Demystifying the Editor/Writer Relationship: Submission and Etiquette Guidelines
Editor of poetry journal shares some additional guidelines
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
From the beginning, ONE ART: a journal of poetry was designed as a poet-friendly journal. This is because for many years prior to becoming an editor, I was looking at this process from the other side—as a poet who submitted to lit mags. I’m all too familiar with the fraught world of po biz.
I’ve been told that I’m atypical when it comes to how I engage with contributors. I believe what poets are referring to is that I’m generous with my time, thoughtful in my responses, and genuinely express interest in their work and life. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person so this certainly makes me feel good.
I can’t speak for how other journal editors feel about their contributors or how they wish to spend their time, but I want to say how much the relationships I’ve developed with ONE ART contributors matter and are meaningful to me.
All this said, I want to take a moment to speak about select instances when I’ve had to create boundaries. Poets, like anyone, overstep from time to time. Based on my experiences, I’ve formulated some advice. These are guidelines that you won’t necessarily see on the websites of lit mags to which you’re submitting.
I genuinely hope sharing these insights will help writers and poets who may not know how much communication with an editor is appropriate, or what form that communication should take. This applies to cover letters, responses to rejections, and other aspects of the submissions process.
Although the guidelines below are subjective and pertain to my particular experiences as an editor, I hope that it may prove useful for poets and writers as they reflect on their submission process and engagement with other lit mag editors.
1. Flattery will get you nowhere.
Try to avoid opening your cover letter with “Dear Esteemed Editor” or other forms of address meant to flatter the editor’s ego. Simply saying “Dear Editor,” “Dear ONE ART Editor,” “Dear Mark” or “Dear Mr. Danowsky” is not only fine, but preferred.
Please also avoid stating in your cover letter that this is a “dream journal” for you (even if you mean it). Knowing this puts added pressure on the editor and distracts from the work.
2. Threats to never submit work again will also get you nowhere.
Such threats are more often than not met with an editor internally thinking, “Thank goodness!”
This includes the following:
“Not to worry, I'll never submit again. And I unfollowed you on Facebook. You're not as great as you think you are.”
“Wow! Now that’s weird. I cannot believe that you get better work than what I’ve sent to you. In any event, good luck going forward.”
“I regret to inform you I won’t be holding One Art for further consideration of my work.”
“I will never submit to you anymore…If I don’t get at least 6 likes I would pay you 50dollars. You discriminate, or you don’t like me at all.”
3. Insulting the editor(s) is not helpful.
One example of an insult I received: “Perhaps if you were not so intent on sniffing the backside of everyday banality you’d discover a significance in my words, which plainly is not the case here.”
Honestly, being insulted by a poet isn’t going to stop me from publishing their work in the future, if I think it’s good. But it is a drag on one’s energy and time. I expect most editors will blacklist writers who do this.
4. Avoid problematic assumptions.
“I’m disappointed you didn’t like it…Based on our work in [X Journal] I thought you might.”
Just because an editor published work in the same journal as you does not mean the editor has the same taste as the editor of that other journal. Publishing a poem alongside a lit mag editor is great. But don’t assume that editor’s magazine is automatically the right fit for your work.
Further, just because you had work in the same issue should not mean that the editor would give you preferential treatment (which feels like part of the subtext here).
5. Knowing the editor does not mean you’re a shoo-in.
Knowing the editor may make it more likely you receive a personal rejection but it won’t ever lead to automatic acceptance. In fact, while it doesn’t work against the contributor, knowing the editor may add higher expectations. In my case, I often feel like I can respond more candidly and be forthright with someone I know and suggest that they continue to work on a poem.
6. Don’t assume that the more you’ve been published in a journal, the more likely you are to get published in the same journal in the future.
While this seems true, it’s often not, certainly not in my case (as a writer). There are journals I used to be able to get into seemingly easily. Not any longer though. And no, the staff did not change. Part of the reason, I expect, is that those who have watched the arc of a writer’s career, by seeing their work evolve over time, get a sense of what that writer is capable of. They know when you’re not (a) sending your best work (b) not writing to the best of your ability.
Editors like to change things up. They might wish to create more opportunities for other writers and avoid the appearance of accepting work from the same handful of people again and again.
7. It is not standard practice to respond to any rejection with follow-up questions.
When an editor tells you they liked a certain poem best in your submission, this is a personal rejection. Asking an editor, “Why did you like X poem best?” can make for an uncomfortable situation. First of all, we’re talking about poetry. The “why” can be very elusive.
Second, and moreover, it’s a subjective opinion. Don’t make too much of this.
Finally, and this should really go without saying, editors read a great deal of submissions. This is a labor of love. Typically, free labor. Asking for more free labor might be asking for more than you realize.
