Withdrawing Submissions: How Not to Do It

Before I launch into my semi-regular hemming and hawing about all things writerly, I have to start this blog with the good news that’s had the internet buzzing today: poet Dean Young has undergone a successful heart transplant. He’s someone who’s been on my mind, and on the minds of many of his readers, and I’m so happy to hear that he’s on the road to wellness. I hope you’ll join me in sending good wishes to Mr. Young and his family, and to the family of the heart donor.

Okay. Now for the hemming and hawing. Using Submishmash (a great service that’s offered free of charge to publications like ours–how cool is that?) this reading period has been enlightening in a variety of ways–it’s made it easier to see what our acceptance rates really look like without spending a huge amount of time with a spreadsheet (hint: rates are far lower than you’d see on Duotrope.com), and how many submissions each genre is considering (several genres have nearly doubled in submissions since last issue. Wow.). One of the more interesting things Submishmash lets us do is handle withdrawals of pieces. Writers can withdraw work directly through the submissions manager, and the system sends an email to me to inform me of the withdrawal.

Can I just take a moment to note that all this talk of “withdrawal” is going to wreak havoc on my search engine traffic? I shudder. Moving on.

In the past, when we simply used email for submissions, I’d get an message every now and then from a poet who’d had a piece accepted somewhere else. I’d usually send them back an email saying “congrats, and we’ll keep the other poems under consideration.” No biggie, right? So it perplexed me when another editor friend would rail against writers withdrawing pieces. He felt pretty strongly that it was fundamentally unprofessional to withdraw materials, while I felt that, if an editor’s going to accept simultaneous submissions, she’d better expect a withdrawal here or there.

Now that I see emails announcing every withdrawal in every genre, not just in my own, I’m beginning to see what my friend was talking about. Yes, we continue to get the run-of-the-mill “this piece was just accepted at XYZ journal” withdrawals, and they continue to be no biggie. But I’ve discovered that there are some wacky withdrawal notes, too. I’m not going to tell you in which genre these are most prevalent, and I’m going to paraphrase the notes to protect the guilty, but this is what I’ve been finding:

“I decided that I’ve sent out too many submissions and need to take some back.”

“I don’t like this piece anymore. Sorry.”

“I decided to do some more editing. Not sure when I’ll get around to that. I’ll resubmit it to you later.”

And my personal favorite:

“I don’t exactly know why I’m withdrawing this piece–I just woke up with the strong impulse to do so.”

Okay. Now I understand what my editor friend was saying. This is not good.

If current trends hold steady, we’ll consider approximately 3,000 poems for issue 10. That’s poems alone. If you send me something, asking me to take the time to read and consider it thoroughly, then withdraw it for no discernible purpose other than a strong impulse, that’s not only a waste of your time, it’s also a waste of mine. And when I see more work from you in the slush pile, I’m likely to read the other 2,999 poems before yours, because I know you might capriciously pull your pieces before I can properly consider them.

If you have a poem accepted elsewhere and let me know, that’s great. That’s appropriate, and polite. I’ll be happy for you. But, can we agree not to withdraw things because of hard-to-pinpoint impulse? Let’s shake on it.

11 Replies to “Withdrawing Submissions: How Not to Do It”

  1. I’ve gotten these strange withdrawals as well. I wonder if folks start to doubt themselves so much that they decide to withdrawal? I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more like they want draw attention to themselves somehow because they think we’ve taken a long time to respond. I just think that some people will choose to be mature and professional, while others… not so much.

  2. There are many people who want to write who just don’t make the effort to find out how the business works and what is considered poor etiquette.

    Great news about Dean Young, btw.

  3. We get these bizarre withdrawals at PANK too, nearly daily. I don’t really mind acceptance withdrawals (though when they come the same day or the day after submitting, its irritating). I wrote about these odd withdrawals once and people jumped ALL over me but I stand by my opinion that its annoying and weird and unprofessional to a. withdraw for these reasons and b. to share that level of detail about your neurotic thought process for withdrawing a piece. Just say nothing at all. You can entire a random character in the field and the system will accept it. The withdrawal reason that gets me the most though is the, “I decided to edit this piece further” type. That means you sent me unfinished work. Come on.

