"We Want a Clean, Polished Stories": Guidelines for Editors Writing Submission Guidelines
By Cathy Bryant
I'm something of a connoisseuse of bad and unprofessional writing, from the annual treat of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest to the antics of the chap who came second in a fiction contest I won - he wrote to the judge demanding half my winnings because he thought he deserved them. I've even been known to write the odd bad piece myself--occasionally, just as an experiment, you understand.
The only places I don't expect to find outstandingly bad and foolish writing are in lit mags and their submission guidelines. But to my mingled delight and horror these have become an additional sump of amateurish, typo-laden and plain crazy writing.
It's clear what's needed: submission guidelines guidelines. So here they are.
Proofread your work carefully.
This applies to both print and online publications. At least make sure that your homepage and submission guidelines pages aren't littered with errors, as these are the pages that potential contributors are most likely to see. Why would I trust my best work to a site that is looking for something that "wow's us" or asks for "a clean, polished stories" or regrets that they "can only except work of the highest standard " (I won't name and shame this lot because they did put it right after a couple of months). No, these places get what's left when the magazines with a more professional approach have had their pick.
The next two are related:
Have a reason to exist and Make it clear what you want.
Since technology has increased publishing possibilities by a millionfold or so, there are a lot of lit mags out there. What does your lit mag do that others don't? If you just say that you want really good writing - well, so does everyone else. If you aren't offering the writer anything tangible (see point 4) then there needs to be a raison d'être for your lit mag if you want good writers to submit their cherries rather than their crabapples to it.
Perhaps you specialise in a genre, or serve a particular area or section of the community. That's great. A good writer might have a fine piece that fits the spec perfectly and will shine in your publication. But if you don't have a point, why would a writer choose you for the first submission of a new piece? Say what you are doing and why, and what you want from writers. Please note: a kooky name, while it might help, won't substitute for the above.
Offer something: payment, free copies, prestige or support for a good cause.
N.B. Paying your writers fulfils point 2, as the paying of writers is always a valid (and noble) reason to exist. Yes, we writers live in rareified atmospheres and have little thought of those paltry material spheres that involve the paying of bills, eating of food, having a home to live in and so on. Tragically, the world typically fails to provide all these things for us so that we are forced to descend into the morass of Mammon from time to time. What this boils down to is: pay us. We need money. Money is always best and it trumps everything else. If you can pay us, we will submit our best work to you.
If you can't offer money, free copies are nice, and also give us the opportunity to see what types of work you like and let our writer friends know. Prestige is next best, but it has to be genuine. If you sell hundreds of thousands of copies and have been going for over fifty years, then your magazine is probably prestigious. Though the chances are that it got that way because you paid your writers.
What prestige is most emphatically not is exposure. Exposure is something that kills people on mountains, and I don't really want it, particularly if it comes in the form of having a poem on an obscure website for a couple of weeks. That does not get you my best work. That gets you the unsaleable pieces that I just want to get rid of and forget about.
Finally, be a non-profit good cause and I might write the good stuff for you. You mustn't get sniffy, though, if you ask me and I refuse - I get to choose my causes. For instance, I've sent my best work to a number of feminist publications. They're often underfunded but of high quality, and help to redress a depressing imbalance in the lit mag world, so they get some of my better pieces. I also submit to websites for writers, because we need to help each other.
Don't charge for submissions.
Even some of the best writers around have very little money. Some of the pro-paying, high-prestige mags don't charge for submissions, so why should you get our best stuff before them?
Be courteous and professional.
Be aware that the way you phrase your guidelines will attract or repel certain kinds of writer. If your guidelines start with, "Hey you! Ya wanna get published? FOR REAL?" then that may appeal to perky novices but will put off others. If you reply within three months, or six months, or a year, then say so. If you can't respond within a year then what the heck are you doing? Either hire more readers or have a smaller submission window. This is something that the professional litmag needs to nail right from the off, or risk being lost in an avalanche of MSS.
And you need to respond to all submissions, not just those you're accepting. Doing otherwise is evil. Oh, and provide an email address for queries should you fail to respond within the stated time.
Please please please accept electronic submissions of some kind.
Some of most prestigious publications (who also pay pro rates) do, so they get the best work first. Yes, you will receive more submissions if you accept them by email, Submittable or some other electronic system - but those extra submnissions will contain some of the best work by the best writers. Submitting by post is time-consuming, expensive and environmentally-unfriendly, and it moves you down the choice list if you insist on it.
