Month: February 2015

Submission Tips and Building Writing Credentials

A while back, on a poetry group that I co-admin on Facebook called Poets, Artists Unplugged, the following questions had been posted by the owner of the group in order to elicit and educate about the Dos and Don’ts of making submissions. Since having some experience in the field (rejections included), I thought about answering them to the best of my knowledge. Though these experiences can vary per writer, perhaps some of the information I’ve written out can be of little or large help to others new to the stage.

What is the etiquette for submissions?

Read the submission guidelines carefully. If you scan, then make sure you are scanning with the eyes of an eagle’s because the most embarrassing stance to be in is when you have clicked ‘sent’ and realize you haven’t conformed to the guidelines by oversight. It is even more embarrassing to contact the editor asking them to forgive your (seemingly) rushed submission. It gives the editor the impression you aren’t really interested in their magazine, you are just interested in getting published in a myriad places.

If certain guidelines don’t conform to your style or preference, DON’T submit to that magazine. You aren’t doing any magazines any favours by posting your work to them. I know most editors are obnoxious and arrogant to be extremely blunt about their remarks or criticism – sometimes ballooning to censures – but you need to heed that some magazines have a peer readers group that read through every submission (going over 100+ submissions is no joke) and some amount of irascibility will set in.

Submission guidelines are formulated for a reason – not to fill up an empty web page. Don’t be intimidated though by lengthy, exaggerated, over-demanding, superior-sounding guidelines. I have come to believe that it is the magazine’s way to filter out unsuitable submissions. Most magazines do follow a theme – even though they aren’t explicated with every issue – but it is advantageous to read the past few volumes. Again, read them carefully because from there you will gauge the style the magazine is most interested in. Sometimes, you’ll notice the magazine has gone against their requirements expressed in their guidelines and have published poetry you thought they wouldn’t publish. So, it isn’t always a pattern.

How do you address the editor?

As they want you to. There is no need to be utterly formal unless you are submitting to Academic journals (even then I believe it is redundant to overdo your humility). Journals/magazines that have been in the publishing business for over decades (eons literally!) need to be approached formally. This doesn’t mean you should be obsequious or exalting in your salutations, message body and end-greetings but follow their or general requirements for cover letters and/or creative process notes. Don’t belittle yourself or allow the magazine to condescend you. Be humble but confident.

E-zines or new emerging journals, on the other hand, are usually operated by university graduates, or poets/writers, now, wanting to take the horse by the reins. Such places usually don’t demand or expect extensive formalities but the submissions should, nevertheless, be polite (even if informal) and portray a sense of importance and respect to the publication – simultaneously projecting the same for your work (general intent to get published).

If you really must sound casual and nonchalant, then do that on your blog where you own authority.

What all do you mention about yourself in a gist? 

This again depends on the guidelines AND existing contributors’ bios. Read not just the content the magazine publishes but also the writers’ bios published with the magazine. It will give you tremendous insight into the magazine’s character. Some magazines blatantly publish high profile or widely published writers regardless of how good or bad their work is. I presume such magazines read just the bios and determine whether they should publish the writer’s work or not. This is their way of marketing their magazine which isn’t wrong; it’s just tactics; to each their own. So whether they are biased or unreceptive to emerging writers (even if they say they are welcoming), submit anyway! Don’t worry about the rejections – you’ve been brave in rebelling and submitting anyway, the rejections won’t faze you out.

Some people’s writer’s bio keeps changing as per needs of the magazines; some ask for bios to be shorter than three lines whilst some look for paragraph length bios stating prominent publications by far. The only way to know is to read through the bios in each magazine. I have come across a few magazines that ask for quirky bios – asking to elicit your weirdest, most bizarre habits – usually, such magazines are also interested in eclectic forms of writing – weird, slick, odd imagery combinations, etc. If that isn’t your style of writing or you don’t believe you can attempt it, then skip it! Don’t brood over why or how you can’t write like that. You have a style of your own and nothing’s ‘wrong’ with it – stick to developing it for finesse and craft.

But basic bios (not compulsorily) should include your place of residence, birth or descent; education; a little about yourself (in one creative line highlighting your essence); publications; prizes/awards; upcoming publications. I have read bios that even include the number of pets the writer owns! But that’s entirely up to you.

How do you select among your works? Do you try to read the editor’s mind or do you go by gut feeling?