  4. Laura, funny–I didn’t think about the fact that it could be an attention move (maybe stemming from that blecky “I’m a writer, I’m so impulsive and complicated” nonsense so many people seem to embrace?).

    I’ve always just assumed it’s as you say, Joe, and that people are not making an effort to think about how they’re handling themselves.

    That said, I’ve done more than my share of dumb things with people in the writing world…I like to think “aw, writer. You don’t know any better. Let me guide you.” Maybe some misguided nurturing impulse on my side.

    Roxane, I find it funny that people would jump down your throat about pointing out a big source of irritation on the editorial front. I’d like to think that people would *want* to know how to do better. But then, this is the internet, and there will always be people who want to lash out! I’m with you entirely–people shouldn’t be weird in professional contexts, period.

  5. Kelly,

    I’ve only withdrawn a story once for reasons other than it was accepted elsewhere. The story was out at 2 places: one for 7 months, and the other for 8 months. In that period of time, I’d received enough rejections that it felt like time to take another hard look at it.I realized the story was not what I wanted it to be, was not everything it could be.

    hat being said, I’m well aware that any story I submitted — whether self-withdrawn or rejected — can’t be re-submitted. I knew that door, for that story, was closed.

    Honestly, my intention was just the opposite of what you’re saying — to remove it from contention so that it wouldn’t waste the editors’ time. I didn’t want to make them read a story that either wasn’t up to par, or that I wouldn’t feel proud to have in print the way it was. Based on your post, this seems like faulty thinking, right?

    I think that it’s somewhat inevitable that after 7 or 8 months, a writer will re-evaluate a story, even if they really believed it was “done” when they first sent it out. What should an author do in that situation? It this a “suck it up” case?

  6. Liz, this is a really good question. Thanks for bringing this up.

    What I think we’re talking about here was a story that was sent out before it was ready. Really, really ready. I’m a big believer in the “put it in a drawer for a long period of time” method of testing for doneness in a piece of writing. If you know you’re going to want to revisit a piece in 7 or 8 months, then I think it’s appropriate to wait that long before sending it out. If given the choice between seeing the story in print within the year and being a bit unhappy with it, or waiting more than a year for the story to hit the page and then knocking it out of the park, I’s say you’d probably want to pick knocking it out of the park every time.

    I notice a tendency in some writers (not saying you necessarily fall under this umbrella. I’m speaking more generally here) to rush a piece into publication. This tendency is most evident, and most extreme, when I read a submission based on world events that happened, say, three days ago! When we’re wearing our writer hats, it’s tempting to want a continuous string of publication credits, whether we’re building an acknowledgements page or just wanting to feel validated as writers. And for those of us who are rather young in our writing careers, we’re making up some ground and establishing our presence. All of those are fine things. But I know I’ve rushed some pieces into print that weren’t all they could be, and that’s led me to take more of a slow-cooker approach to sending out work. And that approach has paid off for me.

    Of course, I don’t know the details of your own story. Maybe it was something you’d written years before. But I’d say that, if you think there’s the chance you’ll want to revisit it, then my best advice is to wait until you’ve revisited it to send it out.

    That said, I’d also look at the publication’s typical response times. If the journal says its customary response is in 5 months, then I’d say that, after 5 months, you’re alright to pull the story. The weird withdrawals are the most irritating, to me, anyway, when they happen within a few days or weeks of the original submission.

  7. Thanks for the honest response, Kelly!

    Patience is the hardest thing to instill in new writers wanting to get their work out there. They’re just so anxious to get in the game (in contrast to some great new writers I see with great work that they never send out, I suspect due to insecurity). They get overly invested in what that one story could be.

    But, of course, you have to be invested in order to create good work. What I try to do with my students is instill an investment in the art itself, in the process. And, of course, it’s easier to have faith in the process when you already have a few publishing credits.

    Wow, I went kind of circular there, didn’t I? 🙂

  8. I think I still need some patience instilled in me, Liz! You’re right–it’s one of the hardest things for a writer to find. Maybe it comes back to insecurity either way–you either want your name out there our you don’t want your name out there, all because of self-perception, trying to either be something or hide something…

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