How (Not) to Get Your Writing Published
March 5, 2012 § 3 Comments
I’m currently reading submissions for a bi-annual literary journal, sifting the “stellar” from the “has potential” and the “just get it away from me.” Since I’m currently an unknown writer sending my poems out to various publications, whispering, “Like me, like me, like me” when I mail them, I know the vulnerability of putting your work into the hands of someone potentially willing to publish it.
I’ve been writing poetry since early childhood. My premier preschool-era poem still hangs on my grandma’s wall; it is entitled “Happy Birthday Grammo” — my spelling was not all that at age 4. Despite my two decades of writing since then, however, I’m still an “emerging writer,” in that I’ve never published a book. Or published in a lot of journals. Or developed a following. Okay, “emerging” is a generous term; I’m still very much in the early stages of getting published beyond my grandmother’s living room. And since I’d like people to read more than a single poem written in magic marker, I really hope that people at various journals and publishing houses are going to give my work a chance.
Especially since at any other journal I’d be the submitter, when I’m reading submissions sent to the lit mag I work for, I truly try to give each one the benefit of the doubt, assuming each poem will be good until I’m proven otherwise.
But sometimes I’m proven way otherwise.
There are a number of things submitters do that immediately set their poem on the slippery slope to the “no” pile. (Subsections of the “no” pile include the “hell no” pile and the “oh, please, please let me never think of this again” pile.)
To help you, the submitters, (but mostly to help me and other editors deal with this crap less in the future), I’ve compiled the following points to help you avoid ending up in one of the nine circles of rejection hell.
1. Read the gorram directions.
a. If the journal’s submission instructions say, “Please submit no more than [insert integer here] poems/stories at a time,” what should you do? That’s right! Your should submit twice as many as they ask for because anyone anywhere would be happy to read more of your poems!
No. My biggest piece of advice for submitting to journals is to go out of your way not to piss off the people who will be evaluating your work. If I open your submission file to discover that you’ve included eight poems even though we only allow six at a time, I’m immediately annoyed, and I think two things: 1) This person did not read the directions, and 2) This person thinks that he/she/ze is above the directions. Well, guess what? Since I work for the journal, those are my directions, and your ignoring them is like giving me the middle finger while I’m doing you the kindness of trying to consider your work seriously, even if the title is “One in a Million” (Note: actual title for a poem I recently read — try to avoid cliches, especially in the title: it’s your first impression).
You don’t want me thinking you’re lazy, negligent, or arrogant before I even read your poems.
b. If the instructions say, “Oy! These are going to be blind submissions! Don’t put your name on the manuscript!” then my suggestion is: don’t put your name on the manuscript! If you’ve submitted to a contest or an editor’s prize or anything else that asks you to remove your name from the file holding the poems/stories, but you ignore this and put your name and contact information on the first/last/every/any page of your manuscript, the person reading your submission can and probably will just reject it without reading it, since you didn’t follow the rules.
Conversely, if the mag asks you to put your contact info on every page of the manuscript in order to make it easier for them to contact you later, do that. If you don’t follow the directions, everyone will know how poorly you did on the “listening” portion of the STAR tests as a child.
2. Submit all your pieces of writing in one file, unless the directions indicate differently. Why? Multiple files are a hassle for us.
Many publications now allow you to (or even prefer you to) submit online. Writers usually do so by uploading their work to a dropbox feature on the journal’s website or through a service such as ManuscriptHub, or Submishmash, or Submittable.
We use ManuscriptHub.com, and after writers electronically submit their work, our readers must then download each file in order to review it.
Each submitter has his/her/hir own folder, and you will have assuaged me if I open your folder to find only one file (.pdf or .doc/.docx or something please — if I have to figure out how to open up some bizarre file type I either 1) won’t, or 2) will be incredibly annoyed by the time I actually get to your writing). If, however, I open the folder for submitter #4559 and find four separate files, each of which holds a poem about one page long, I will be muttering obscenities to myself as I open them. (You only want this to happen after I read your poem, as in, “Fuck! This poem just tore my heart out and fed it to a vulture and then put the vulture through a wood chipper!” This is how I react to things I like; I’m weird.)
3. I am judging you based on your font. When I open your (one, please just one) file, the font is the first thing my eyes register. Before I can evaluate your title or even the poem’s visual form, really, I either notice your font or fail to notice your font.
a. If I fail to notice it, that means you used Times New Roman: good job. Times New Roman is totally innocuous — it’s easy to read and is the default font for Word documents.
b. If I notice it and it engenders a happy feeling in my chest, that means you used a font other than the old standby of TNR, and one that is aesthetically pleasing but conservative. Examples of this include Georgia, Palatino (my current favorite), Garamond, Cambria, and plain Times (somehow slightly more beautiful than TNR).
Poets care an inordinate amount about font and spacing; I’ve had multiple protracted discussions with other poets about which fonts we prefer and why, as well as the benefits of 1.15 spacing and the evils of double-spacing a poem. You might think we’re ridiculous, geeky control freaks to spend time alone in our rooms thinking about fonts, and we probably we are — but we’re the obstacle between you and publication, so we’re ridiculous, geeky control freaks with power.
c. If I notice your font and it engenders a tight, burning feeling in my chest that makes me look for the nearest chair or small child to kick, that means you used something absurd — a flowery script that I can barely read or some pseudo-handwriting that looks like a kindergartener scrawled your poem in crayon (unless you are a kindergartener writing a poem destined for your grandmother’s wall, this is unacceptable). I will not take your poems seriously anymore. I will read for evidence to support my new belief that you are a dilettante/moron/cat that stepped on the keyboard while Jane got up to make a cup of coffee.
4. I’m judging you based on your poem’s visual form. Never center-align your poems. Never. Just don’t. It shows that you’re an amateur.