Gut feelings don’t work with submissions – at least, by far, that’s what I’ve realized through triple score rejections. It is imperative you read the content published by the magazine. Most times, you might need to write or rewrite your piece to cater and comply. That’s also entirely up to your predilection. If you don’t wish to bend to anybody’s rules, don’t. But, the magazine isn’t wrong for expecting one to either. In the current age of popular media and easy electronic submissions, plus with a deluge of e-zines popping up like mushrooms in a forest, it is only natural that magazines have become staunch or fickle about their selection of work. Each is contending with their contemporaries for quality – thus becoming harsher in their selection process and rejection notes. This doesn’t mean something is wrong with your work. There are cases in which it would be beneficial to revise; writing a piece and then going back to it after a couple of weeks, you’ll realize your mistakes or probably find a better line or expression to replace with. I know, with me, it has happened many times, when I re-read my previous writs, I either cringe or bemuse at what I was trying to express, and immediately sympathize with the editor and understand the point of rejection.

Then there are cases when you don’t need to revise your writ at all, and find when submitting it simultaneously to other publications, you get a rejection from one and an acceptance from another for that same writ (for exactly the way it is)!

Yes, read the editor’s mind if you can. Don’t run along to contact psychics! But, reading through the magazine’s contents will give you an insight into the editor’s penchants and palate for the styles of work they seek. Again, don’t be disheartened if you can’t write like their contributors; IDENTIFY your style and match it to a magazine that seeks it.

Never launch into a random spree of submissions either. Don’t assume that submitting to ten places will get you an acceptance from at least one – that will RARELY or NEVER happen.

Also for your growth as a writer, how do you build your literary credentials? Publish often? Publish with same group or publisher? Win competitions? Get reviews hoping they will be praiseworthy?


The only way to build literary credentials is identifying your style and then finding places seeking it, even if it means spending hours reading through several magazines/journals and finding either one or none to submit to. Search, search, search. You’ll eventually find home for your writs.

I’ve come across works that are amazing in expression and content but magazines will still reject it because of the fixed patterns they follow. The advancement in anthology publications has become a notable support for writers whose writs and style belong in books rather than magazines. Generally, anthologies don’t tend to follow fixed patterns staying open to various forms and themes to accommodate as many writers as they can.

Yes, why not! Publish multiple times with a group or publisher! They were the first to believe in your work. Why regard them as the lower rung? Climb down to them if you must – you went up only because of their initial confidence in you. But I would never regard going back to previous publications as climbing down because multiple publications with a magazine or publisher establishes you as a regular contributor, thus levying you leverage as the oldest writer amongst the newbies. That is strong credential.

Entering competitions can expand your style. The only way to progress is experimenting with your style and innovating. If you lose, read the entry that won. You will definitely see the difference in perspective and style in the winning poem/story that wasn’t in yours. This will also help you understand other people’s styles and appreciate it.

If the review is for promotional sakes for your book, then it is fine to get your friends to write one but, if you’re looking for neutral opinions on the ‘quality’ of your work, seek it from the sternest reviewer you know.

If you are an editor, what attracts you? Do your personal tastes intervene? What irritates you and what makes you decline? Do you see the poet if you know him/her or do you detach and read just the poem?

To know what attracts editors, read their magazines content. I think editors who make decisions through a peer reading group reviewing submissions, adopt the democratic approach of accepting what receives majority yeses, or if one amongst the group declines, then regardless of the others in favour, the submission is declined altogether.

Some pet peeves of editors with submissions are glaring grammar flaws, lack of originality, hackneyed syntax, recycled perspective, etc. This is hard to say because rejection notes don’t carry specific reasons for decline, so the editors’ personal preferences remain elusive.

Many guidelines draw emphasis on blind submissions – this means adding no contact or identifying information on the pages of your submission. They conduct a blind reading, not knowing who the writer is in order to make an unbiased decision.

Either which way, it’s easier to blame the editor for being partial or discriminatory or unreasonable or rigid or unadventurous or going to the extent of calling them stupid for not knowing how to relate to the emotions in one’s work. What should be remembered is that rejection notes aren’t a criticism or rejection of your emotions but of the manner in which they have been expressed. And that’s acceptable.

Writing can pose to be an intricate and tricky craft since pictures, events and stories are illustrated with words sans use of a variety of tools that would otherwise be used in painting or sculpting. As a writer, if you aren’t able to tell your story and evoke the powerful emotions you’re feeling in the readers, getting them to see through your vision, then your story hasn’t been told. That isn’t on the editor. It is on you.

– Sheikha A.