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.