Sending Out Work: The Job Part of the Writing Job

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lit journal shelfWell, folks, September is here and we all know what that means…literary journals are open for submissions! Yes, yes: time to update that bio, polish up that cover, and put the final touches on your best work. Remember that a piece of literature is only half done until it is read, so quit playing coy with the world—send out your work!

To help get you ready, here are a few thoughts I try to keep in mind as I send out my own work.

1. Create tiers, but don’t be too strict about it. Most writers I know have some sort of tier system for journals to which they send. These lists are readily available on the Internet, many of them formulated by the number of selections each title has in year-end “Best of” anthologies. They can be helpful, if only to assist in keeping track of the hundreds of journals out there. But while you should, of course, send your best work to the top outlets, remember that a particular story/essay/poem of yours might be a great fit for a journal that happens to be in your second or third tier.

If that’s where you want it, send it there. It might work well online, rather than in print. Or it might fit better at a regionally-focused journal. Sure, it would be great if the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and, ahem, Ploughshares were all vying for our work, but as we know, that just ain’t the case. Don’t get hung up on rankings. Sometimes the best home is not the one everyone so desperately wants to make their way into, but the one where your work actually fits well.

2. Keep track of where you send your work and when. In part we do this so that should your story/essay/poem get picked up, you can withdraw it from the other outlets in a timely and professional manner. But you should also do this so that you can witness the life of a submission. You sent your story/essay/poem to ten journals and got ten rejections (okay, nine, because McSweeney’s never got back to you); did you make any changes to the piece before sending it to the next batch? Probably. How about after the next round? How similar to the first version was the one that finally got accepted? Looking back at how a story eventually came into publication is often an effective reminder not to send work out too early.

3. Quit sending out too early! Yeah, you want to get published, and yeah, most journals take a really long time to respond. But all you’re doing is lessening your work’s chances at your most coveted outlets. Writing takes patience. A story/essay/poem needs time. You need distance and perspective. Resist the temptation to send out right after clicking save. Set it aside. Start something new and let yourself get excited about it. Then go back when you have a draft or two of the new project done. The older piece will feel much less precious and you’ll be able to do some revising in earnest.

4. Don’t think an editor is going to run the last mile of your marathon. There are too many writers out there sending out for too few spots on journals. You can’t send something that’s 85% done and hope an editor is going to see all the potential you see. Rework your story/essay poem until it is as done as you can imagine it. Then rework it some more.

5. Keep your rejection slips. This is the life, brothers and sisters. It ain’t pretty, and those rejection slips are your battle scars. Put them in a folder or envelope or drawer or that little box where you used to stash your reefer. Sending your work out is hard. By that I don’t mean that it’s labor-intensive (especially now that more and more outlets are accepting online submissions), but that it’s emotionally draining. You have worked on that story/essay/poem for what? Two months? A year? More? And now you are putting it out there to be judged. Hold on to these little notes as reminders that you are doing your job.

6. Remember that some rejections are better than others. I know people who actually feel worse when they get a personalized or “nice” form rejection. (Or at least they pretend to feel bad about it as they humblebrag.) “Aw, I was so close!” they say. “Heartbreaker!” Yes, sure, it can be a heartbreaker, but given the bleak mathematics in the pages-to-writers ratio, it’s a pretty decent accomplishment to get anything other than the most terse of rejections. Those journals that almost publish you are likely going to remember your name—or at least the story title, which you should put into your next cover letter to them.

7. When you get one of those nice rejections, don’t send them something else that same day. The editors saw something in your work. Even though they aren’t publishing your story/essay/poem, they liked what they read. These aren’t just empty platitudes on a form rejection. If they really didn’t like reading your work, you wouldn’t have gotten that “nice” form letter. Don’t repay the kindness by sending them some half-baked scribbles. Send to them, and try to do it before there’s so much staff turnover that no one actually remembers your work, but don’t rush your work. Remember, set it aside for a while. Get some perspective. Every piece is judged on its own.

8. Take it easy on the Facebook updates, folks. My rule is this: you get one status update per journal publication. Save it for when the thing is actually published and available for reading. Why? Because if your “friends” can’t read it, then what’s in it for them? So no updates as soon as it gets accepted. Keep that for in-person conversations among those you actually know. It’s better to have people hear about your accomplishment once and think you’re a swell, accomplished person than to hear about it four times and think you’re a braggart.

What about you? What are the rules you set for yourself?