8. Try not to scare the editor in your cover letter.
To clarify, I’m not talking about trigger warnings. I’m talking about telling a strange &/or disturbing (possibly longwinded) story about why you were in prison for a crime that you didn’t really commit or something to that extent. What follows are examples of the kind of information that could making an editor uneasy:
Attached are five poems […] based on my incarceration in a federal prison camp. You can survive prison and you can recover from prison, but prison never leaves you. Prison is a kind of Dantesque dark dream, while the tactile world plays out in unfamiliar and confusing rhythms. I lived among one hundred other inmates that was more wilderness than community. There is nothing more solitary than living among the exiled.
“My writings are a reflection of my recent experiences while living in XXXXX for the last few years, the last year under arrest and in prison. Discovering the XXXXX man you cared for the most, had a secret life, came with repercussions.”
9. Avoid gratuitous violence, outright racism, misogyny, etc.
I don’t have anything in the ONE ART guidelines saying “Don’t do this” or “Don’t say that,” but that doesn’t mean writers shouldn’t know the difference from right and wrong. If you send work that is hypersexual, ultraviolent without merit, misogynist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, classist, and so forth, that will be met with a swift rejection.
10. Political diatribes are not the work of literature.
If you’re unsure if your work has rant-like qualities, consider running it by a trusted reader. Another option is to sit on the work for a few days or a week and see how it reads after you’ve had a cooling off period.
11. Be thoughtful when withdrawing your work.
There are genuine reasons to withdraw work but try not to make a habit of this. I’ve had poets go back and forth as they decide if they’re comfortable putting work out in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sympathetic to this. But please do your best to determine your comfort level before submitting so that upon acceptance you’re unlikely to have it suddenly dawn on your that you’re not ready to have the work out in the world.
Also, in the case of ONE ART, it’s fairly well-known (and stated in the submission guidelines) that I respond quickly to submissions. Same-day responses are not uncommon; I typically respond in 3 days; and one week is the max. With that in mind, I say it’s a preference not to send out simultaneous submissions (because I’m not asking for much patience). Still, I get withdrawals sometimes within the same day of submission. Did they really want to be in ONE ART? Do these writers care where they place their work? Hard to know.
In any case, common reasons for withdrawal include:
Work accepted elsewhere
No explanation given
Poet realizes work was previously published (ONE ART does not accept previously published poems; however, it’s important to read the guidelines to know that this does not include poems previously posted on social media or a personal blog, which is not the case with many journals (unfortunately))
The work addresses the poet’s personal identity or sexuality (and usually information that certain people in your life may not already know or accept)
The work reflects poorly on a living family member (and the poet fears this family member will become aware of the poem’s existence)
Some younger poets have waffled on whether or not they want to publish work and, given the struggles wrapped up in being a young person, I get it feels like a lot is at stake.
As best you can, try to work out your feelings about your writing before you submit it for publication.
12. Please do not put journals on your personal mailing list.
In general, people receive a lot of emails and they don’t like when someone signs them up for something without asking. I’m happy if contributors tag ONE ART on social media about publications, readings, and other sources of literary excitement in their lives so we can celebrate together and spread the word.
Just try to avoid cluttering up people’s inboxes. It wastes time, and that is time that editors could be using to read and respond to other people’s submissions.
13. Let your work go.
I’m happy to make edits to accepted poems, even after publication. However, there’s a point where you have to let it be. You can always send a new version to a journal that accepts previously published work or include a revised version in a collection.
14. Try not to send multiple emails about the same submission.
If you have to send a follow-up, ideally, put the information in the same email thread. Otherwise, you’re adding to an already confusing and overflowing inbox situation. See the comment above about using up an editor’s time that could be better spent on editorial work.
15. Do not send unnecessary/scary/threatening/violent attachments.
There are a few people in the community, and journal editors are well aware of them, who like to attach creepy drawings, videos, photos, and other miscellaneous information to their submissions. This is undesirable, to say the least.
16. When submitting by email, don’t copy (cc) a bunch of lit mags on your submission.
I can’t believe I have to say this. You’re not fooling anyone by using blind copy (bcc) either.
Take the time to submit to each journal individually. It shows you value an editor’s time and labor.
17. Please refrain from putting things in your submission such as: “Do not forget to consider me for a Best of the Net or Pushcart nomination!”
Let the editors read the work first and decide if they want to publish it, before jumping ahead to anthologies you wish to be nominated for.
18. It’s not the editor’s job to console you about having to pass on your work.
It’s awkward to put editors in the position of feeling like they need to do this. Responding to a rejection with a note that says something like “I’m horrible, I know” is a form of emotional manipulation. Editors are people. Editors have feelings. We are not cold ruthless rejection monsters. We have a lot on our plate.
Please, reach out to a friend or loved one to comfort you about rejections. Social media will happily try to console you about rejections, remind you they are the norm, and the average number of journals writers often have to submit to before receiving an acceptance.
Gatekeeping is not about keeping people out. It’s about curating the work you want to platform and giving space to build the kind of community you want to live in. When it doubt, be professional, courteous and simple.
I want the ONE ART community to thrive. The gate might look closed but it’s never locked.
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