101: think like (and of) the editor

As writers we spend a lot of time trying to get our work into the public eye. As such, we realize that the first public eyes that often get to skim and make judgments on our words are the literary magazine editors who determine how much further our work will go. As a former poetry editor, a current reader, and a sometimes-member of several journals' editorial support staffs, I will tell you that this is not a responsibility that goes overlooked or under-appreciated by the editors. Whether work gets accepted or rejected, whether it takes months or weeks or days or hours to make that decision, it is always a painstaking one.

One of the big pains in the business of writing is trying to figure out what an editor is looking for. Sometimes we get so bogged down in trying to appease an editor that we forget to be true to ourselves as writers. It can be hard to find the perfect balance. I’ve been on both sides of the writerly scale and I can’t say I’ve found it yet. But here are some tips, from the editor side of me, for writers who are putting their work out there for other editors to see.

“follow the yellow brick road”

One of the biggest pet peeves I had as an editor was writers who decided to ignore the guidelines set forth by the literary magazine I helped edit. If the editors say to send no more than five poems, don’t test fate by sending six. If the journal calls for Times New Roman, don’t send in a submission in Calibri just because you think it looks better. Read and follow the guidelines carefully … ignoring them is a quick way to get your work ignored, too.

“what's in a name?”

With some journals it’s hard, admittedly, to keep up with who the editor is. Especially with college presses, the editor may change on a yearly basis. Still, it can be obnoxious as an editor to get a submission addressed to the guy who was the poetry editor five years ago.

for “good”

One of the pitfalls a lot of writers fall into when submitting their work is trying to write something for the editor that writer wants to impress. As an editor, I’m not looking for a dozen poems that sound just like me. I’m looking for good poetry … period. Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but it doesn’t mean it’ll get you published.

“if the shoe fits …”

Sometimes as an editor it’s rather obvious an author hasn’t bothered to familiarize him or herself with the style or aesthetic of your journal. Even if all you can do is skim through a free preview or look online at a few sample poems or short stories, at least get a sense of what the journal tends to publish before sending your text. When I read for one literary magazine, I was sent a manuscript over 100 pages that the author wanted us to comment on and, if not print in whole, serialize. I also had a poet once send me a packet of over 30 poems and ask that I just pick my favorite five.  This was just bad instincts in the part of those writers; they obviously had never bothered to figure out that the one journal didn’t do serialized stories or publish anything longer than about five pages, or have the sense to know that when I said I wanted five poems that didn’t mean send thirty and try to get me to rummage through them.

“…wear it.”

I never thought I’d have to point this out to a writer in the submission stage of his or her career, but if you’re going to submit your work, own it. I once had a writer basically apologize for what she had already decided was something I probably wouldn’t like because she wasn’t sure what she was doing when she wrote it. She’d actually sent some lovely poems, but her weak introduction to them almost got them dismissed. If you’re not proud of what you wrote, hold on to it until you are. If you are proud of it, don’t try to butter up an editor by trying to sound overly humble. If you tell us you’re a bad writer or your writing is probably not what we’re looking for, just know we might believe you.

“honesty is such a lonely word”

Always be honest, not only with your writing but also as a person submitting to a journal. I once had to withdraw an acceptance of a poet’s work because she was an alumnus of the school, and it was explicitly stated in the guidelines that we didn’t accept work from alumni or university affiliates. The poet then tried to recant her bio and claim she hadn’t actually attended the school. If any exception was even thought about in her case, it was instantly no longer in consideration. You can’t lie your way into publication.


Magazine editors understand that sometimes other opportunities arise for your work. We understand when you have to withdraw pieces. What we’re less forgiving of is when you withdraw a piece because “a better and more prestigious journal has expressed interest.” I actually had a writer say this when asking if he could withdraw a piece, except in his case it wasn’t that anybody else had expressed interest; he just wanted to send it to a “more prestigious” journal that didn’t accept simultaneous submissions. A friend of mine who worked on the editorial staff for another journal had a similar thing happen. This editor was less forgiving than the staff I worked with; he actually wrote the editor of the other magazine (because he knew him personally) to say what the writer had done. While I don’t want to suggest editors would intentionally try and “black list” you as a writer for insulting them, and I don’t necessarily agree with what my friend did, I will say that the last thing you want to do is disrespect the people in the publishing world who are there to help you achieve your dreams.

Never forget: Editors are people, too, and they even have feelings. Take care in how you send out your work, and remember that editors are there because they want to publish great work—maybe even your great work! Keeping the editor in mind is more than just trying to figure out what he or she wants to read or hear … it’s also about remembering to show editors common courtesy, and the same respect you hope they’ll show your work! None of these tips will guarantee publication—but they will help you to stay on the sunnier side of the street leading you there!


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Join in October's Submit-O-Rama with these 5 Challenges!


  1. Thank you for sharing these valuable information with us. It can really grasp helpful and informative insights to each and every individual.

  2. Thanks, Khara! The information was very helpful and clear.

  3. Very sensible! After running Curio for nearly a year, I can see what you mean with all of these, and I'll take the advice to heart. (From the other side of the coin: still doing Submit-O-Rama. 17 journals down, 12 to go. :)

  4. Thank you, all, for your comments!

    Joseph, way to go with your SOR goals! You're further ahead than me right now :)

  5. Fantastic advice! Thank you so much for passing it along.

    1. My pleasure, Valerie, and thank you for stopping by!


Thank you so much for your comments! Please feel free to share your thoughts here; I look forward to engaging in conversation with you!

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