The only acceptable center-aligning that I can think of occurs in Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony, in which she center-aligns a series of ceremonial poems/stories that interrupt the prose at various points, and these are center-aligned to emphasize that they are spoken, i.e. this is oral tradition: Native American myths spoken throughout the generations. And even in the midst of this brilliant, astonishing, acclaimed novel, I still cringed when I came upon poems placed in the middle of the page.
5. If you haven’t racked up any demerits during numbers 1 through 4, congratulations! I am now actually reading your writing without any negative feelings!
But now I’m judging you based on your title.
Coming up with a title can feel like lot of pressure. I mostly suck at it. The easiest thing is to use a very simple title and thus dodge the bullets of “cliched” and “overdramatic.” If you write a poem about a cornfield, call it “Field;” a poem about a lover, call it “For Thomas” (feel free to substitute the name of your own lover).
That “One in a Million” poem? My expectations immediately fell from this-person-could-be-the-next-Anne-Carson to writing-from-a-Katherine-Heigl-movie-level. Similarly, don’t call your poem “Tortured Hell that Is My Soul” — you don’t want me thinking this is a discarded Dashboard Confessional song from 2003. (Keyboard confessional: I secretly loved DC back in the day, and I’ll still rock out to “Vindicated” if given the chance.)
A title prepares readers for the poem, primes their expectations. A title can lead grammatically into the first line of the poem (I have a poem called “She Asks Me How You Are,” and the first lines are “And I tell her / you’re wonderful”), or a title can provide vital information (W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” which centers on the Nazi invasion of Poland on that date, which marked the beginning of World War II) or convey a tone (“In Vermont No One Can Hear You Scream” and “The Things I Do When I Am Not Doing You,” both by Gregory Sherl, who great and you should check these poems out right now — go on, click the link).
Your options for titles are myriad, but the safest is a one or two word title that is quiet and doesn’t distract from the poem. Of course, if you can come up with a title that does something more than be innocuous, kudos! Just so long as the thing it does isn’t “sound like a 13-year-old’s diary.”
I’m a big fan of the super specific, super long title. James Wright was a master of these. Great titles of his include “In Response to a Rumor That the Oldest Whorehouse in Wheeling, West Virginia Has Been Condemned” and “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota,” the latter being one of Wright’s most famous poems (and one of my absolute favorites). He also has a poem called “In Memory of the Horse David, Who Ate One of My Poems,” which consists entirely of the title: there is no poem; the horse ate it!
Of course, you can use a subtle title such that the poem’s ultimate tone or content comes as a surprise. When I first read Matthew Dickman’s “Grief,” I certainly wasn’t expecting the first line to be “When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla.”
There are so many options for titles, and you should feel free to experiment. I had high hopes for a poem I read entitled “If Proust Had a Facebook Account.” Just remember that the title is a reader’s first opportunity to get an impression of your writing; you don’t want that impression to be, “Did he copy this title from his great aunt’s needle-point pillow?”
7. Rhyme. If your poem sing-songs like a nursery rhyme and isn’t a re-imagined nursery rhyme that has the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe on welfare, there’s a problem. Use rhyme carefully (and, when in doubt, sparingly).
8. Be careful with controversial topics. I will cringe if you mention Jesus, or write a poem about 9-11. Writing political poems or other poems with an agenda is very hard. Read an anthology of anti-war poems: most of them will be heavy-handed. A poem (while in progress) needs the facility to change and grow and expand according to its own artistic needs; having a very definite message or moral that you want the poem to convey stifles the possibility for the poem to surprise you, its writer.
This is not to say that a poem dealing with a controversial event or issue cannot be successful — I write political poems sometimes — but if I’m distracted from the actual language and content of the poem thinking, “This is an Iraq War poem,” or “This poem really, really wants me to believe in Jesus,” your poem will fail in terms of both art and message.
9. Be individual. This is the most difficult task I can give you; the pressure to be entirely unique as an artist (and a human being), to do something no one has ever done, to create a phrase no one has ever used, can feel immense. Don’t feel overwhelmed — simply develop habits that will help you make your voice distinct from the voices of others. Namely, read. A lot. Read all kinds of things — poetry, novels, nonfiction, humor, genre fiction, news — but pay special attention to others writing in your genre, be that genre poetry, the short-story, or what have you.
Pay attention to images and words that you see repeated amongst different writers so that you can avoid over-used images or words or phrasal constructions. People at our journal were joking recently about how many poems we get that compare hands to starfish, and low and behold, one of the submissions I was reading this week actually used that metaphor. I found myself laughing quietly while reading, as well as expecting this poem (the starfish/hand image came in the first few lines) to be rather uninventive and unsuccessful. I hope no one reading my poems is reacting to them that way.
10. All my submission advice up to this point can be summarized in one point: don’t alienate your reader. If you can avoid any red flags that shout “This writer is an amateur!” or “This writer didn’t read the directions/doesn’t really care about this!” or “This writer is either a child that doesn’t speak English or a goldfish!” then you are in business.
Finally: get your stuff out there. Don’t be intimidated by all my bitching and raving; be careful and be attentive, but put your writing into the world. Though the editors and other staff reading journal submissions can seem scarily critical, as if they are just waiting for a reason to hate your work (and I probably just added to that intimidation factor — sorry about that), all we really want is to love your work.
When I see a poem with a font like Renaissance-era calligraphy, I’m annoyed, yes, but mostly I’m sad. My annoyance comes from being disappointed: I was hoping that poem would be spectacular.
The people reading your submissions want you to succeed, so fly, little bird, fly! into the wide literary sky!
Avoid cheesy imagery and terrible rhymes like that last sentence and you’ll do wonderfully.
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