Is that who you want to be? Journal submissions and the art of self-presentation

It’s that time of year again–the sun is coming out, the days are getting the slightest bit longer, and, yes, the slush pile is back to doing what it does best–growing. I’m happy to say that The Los Angeles Review is open to submissions once again, for our 10th issue (double digits, folks!), and Fifth Wednesday journal has also opened the floodgates to all your creative work.

I love my fellow writers, and I want to see them succeed, whether that means publishing in my journal or elsewhere. So it gives me no end of grief when I see writers making potentially embarrassing mistakes in the ways they approach editors. I’ve written a rather extensive essay for the 2011 Poet’s Market on why cover letters are important to many editors (of course, some editors, like the great Tim Green at Rattle, say they couldn’t possibly care any less about cover letters), so I won’t belabor that point here. But I do want to point out that it’s a good idea to give a little thought to the ways in which you present yourself to the publishing world.

If you happen to watch the show American Idol (oh, come on. We all have our vices. Now you know mine), you may have witnessed a rather painful display the other evening in which one contestant, a well-meaning sort of guy with a reasonable amount of talent, performed some grotesque dance moves and sang some godawful song about  someone’s booty being “like pow pow pow.” It made me uncomfortable. And sad. One of the judges asked the poor kid, “Is that who you want to be?” He emphatically denied wanting to be that. One has to wonder why he would manifest that-ness in the first place.

Now, let’s think about our own submissions. Whether we like it or not, we writers are essentially doing the same thing–putting our art (but thankfully not our dance moves) before people who are going to judge us. We have the benefit of not having to do our presentation on stage, so we have the time to think before we act. But over many submission periods, I’ve seen some displays of that-ness. That-ness is not a good thing to manifest in your submissions because: a) editors have to work with their writers. If editors find a writer unpleasant or unnerving, we’re not likely to want to start up a professional conversation, and b) editors want to grow relationships with talented writes. If a writer–even an extremely talented one–comes across as standoffish or arrogant, we aren’t going to be enthusiastic about championing his or her work.

I’m going to paraphrase a couple examples of that-ness here (note: I am not quoting directly from a communication with any writer, but these paraphrases capture the spirit of some things that have come through the slush or were sent to me in reply to some rejection of a sub):

  • “My work isn’t for everyone, and you may not understand it.”

The problem: this makes the submitter seem unresearched at best, and arrogant at worst (when maybe he or she is simply a little insecure).

The fix: Drop the pretense and cut that sentence out of your email.

  • “I came across your website today and wrote this piece for you this afternoon.”

The problem: this makes the writer seem as though he or she doesn’t revise. And revision is pretty darned important, wouldn’t you agree? Even if you’re, say, the reincarnated David Foster Wallace, I’d imagine you need a little touch-up now and then.

The fix: get rid of the time markers. Just say you wrote the piece expressly for us. We’ll feel flattered, not startled.

  • “Here is my entire book-length manuscript. I would like you to publish chapter 7 first, then chapter 9.”

The problem: there’s no getting around the fact that this person didn’t read the guidelines, and the demands on order of chapter publication seem, well, demanding.

The fix: read the guidelines, and send something appropriate.

  • “My other hobbies include acrylic painting and taxidermy.”

The problem: grouping writing into the hobby bucket tells editors someone isn’t serious. And unless the editors are avid painters or taxidermists themselves, they aren’t likely to be interested in how any individual spends all that time he or she is not spending developing his or her writing.

The fix: Show us you’re a pro, and keep the hobbies to yourself.

  • “If you are the person to whom this email is addressed, you do not have permission to view this email.”

The problem: well, it appears we aren’t allowed to read your work, given the garbled legal statement! Really, anytime a writer adds legal-sounding text to a submission or notes that the work is subject to copyright, it makes the writer seem a) unaware of the fact that all creative work is subject to and protected by basic copyright, and also unaware that proclaiming it as such is redundant, and b) a little paranoid. If poetry were a hot seller and someone were going to make actual money from stealing poems, well, maybe it would be worth going to the trouble of getting legal-sounding on editors. But the truth is that most editors write, too. We’re trying to sell our own work–we don’t need or want to steal anyone else’s. If you’re sending work to a legitimate journal, trust me: your poems are safe.

The fix: Do your homework and submit to legitimate journals, and then trust the editors to do their jobs without pouring on the litigious verbiage.

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8 Replies to “Is that who you want to be? Journal submissions and the art of self-presentation”

  1. The advice I’ve seen from editors all recommends keeping cover letters as simple as a Joe Friday voice-over: just the facts, ma’am. Name, contact info, title and genre of submission, word count, extremely brief bio, recent publications. Perhaps one clever aside to show you’re human, but be careful with it. Anything else pretty much detracts from your chances.

    Oh, btw. American Idol? Best not to put that in your cover letters.

  2. Exactly, Joe–simple, to the point, friendly: you can’t go wrong (unless you put in Idol, of course…).

  3. Hi Kelly,

    I enjoyed this post very much.
    Like you said above in response to Joe, it’s best to keep the cover letter simple, to the point, friendly.

    Would you recommend (or recommend against) mentioning a piece from the journal to which you are submitting that has moved you?

  4. Hi Kari! Thanks for coming by my blog!

    I’d absolutely recommend mentioning a piece you liked from the journal. That shows that you’ve actually read the journal (unlike the droves of people who just found it on duotrope, etc.), and it validates the editors–it shows them that they’re publishing work that really does move people. Believe it or not, a lot of us do worry about whether, at the end of the day, we’re doing something meaningful.

  5. Hi,

    Please excuse if you have addressed this before, but I was wondering if you could comment about using/creating a pseudonym for submissions. I would like, at least at this time,to keep my search for a job with the state and Federal govt separate from my writing. (Some writing I do is very personal in nature) Some jobs I have applied to recently required an extensive background check. And I assume most employers google applicants at a minimum. Seeing as very few people make a great living from writing, I am not ready to give up my search for a job in a field outside of writing. How do editors/agents view using a pen name? Thanks!

  6. Hi, Louise. I know a number of writers who use pen names, and who do so for a variety of reasons. (One wanted his novels to appear in a better area of the shelf in the bookstore, and another finds it helpful to appear to be a male writer rather than a woman–I could talk on and on about that one, but for now we’ll focus on your question). Speaking as a literary magazine editor, I have no problem with pen names, as long as they’re believable. If you go around calling yourself Scheherazade Wordsworth, that would seem stilted and bombastic. But something tame and appropriate? I see no reason why you can’t go with it. What is a bit annoying and strange is when writers use pen names, but submit under their real names; it makes life difficult on the administrative end. I’d say that, if you go with a pen name, keep things simple by using that name only (unless, of course, you need to disclose your identity to receive payment, etc).

    Now an agent may be a different story. I’m not an agent (thank God. I’ve seen how hard my own agent works, and I’m glad he’s the one doing it!), but the body of advice that I’ve been given suggests that you need to be reasonably well known to have so much as a sniff at a book deal–your background, your contacts, and your resources in your non-writing life can all be very important to your book proposal. So my gut instinct is that you may find yourself in tricky territory when it comes time to pitch to agents (unless you build up a certain notoriety under your pen name).

  7. Hi Kelly,

    Thanks a lot for your insight. Yeah, all that stuff you were alluding to re: an agent and a “literary persona” have been the things I am pondering. I want to start submitting and doing a blog but I feel like I have to be cognizant of doing it as “brand me” and not be willy-nilly. I was planning on using my real first name and a very phonetically easy to write/pronounce last name and be consistent in submissions, blog, gmail accts etc. Thanks again!

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