Sunday, March 6, 2011

Some tips on keeping track of your submissions

In the last several posts I've been focusing mainly on how to find outlets for your prose and poetry and highlighting some specific venues. As such, it seems an appropriate time (maybe even overdue) to discuss the important nuts-and-bolts topic of keeping track of those submissions. Even if one isn't able to claim writing as his/her profession, being professional is paramount, and keeping close track of where you've sent your work, how you've sent it, what the editors have said about it, etc. is an integral part of being a serious fiction writer, poet, and creative essayist. And by the same token, I believe, it's an integral part of your being taken seriously by the editors, publishers and agents you contact.

(Note to self: I just used the term "creative essayist," and in a future post it may be worth exploring the topic of creative nonfiction, which by most accounts is a burgeoning field within the broad spectrum of creative writing -- yet there seems to be a broad spectrum of interpretations as to what "creative nonfiction" is and what it isn't. My recent sojourn to the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 confirmed that creative nonfiction is increasing in popularity [to write, to publish and (one hopes) to read] but its definition is, well, indefinite.)

Back to the matter at hand: keeping track of one's submissions. I imagine it's only common sense that writers or poets should know where they've sent their stuff and what's happened to it -- but let's be honest: creative types are right-brainers, and matters of organization may not be their strongest suit. Recall walking down the English department's hallway at your university and peeking in English professors' offices ... right, enough said.

At the most basic level, it's useful to keep track of your submissions so that you don't submit a piece to the same journal or publisher twice, maybe after it's already been rejected, or while it's under review; or you submit another piece to that same journal/publisher while they're still reviewing a previous submission -- such confused contacting may be enough to make them reject your work as a matter of principle if it's been teetering on the brink of acceptance amongst editorial board members. I want to talk about other benefits of good recordkeeping, but I'll save that for later, as I'm going over some fundamental information you'll want to keep track of.

One can keep track of submissions in a very low-tech way. I used to keep a three-ring binder with all my stories and so forth in it, and on top of each piece I had a photocopied cover form that I'd developed. When I sent a piece out, I'd get out the binder and jot down the information, and as I'd receive responses (almost always a rejection) I'd go to the binder and note the correspondence. It actually worked quite well -- as long as I remembered to jot down the goings and comings, which I did pretty religiously. At a glance, literally, I could see where I'd submitted a piece, how long the editors considered it, and so on. 

A couple of years ago, however, I got more high-tech and started using an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of everything. It's pretty basic, as far as spreadsheets go, and I'm sure someone with a more sophisticated knowledge of using Excel (say, a sixth-grader) could figure out ways of improving my basic system, which is in essence an electronic version of my old-school three-ring binder approach.

Here are the kinds of information you'll want to include -- all in the form of different columns on your spreadsheet -- and some options that could make things even more useful. Keep in mind that these are suggestions, and you'll probably see ways of modifying them to match your own recordkeeping sensibilities; to which I say, modify at will.

Column A: The title of your piece. I'm a prose writer (used to write poetry and am getting the itch again, but that's another story ... or poem?), and I don't differentiate between the title of a short story and the title of a novel. I suppose that sophisticated sixth-grader could easily insert a formula to count the number of times you've submitted a particular piece, but I never bothered with inserting formulae of any sort. Things may be slightly more complicated for poets, who tend to submit several poems to an editor in a batch, but my way of thinking says to go ahead and list each poem separately (that is, in a different cell in column A), even though it's a bit of a pain at first. Excel, of course, will recall the information, and as soon as you begin to type that title again, it'll automatically fill in the cell for you ... the wonders of technology.

Column B: The date that you sent the piece. In my old binder I used to follow this column with a "perusal time" column, meaning the length of time the editor/publisher claimed they'd have your piece before getting back to you; but I left that column out of my Excel method for maybe two reasons: I'm not one to pester editors, even if they say it's all right in their guidelines. Having worked as a literary journal editor off and on for ten years, I know word will be received, for better or for ill, in its own good time, and there's nothing productive that comes from being a proverbial squeaky wheel. Also, that "perusal time" column made me overly hawkish -- that is, as the specified weeks or months would near, then, often, recede, I'd be unduly focused on (unduly watchful about) receiving a response. I could drive myself a little batty over it, to be honest. I've decided it's better to direct that nervous energy into my writing and revising, and into contacting more and more potential outlets. No matter how intensely one watches one's mailbox or email inbox, it doesn't expedite the appearance of notification.

