There are “rules” for sending your work to literary magazines, and they don’t usually appear in submission guidelines.
Foundlings Vol. 3 will be out in just about two months. We’re very excited about this, but we can’t share any information about the contents just yet. Submissions closed at the end of March, and we’ve been reviewing them since then. It’s a humbling thing to see an inbox full of so much stirring work from so many writers, friends and strangers both, and a difficult task to pick just a few poems to include in each volume of the magazine. Being an editor, or any kind of curator, forces you to examine your own gut reactions to writing, and to articulate your artistic beliefs and preferences to yourself, to the other editors who share in this work, and eventually to the writers who’ve submitted. (At least, we try — more on that further down.)
I don’t submit my own work to magazines as often as I used to (and some day soon I hope to explain why), but I still devote a lot of postage every year to SASEs. My file of rejections — digital and physical — continues to swell steadily, at a greater annual rate of growth than any of my financial investments.
Now, though, a full year and a half since the other Foundlings editors and I decided to start our project, and after three rounds of submissions, I’m starting to think like an editor. I’ve begun to recognize the most common sins hopeful writers commit during the submissions process. And, lest you misunderstand me, I’m not about to dish on unsavory side of the Foundlings Gmail inbox. We do see some faux pas; some writers make us uncomfortable, and some are unpardonably swinish and rude. But the vast majority are awesome.
This isn’t about our submissions. Instead, I think, the act of editing now three volumes of poetry, and all the ways that’s drawn me into sharing more and more pints and conversations with other writers and editors, have made me more aware of the peccadilloes and travesties writers so frequently commit in their pursuit of publication. For most of the rules below, I could provide a counterexample from my own catalog of bad habits and regrets.
So, read on for a few tips all hopeful writers would do well to remember when submitting their work to lit mags and zines.
1. Be the Wayne Gretzky of letters. Or at least the Happy Gilmore.
While many have debated both the attribution and the mathematical accuracy of The Great One’s famous assertion that “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take,” even the most cynical cannot deflect this slapshot of an aphorism. I’ve heard many writers explain why they haven’t submitted to such-and-such a magazine, and their reasons are usually pretty similar: “I don’t know if they’ll like me,” or “I’m not sure if I’m ready yet,” or “They only publish people with MFAs/cool names.”
All of these things might be true. Editors might not like you. You might not be ready yet. And entire magazine staffs might have really idiotic and lame conscious or unconscious biases. But you should probably submit anyway. Take that shot.
In most cases, the excuses I’ve listed above are code for “I’m not a serious writer.” So, maybe you aren’t. That doesn’t mean you’ll never be a serious writer. The change could come when you decide that you have to be great, that you are great, and that other people will love you for it. Not all the people who feel that way are, great, of course. But the people who feel that way are more likely to keep writing and keep submitting until they do write good work; more likely to submit that good work; and more likely to see their good work in print.
There are only two reasons that should ever stop you from licking that stamp. One, don’t submit if you know in the blue flame of your writerly heart that you’d be mortified to see some flawed or unfinished work in print. For the second reason, keep reading.