Saturday, December 4, 2010

Terminology II: writers' guidelines

In my last post I talked about the three resources I prefer when looking for a publisher of a story, poem, or creative essay -- specifically Duotrope's Digest,, and the Council of Literary Magazines and Press's member directory -- and when you start investigating the journals and so forth these sites will lead you to, what you'll want to look at in particular is the outlet's writers' guidelines, which are alternatively called any number of things, like submission guidelines, contributors' guidelines, or simply a link that says "submit" or more vaguely "contact."

Even if it doesn't immediately reveal itself, rest assured that somewhere on the website you can find out what the journal is looking for and how to go about sending the editors your work if it seems to fit their needs. This could be a lengthy post as writers' guidelines vary considerably, and if I tried to account for every nuance, much electronic ink could be spilled; however, there are certain key features that definitely deserve some attention. You're a smart cookie (you're reading this blog after all, aren't you?), so you'll figure out some of the unique ins-and-outs of each outlet.

So here are some of the key bits of information to look for when you peruse a publisher's guidelines:

Needs: Some journals have a very narrow range of things they're looking for -- like it only publishes haiku, or creative nonfiction, or material about food -- while most want to see a variety of forms. But no matter how narrow or how wide a journal's interests, they all have their idiosyncrasies, especially when it comes to the length of the piece. When it comes to prose pieces, word count is how length is usually expressed (e.g., a journal will want fiction no longer than 3,000 words), which sounds straight-forward enough, but there's some confusion/disagreement about how to arrive at word length. In the old days, that is, before electronic word processing, the rule of thumb was to count a standard, double-spaced typewritten page as 250 words, with the understanding that some pages will have more, some fewer; therefore, a four-page story would be considered 1,000 words. Nowadays, however, word-processing programs, like Word, generate a word count for you (e.g., under File-->Properties-->Statistics). But these sorts of word counters don't differentiate between "a" and "antidisestablishmentarianism" -- they're both just one word, which makes the count highly inaccurate, I think. As an editor of print journals who's been in charge of physical production, I've found the old rule of thumb to be more helpful when trying to guesstimate how much space a story or essay will take up in the journal.

One more thing about "needs": They tend to change, so just because Journal A isn't looking for your type of work at the present, don't forever cross Journal A off your list; editorial boards change with some frequency, hence, so might the boards' needs.

Bottom line: Pay attention to needs, and follow them. You're almost certainly wasting your time and the editors' if you send them things that aren't on their shopping list. (Because of the fuzziness of word-count method, once in a while I've fudged a bit and sent them something slightly longer than they say they want -- but I can't think of a single instance where this has worked to my favor.)

Simultaneous Submissions: This is another very important factor. It sounds a little like the term "multiple submissions," but they're very different, and I'll explain. When you simultaneously submit your poem, story, or essay, it means that you're sending the same work to other editors at the same time. Most editors allow simultaneous submissions (though some do so reluctantly). Many editors, generally those who are writers themselves, actually encourage simultaneous submissions. On the other hand, there are journals (often times, more established and prestigious ones) that won't allow simultaneous submissions; that is, when you submit to them, the understanding is that no one else is considering that work. From the editors' perspective the advantage of not allowing simultaneous submissions is that when they're considering a piece, if they decide they want it, it should be available, so they haven't wasted their time considering something that turns out not being available. Editing a journal that receives thousands (even tens of thousands and beyond) submissions a year is very time consuming, so it would be frustrating to spend an hour or two or three reading a piece carefully, discussing the decision with other editors, then contacting the writer/poet, only to discover it's been a waste because some other journal has beaten you to the punch. (I suspect, too, that not allowing simultaneous submissions also cuts down on submissions, so perhaps editors of this ilk aren't quite as barraged by contributions.)

From a writer's perspective, though, it may take several weeks to several months to hear from an editor, and it's not unusual for journals to have limited reading periods (which I'll write more about in a moment), so let's say it takes on average an editor to respond to your work in three months, and the typical reading period is the nine months of the academic year -- thus, if you only submit to one editor at a time, you might only have three editors in a year consider your piece. Throw into the equation the fact that it's often said that it takes around twenty contacts (attempts) to find an editor who will publish your work, that means ... it could easily take six to seven years to find an editor for a story or poem.

I know writers who willfully disregard the fact that a journal will not consider simultaneous submissions and they submit simultaneously anyway. I disagree with this practice, however. I agree with these willful writers that the practice of not allowing simultaneous submissions is ridiculously impractical, from the writer-poet's point of view, but there are plenty of other fish in the sea. (Not that I purchase a copy of every journal I submit to, though I do try to support as many as I can afford, I deliberately will not purchase a journal that doesn't accept simultaneous submissions -- in my mind, they're not supporting writers and writing as they should, so I don't support them either [I doubt they've noticed, however].)

Bottom line: As a new writer (or even an emerging writer), hedge your bet and submit simultaneously, but don't submit to journals that don't want them. This next point is extremely important: If you submit simultaneously and a piece is accepted, immediately send notices to journals to withdraw the piece that is no longer available -- you owe it to the editors who are considering your work, and if you can save them some time by not reading a piece that's no longer available, it's the right thing to do. I also think it's gauche to receive an acceptance notice and not respond for a day or two in hopes of getting an acceptance from a better-known, or larger-circulation journal. You should make the decision about whether you want your piece to be published in a journal before you submit; therefore, reply back agreeing to the publication offer as soon as you receive it.

Multiple Submissions: "Multiple submissions" simply means that you can submit more than piece at a time to a given journal. It varies from journal to journal of course, but generally speaking, editors will allow you to submit more than one piece if the pieces are short (poems, for example, or short short stories, or flash fiction), but longer pieces, like a full-blown short story or creative essay, can only be sent one at a time (that is, don't submit again until you've heard back regarding the pieces you've already submitted). Don't overwhelm editors. Send what you think is your best work; then exercise some patience (some editors say you can email them in x-amount of time if you haven't heard from them, but I trust I'll hear from them as soon as they're able).

Reading Period: Some journals read all year, but most have specific reading periods. Because the vast majority of journals that publish literary prose and poetry are affiliated with a college or university, they tend to read only during the academic year, roughly from September to June. However, there are a wide variety of reading periods, and you need to pay attention to these. If the editors have bothered to post a specific reading period, they're no doubt serious about it; so, again, you're wasting your time and the editors' to submit work outside that period (electronic submission portals, that I talked about in a previous post, are often set up so that they won't allow submissions outside the reading period).

Etc.: This post could go on and on (perhaps you think it has) because there's much more that could be said, but I'll end on this point: Read carefully and follow the guidelines. Yes, guidelines help editors to zero in on what they're interested in, but by doing that, they're truly helping writers and poets. It's in no one's best interest to submit indiscriminately.

If you haven't been, start nosing around for places to send your work, but above all: keep writing and reading.

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