This is a post for my friends who write and submit their work to literary journals. It is probably superfluous, as you’ve likely had the same experiences that I’ve had, but maybe putting it into words may be useful to someone. You’ve probably also run across these myths before, and maybe you’ve read them and wondered if you’ve been doing it all wrong by not following those myths. If that’s the case, take heart. Just keep writing, and send out as much work as you can send out. Ignore the rejections.
5 Myths about Submitting to Literary Journals
1. It’s not you. We’re just not right for each other. Every writer who submits anything to a magazine has gotten the rejection that says: “Your submission isn’t a good fit, etc.” Of course, if you sent your perfectly rhymed sonnets to a zine called The Free-Verse Quarterly, sure. That makes perfect sense. Otherwise, what it really means is that your submission did not impress the staff member or editor, and the form rejection is a way for the journal to reject you in what someone somehow thought was kinder, gentler language. In reality, it leaves you wondering what is a “good fit.” As a very astute writer told me recently, “A good fit means it was work the editor solicited.” Yes, there are some journals that only publish from the slush pile, but not too many. Your recourse is to submit as much work as you can to as many journals as you can. Rejections don’t matter as much if you have 49 or 50 other submissions under consideration.
2. Send only your best, most polished work. Someday you will be dead, and when they clean out your apartment, they’ll find a drawer or closet filled with the work you never submitted because you weren’t sure it was polished enough. Poems and stories don’t require aging. Often, they are creatures of a moment, a particular psychological drive that later on will be different. By all means, make sure you’re submitting a clean copy without misspellings or other inadvertent errors, but that is something you can do within 24 hours of your first draft. It doesn’t take a lifetime. It’s true that on occasion you’ll pick up a draft months later and see exactly how to make it better, but that shouldn’t prevent you from sending out work that makes you enthusiastic right now. And, guess what? It’s OK to revise work after you send it out. No editor that I’ve ever heard of keeps a list of writers who had the effrontery to submit work that was still a little rough around the edges. Some writers love workshops or writing groups and don’t send out anything until their work is vetted by their colleagues. I admit that I know some wonderful writers who do this, but I also know wonderful writers who won’t go near workshops or writing groups. Figure out what works for you. Personal opinion: the advice to revise for months on end just plays to your fear.
3. Your cover letter is important. No, it’s not. Does anyone really think that an editor makes a decision to publish a story or poem because of some engaging cover letter? If so, that’s probably a magazine that shouldn’t be receiving your submissions. In the old days before electronic submissions and submission managers, the cover letter was important to make sure the journal had the titles of your poems in case a huge pile of papers fell off the desk and got thoroughly mixed up. Now, everything is preserved electronically.
4. Your bio is important. Again, not really. It’s important only if the journal decides to publish your work and wants it for contributor notes. Your bio is, at best, marketing to the readers of the journal in the event your work is accepted. Also, good editors just don’t make decisions based on bios. Don’t you think that every editor out there would love to discover a terrific writer who is previously unpublished?
5. Getting a good rejection means you’re almost there! This is the most painful myth to dispel, and I’m really sorry. Still, somebody has to tell you. Often, the good rejections, where the journal says they’d like to read more of your work, are worthless. Most writers who submit a lot have seen strings of these, sometimes interspersed with the garden variety bad rejections. However, if an editor actually takes the time to write you a personal note commenting on your work, that is a very different story. It’s not hard to distinguish between the better class of form rejections and a personal communication.