Standing Out in the January Submission Rush
By Karen Craigo
I’m probably not the only person who resolved to submit more work to magazines in 2017. My guess is that a lot of editors spent a pleasant New Year’s Day with their families and friends, and then opened their submission management programs on Jan. 2 to find that any progress they had made in getting caught up with reading over the holidays was erased by the spate of new submissions.
Like many of us, I read submissions—I actually do this for several journals and one small press—but I still wonder what the key might be to making my work stand out. It seems like the luck of the draw, yet I know that sometimes my eyes light on a submission and I feel interested in its contents before I ever read a word.
There are a few things that make a submission appealing. Obviously, if I see the writer’s name and it is someone whose work I admire, I feel very lucky at the outset. (I feel less lucky if the work is not up to the level of the rest of the work we receive, because that means someone, likely me, will have to reject this writer. But there is a moment of promise, regardless of the outcome!)
It’s also nice when the writer has followed the guidelines. The publications I read for want all work in a single file, with poetry single spaced and prose double-spaced. When I open the file and see that someone has followed our instructions, that certainly helps—although I admit that I may not notice unless the guidelines have been badly flouted.
In the old days of paper submissions, I always liked to see a professional-style letter of introduction—greetings, thank you for reading, here are the titles of the work enclosed, here’s a bio and contact info. A simple thank-you always went far with me; I have always thought of the writer-editor relationship as a cordial, professional one, and when there is mutual respect on all sides, it just feels nice.
Of course, with electronic submissions, it is easy to bypass the notes area, and more often than not, I don’t even look. When I do, a cheerful hello and, again, a thank-you are nice to see—but I don’t particularly miss them when they’re gone.
Which brings us to the one factor that can set work apart before any reading actually happens, and that is the font selection. Some fonts are just more appealing than others, particularly in submissions. They can offer ocular relief or some subtle interest, and many of them open up the words on the page, presenting them as airy and clear.
When all else fails, Times New Roman is a solid choice—unobjectionable and very readable. It has a serif, and that’s essential—those little feet on the bottoms of letters are like suction cups that hold them firmly to the line and make them easy to follow. Times (not New Roman) is also a serviceable font, though ever-so-slightly fatter and blunter. Times New Roman seems somewhat more graceful and pleasant to read.
A lot of people have discovered the pleasures of Garamond, and I am a fan of Adobe Garamond—a slightly different version of the font. There’s some sophisticated sass to Garamond—a more delicate petal-like shape to the closed part of the lowercase A, for instance, and sharper angles than some of the other major fonts offer. And Adobe Garamond Pro is still another variation that is, to my eye, sharper yet.
Those who have Macs have a default serif font of Cambria. While it’s serviceable, like Times New Roman, I’m not a particular fan of it. It’s readable, yes, but kind of chubby.
Georgia is kind of appealing—more weight on top and a heavier serif, but I like to read it, and it’s a nice relief from the other popular fonts. And Palatino is another nice variation, but a close inspection will reveal that it gives the appearance of irregular kerning, and certain letters, like the lowercase F and T, are a little too open. For longer pieces, like most prose, I don’t find it quite as readable as the other options named here.
A font that is newly in vogue (although not itself a new font) is Baskerville—sort of a wide, frank font with nice, wide serifs. Baskerville Old Face is another option that is appealing, with its squat lowercase letters and its rather innocent openness.
I asked a bunch of writer friends for their favorite fonts, and I found that Times New Roman was the usual default (and sometimes the specified preference of a journal). A few outliers cropped up—Courier, with its classic letter sizing; Calisto MT, also kind of pudgy but clear; Adobe Jenson Pro, with its quirkily titled midstrokes; Goudy Old Style, a favorite of wedding invitations, with its classic sophistication. There were several others—some of the sans serif variety, which I would never suggest, and some obvious jokes—Papyrus, Comic Sans, even Wingdings.
Editors in the crowd were a little stodgy on the matter of font, and why wouldn’t they be? Some of the stupidest work that comes in tries to sell itself with unusual fonts, and a really noticeable font is typically a sign of noticeably bad writing.
On a practical note, one editor friend of mine pointed out that some editors won’t have the same operating system or the same default font as submitters, so time spent pulling out hair over font selection will result in, guess what, Times New Roman or Cambria showing up on the screen.
I’ve come to the conclusion that the best way to get noticed by an editor is to follow guidelines, not to do anything especially dumb with format, and to submit excellent work. If you can do only one of these three things, be excellent.
The trick to getting published, whether you’re inside a New-Year’s-resolution mob or you’re sending in a low-submission month, like June, when all the really committed writers have given up and are drinking mojitos on the beach, excellence is the only trick that works consistently—and even it doesn’t work all the time.
But worry about font is misplaced. It’s the words themselves, and not the clothes they wear, that make the writing sing.
Karen Craigo is the author of the poetry collection No More Milk (Sundress, 2016) and the forthcoming collection Passing Through Humansville (ELJ, 2017). She also has a new chapbook, Escaped Housewife Tries Hard to Blend In (Hermeneutic Chaos, 2016). She maintains Better View of the Moon, a daily blog on writing, editing, and creativity, and she teaches writing in Springfield, Missouri. She is the nonfiction editor and former editor-in-chief of Mid-American Review, the interviews editor of SmokeLong Quarterly, an editor of Gingko Tree Review, and the managing editor of ELJ Publications.