Old-fashioned mail: This approach, relying on a postal service, has been the way writers and editors have connected for hundreds of years, and for most of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries anyway the approach has involved three components: 1) the manuscript itself (i.e., the prose or poetry piece), including a brief cover letter, 2) the envelope addressed to the journal editor that will carry your submitted piece(s), and 3) a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) that will carry the editor's response back to you. A few years ago it was customary to send the manuscript back and forth, thus the SASE had to be large enough and have enough postage to facilitate the postal return (this tradition stemmed from the fact that it used to be difficult to copy a manuscript so each one tended to be an originally typed draft, which may have represented many painstaking hours of careful typing, so a rejecting editor would return the manuscript so that it could be sent out to someone else). In more recent years, the SASE is generally just a standard business envelope because photocopying and printing have become so inexpensive it doesn't make sense to return manuscripts -- although I still see references to the practice in some journals' instructions to contributors.
While this time-honored method of using the postal service seems quaint today, some journal editors still prefer it, or at least they allow it for contributors who are not computer savvy (in other words, the writers and poets who are not reading this blog). I daresay this method is quickly dying out, but it hasn't breathed its last breath yet.
Email: Many journals, especially online journals, prefer contributors to send their work via email -- either as an attachment or pasted into the body of the email itself (some want both). It cuts down on the exchange of paper, so it's a greener approach than using snail mail. While all journals have their idiosyncrasies when it comes to submissions, I've found that journals who want email submissions have a wider variety of preferences, so you have to be extra careful that you're following their specific guidelines. For example, they often want the subject line of the email to be phrased in a particular way in order to help them keep track of submissions. Some have separate email addresses for various kinds of submissions, so poetry goes to one address, fiction to another, creative nonfiction to another, art to yet another, etc. Some journals who want the submission attached to the email will instruct you to include a short autobiographical statement in the body of the email, while others want a separate document attached. Still others will request a photo with the submission, so if they accept your piece they won't have to request the photo later. And on and on....
Bottom line when it comes to email submissions: You're helping the environment (or harming it less quickly), but be sure to read and follow instructions carefully.
Internal electronic portal: This method is becoming increasingly popular. Journals who use this approach have a link at their website that takes you to a portal page which allows you to type in relevant information regarding your submission (its title, for example, your pen-name if you use one, an autobiographical note, etc.), and it asks you to upload your story or poem or creative essay. There are several variations of this portal that you'll encounter, but they all work about the same way. A service called Submishmash is becoming very popular, and for good reason. Many journals use this portal service, while the writer or poet only registers once with Submishmash, which then allows you to log in and see all of your submitted pieces and where you've submitted them at once. It's very handy. Some journals using Submishmash (and other portals) require a nominal reading fee (commonly $2 or $3) when submitting, and you pay via PayPal, for example. The rationale here is that by providing an online portal, the journal is saving you even more money (not to mention, time) on paper, envelopes and postage, so it's a win-win for you and the journal.
Online portals have a lot of advantages for writers and poets: you can see, more or less, where your work is in the process, whether it's just sitting in the journal's inbox or if it's being read (or if it's been declined); also, if the piece is accepted elsewhere, you can easily log in and check the "withdraw" box -- otherwise you have to email (or, in some rare cases still, snail mail) a journal to let the editor know your piece is no longer available, which can be very time consuming. A downside to all-electronic-submission approaches, especially ones using a portal system, is that the number of submissions increases exponentially compared to the old-fashioned postal service method. (Of course, the other side of that coin is that you can submit to many journals easily and quickly, thus offsetting -- while simultaneously causing -- the lengthened odds.)
In future posts we'll look at issues like where to find journals to submit your work to, and variations in so-called "writers' guidelines." In the meantime, keep writing!