20 May 2013

measure by measure: why length matters

May Submit-O-Rama: Creative Writing Submission Lengths
If you’ve been following the A to Z Presses series during this month's Submit-O-Rama, you might have noticed a trend among the submission guidelines. Editors are looking for short(er) work.

For many of us as writers, this presents a strange problem. While literary magazines are seeking shorter works, the general literary trend has been towards narrative (read: longer) works: extended prose poems, novellas, memoirs, etc. Similarly, there are increasing numbers of competitions and contests for chapbooks and collections. To break the problem down a different way, consider this: while the market is asking for collected or longer works, to break into that market of longer works authors are being asked to submit shorter works. It kind of doesn’t make sense.

Then again … it kind of makes perfect sense. There are a few reasons editors of magazines and literary journals seek out shorter works:

1. space matters: Have you ever gotten a rejection that essentially said your work was being rejected due to space constraints? It’s happening more and more often. And some editors are starting to trend toward simply rejecting longer works so they have more space for a wider range of authors. If your poem is longer than one page, and your prose is longer than 3,500 words, you run the risk of not making the cut simply because you didn’t cut your own length.

2. margin for error: Shorter work tends to be a little tighter because the writer knows every word has to count. At least, that’s the assumption. Many editors are hoping that with shorter lengths in work, authors will both understand that the pressure is on—a “do more in less space” mentality—and have less space to ruin a good thing. If you’ve ever read for a literary magazine, you know the experience: reading a perfectly lovely story submission and then, bam, right in the middle it loses power. “If only they’d just stopped at that last sentence,” you think. With shorter lengths, authors are (presumably) more likely to stop at that last sentence.

3. the foot race: Want to know a little secret? Shorter pieces read faster. Okay, so that’s not really a secret, but here’s another “not quite a secret” for you: editors don’t have a lot of time to read all the submissions they get. Sometimes you get a page to impress an editor: sometimes it’s only a paragraph, and sometimes it’s just a sentence. And here’s another one: when some editors see that one submission is twelve pages and the next one is six, they’re probably going to read the six page submission first.

Does that mean you should never submit anything longer than five pages, or any poems longer than ten lines? Of course not! But there’s more to the message for writers than “write well.” Let’s extend that to encourage ourselves to write “marketably” well. The tighter and more concise you can be in your writing, while still being strong and captivating, the (somewhat) better your odds of getting published. Don’t sacrifice who you are as a writer simply to be more marketable, but also don’t hinder your chances of scoring that publication cred by refusing to trim back!

Your Turn: What trends have you noticed in the publishing/submission world this month (or this year)? How have you worked to make yourself marketable as an artist without compromising who you are as an artist? Share your tips, observations, and feedback in the comments below!


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