Column C: Name of the journal or publisher that received your submission. One of the reasons this information is especially important is that you don't want to keep submitting to a place while it's already reading your work, especially if it's the work you want to accidentally submit again. If you're submitting pieces as vigorously as you need to, it's easy to lose track of where you sent a piece, and Excel is Excel-lent (see what I did there?) at helping you to avoid the publishing faux pas of sending the same piece to the same editor, especially if he or she has already declined it. A quick search of your spreadsheet for the journal's or publisher's name will tell you if you've contacted them before and what you've sent them. I've gotten in the habit of doing this search before submitting, and it's saved me more than once from blundering.

Column D: Method of contact. In an earlier post I discussed the three basic ways that one goes about contacting editors these days, and in this column you should record the specific method. If it's old-fashioned snail mail (i.e., postal mail), I'd include the exact mailing address here. If it's via email, include the email address in this cell (often times, there are various emails available and it's usually clear which one you should send to, but not always, so it's handy to be able to retrieve specifically who/what you contacted; of course, searching your "sent mail" folder can generally yield the same results, unless you've done as your network administrator prefers, and you've cleaned out your folders with regularity). If you find yourself in the pleasant position of having to withdraw your submission because it's been accepted elsewhere, having the specific email address in your spreadsheet will be extremely useful -- trust me. If the journal/publisher had you use an electronic portal (like Submishmash), I'd recommend copying the portal link into the cell. Recording the specific way you contacted the journal, etc., has all sorts of useful purposes later (like withdrawing an accepted piece).

(Note that these online submission services, like Submishmash, have recordkeeping functions, and may eventually replace the need for writers using their own methods -- but we're not quite there yet, and keeping track in the meantime is vital. In fact, the fast-changing technologies make accurate recordkeeping even more vital.)

Column E: Special information, like money you may have paid to submit your work. Some journals require a reading or submission fee (generally pretty nominal, like two or three bucks), and contests of course require fees (a little more than a typical reading fee, like ten to 25 bucks, depending). You can also record here if you paid electronically, via PayPal, for example, or sent a check (quaint, I know, but it's still a possibility), in which case recording the check number is worthwhile. You could also include here (or another column) if you're supposed to receive something for your money, like a subscription to the journal, or the winning entry in a contest (that is, the chapbook or what have you that was published as a result of the contest). One of those handy formulae that I never use could generate how much money you've paid out for your writing (nice for tax purposes perhaps).

Column F: Date of notification. Record here when you hear from the journal or publisher.

Column G: Result of notification, which is generally either (commonly) "rejected" or (joyously) "accepted." I write accepted in all caps and in red: ACCEPTED. For one thing I just like to look back through the spreadsheet and see those beautiful acceptances jump out at me -- it makes up, psychologically, for the dozens upon dozens of times I've recorded "rejected."

Column H: Comments. Sometimes the editor will reject you but give you some encouragement to submit again, which isn't as terrific as being accepted, but it beats the socks off of a coldly delivered rejection. Besides helping to balm the wounds of rejection, such an editorial note is very, very helpful when trying to figure out where to send new material. (Be sure to note in your cover letter or accompanying comments that you received this encouragement, and thank them for it -- editing a little journal or small press is a mostly thankless job, so any sort of thank-you is much appreciated.) Sometimes, though, you have a less-than-stellar experience with a journal or press, and it's worth recording here what went wrong from your perspective (like "took two years to respond" or "apologized for accidentally dropping my manuscript behind a filing cabinet ... in 1998" or "never sent journal I subscribed to").

Those are the basics: what you sent, when, where, what they said, when they said it. You can tailor your records to your own needs and interests, but I can't overstress the importance of good recordkeeping. It may seem like a pain in the neck, but once you set it up, it doesn't take that much time to record the data. This final point is very important, however -- VERY IMPORTANTConstantly back up your recordkeeping spreadsheet. I've gotten in the habit of sending myself an email attachment whenever I work on my writing and whenever I update my spreadsheet information. You can of course use a flashdrive, and there are other online back-up options. Use several methods. Losing this submission information in part or in whole would be a tragedy. Again, using a spreadsheet may become obsolete in the near future, but we're not there just yet.

Keep writing, keep submitting -- keep keeping good track.

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