Reject or accept, and make it clear which you're doing.
Do not do The Tease. Feedback is great and praise is marvellous, but a response that ends, "I really don't know if I can find room for this terrific poem, but I'm going to try and there's a good chance," leaves the writer howling in frustration. This also goes for, "There's no room for it in the next issue, but maybe it'll go in the one after that. I'll let you know in six months." No you won't. You'll forget because you'll be far too busy, and I'll have to query, and that will be annoying. No maybes, and no replies that leave the writer none the wiser.
If you can't find room in the next issue for a piece, reject it, with some personal praise if applicable - then the writer can submit it elsewhere. This is fine. It's what writers do. I'll submit good work to lit mags who've rejected me in the past, but I won't send it to those who've messed me about and done The Tease, tying my work up for months and raising my blood pressure.
Don't insist that writers buy into your vision, either literally or figuratively.
Yes, buying your mag will give us the best idea of what you're looking for, and it's OK to suggest this politely. It's not OK to demand it. Most of us adore lit mags and buy them whenever we can - writers are your core readers, too, I suspect - but if I'm sending out ten pieces a month, I certainly can't buy ten subscriptions a month, or even ten copies.We'll buy your mag if we can and if it looks good, but don't lecture us if we don't when we submit.
Then there's your Vision. This usually consists of a wonderful community of writers, editors and creators of all kinds, working together in a dynamic synergy that, over time, unfolds into a winged glory of a project. That's marvellous, and collaboration is a great route to follow - but if you insist on something time-consuming, and you aren't paying, then you limit your pool of writers.
I read one particularly shrill set of guidelines that formed a rallying cry to become part of a unified artistic force, and ended by saying that if you couldn't contribute any other way then you should at least make a sizeable donation, and not expect to submit unless you're willing to put in more than "just some writing". Ahem, but I'm a writer and that's what I have by way of contribution: writing. Your vision is to run a dynamic, collaborative lit mag. Mine is to work as a writer. It might be possible to work together, but you can't expect me to help you run your lit mag any more than I'd expect you to help me with that tricky rewrite of my latest sestina.
Have a clue.
I'm used to members of the public treating an unfamiliar word as a personal insult, but I don't expect lit mag editors to behave the same way. One of my friends recently received an email from an editor saying that he loved my friend's story, but was rejecting it because it contained a reference to a Victoria Sponge, and he didn't know what a Victoria Sponge was. My friend nobly restrained himself from suggesting that the editor make a bold foray into the exciting world of the search engine and google the term (it's a cake, by the way.)
Similarly, in 2012 I received a rejection which has passed into legend among my writer friends, and even inspired a poem. Now, my poem wasn't one of my best, I admit. There might be any number of reasons to reject it. It begins: 'Bare your breast, Colette,' and ends: '...follow your desires, Colette - and sharpen your pen.' In between, Colette is mentioned twice more. Now, I know that she isn't as iconic outside Europe as in, but if you had to guess, wouldn't you take a wild stab in the dark and hazard that the poem was about Colette? Yet on 8th February 2013 I received a pearl of a rejection:
Your poem was received on Friday July 13th but was not accepted for publication in our August issue. We generally receive many more submissions than we can publish and yes, we only respond to submissions that are accepted. I am planning to create a system for future use whereby all submissions will be responded to, whether they are accepted or not. Hopefully this will happen later this year. Also may I respectfully suggest that when a poem describes historical characters, it would have a better chance of being understood if the character being described was identified somewhere. Please feel free to submit again to us.
Best wishes, Johnmichael Simon, Editor Cyclamens and Swords Publishing
Cathy Bryant lives in Manchester, UK. She won the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize for the worst opening line of a novel, and is a former blogger for the Huffington Post. Her stories and poems have been published on five continents, so her ambition is to break into the Antarctican market. Also in 2012, Cathy won the Sampad 'Inspired by Tagore' Contest, one of the Malahat Review Monostich Contests and the Swanezine Poetry Contest. In 2013 Cathy won the M.R. Jordan Writing Contest. She co-edits the annual anthology 'Best of Manchester Poets' and her collection, 'Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature' was published recently. See more at www.cathybryant.co.uk.