Feb 2009
Against the Blitzkrieg: Some Thoughts on Submission Etiquette
Posted in Musings by Tavel at 5:52 pm | 6 Comments »

I recently had the good fortune to find myself with a free afternoon in a college library to peruse an eclectic array of literary journals. Most were the prestigious sort, with university endowments and several prominent names gracing their glossy back covers. And while I have nothing against this sort of publication—heck, I subscribe to a few and occasionally send them my work—I always find it curious how passive-aggressive some of their submission policies can be.

At the risk of making an unfair generalization, a beginning writer could hold one of these esteemed volumes in her hand and get the impression that she must read the past seventeen issues, cover to cover, before venturing the thought of sending such hallowed editors her meager envelope of poems. The language employed is vaguely menacing, too, like a corporate memo reminding employees not to swipe from the supply closet: “All writers, but especially those just starting out, should closely review the type of work we publish as well as our editorial guidelines, since we will burn any submissions that annoy us in an old oil drum behind the dumpster. We are quite important and can’t be bothered with any funny business. We also recommend you subscribe to our publication since we hope to hire an intern this summer. Our rates are as follows…”

I find all of this a bit self-serving and extreme. And yet, as an editor myself, I understand the need for an air of paternal sternness since many writers still insist on what is frequently called “blanket submissions,” and what I’ve come to call “blitzkrieg submissions” ever since Robert and I started Conte four long years ago. These are folks who want to get published by any means necessary, and send their stories, poems, or articles to as many editors as possible, regardless of whether 1) the journal is a good fit for the work; 2) the journal is even open to submissions at the time; or 3) the work is formatted properly. 
Other markers of these blitzkrieg submissions are the lack of a cover letter, a cover letter so painfully generic that it provides little context for the submission, or—and this is the one I hate the most—a cover letter that is an irreverent and sloppy autobiography, replete with dubious-sounding honors and publications: “I’m a 47 year-old Texan whose marriage is on the outs and I’m currently employed as a rat trainer in Houston. I love saltine crackers and try to get a foot massage at least once a month. Last summer I won the 3rd Annual Horse of a Different Color Essay Contest, and nine thousand of my poems have appeared in magazines such as Kangaroo Crucifixion, Vomit Casserole, Watch Out for Those Nuns, and Stabbed!
The internet has made it even easier to send these blitzkrieg submissions, since all a writer has to do is paste the email addresses of various editors into the ‘send’ or ‘BCC’ bar of an email and away the little pretties go. I suspect there is some comfort in the anonymity of mass-mailing—after all, it’s only email—and a ticklish rush at the thought of dozens of editors considering your masterpieces.
There is, of course, a middle road between the two extremes I’ve outlined above, and I can boil it down to two basic guidelines: 1) Never send your work to a journal you haven’t read. Ever. If it’s a print journal, purchase a copy from an independent bookstore, borrow an issue from a fellow writer, or spend a few hours (as I often do) getting acquainted in a local library. If the publication is freely available online, then you have no excuse for not reading it through. Personally, I’ve always found that thirty minutes with a journal gives me a pretty clear sense of their aesthetic, their editorial philosophy, and their range (or lack thereof). 2) If you decide to submit your work to a publication, follow their damn rules. Some journals don’t accept simultaneous submissions; some journals only read during the academic year; some journals don’t want a cover letter; some journals are picky about formatting, and even want poems double-spaced. Disregarding submission guidelines is the quickest path to rejection, and believe me—not all slush piles are created equal. Even if your work doesn’t make it through the first round of editorial readings, as it so often won’t, you can rest easy knowing that you followed the rules and can submit to a journal again in half a year without making some poor editor exclaim, “good grief, not this hack again!”

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6 Responses:

Dick Reynolds said:

Found your publication listed in CLASSIFIED in the latest P&W Magazine.

Enjoyed very much reading everything on your web site, particularly the naming of works (Titles). I always have a terrible time picking a title and usually get some good ideas from my writing group.

Since your article about Submission Etiquette is a bit intimidating, I’ll pass on sending you any of my work for now.

Best wishes,
Dick Reynolds
Santa Fe, NM

historymike said:

So I guess my pretty SHAPE POEMS of pine trees and cutesy hearts did not quite match the expectations of the snooty Conte staff, eh? And my “Ode to a Blastomycosis Phlegm Smidgen” must have been just too real for you fancy East Coast poeticity experts, huh?

If you can’t take the heat, then get out of the basement meth lab, I always say.

Patricia L. Johnson said:

As a middle of the road flower child I found this essay heartwarming. But then I work really hard to carefully match my work to journals I admire and to not send my babies to scary and unrealistic places. I am going to read the whole issue (I read some poems already that I selected by how much I liked the titles, now I’ll read all of the poems).

Sandra Soli said:

Those of you responding rudely above will never graduate from author charm school.The etiquette notes provided by Conte were friendly and correct. If you don’t like them, just don’t submit. You’ll be doing this journal and any others you choose to boycott a damn favor.As a longtime former columnist and editor, I applaud Conte’s efforts to entice professional writers rather than immature wannabes.

Karen Maya said:

The bit about generic cover letters reminded me of a bad time in the bad old days when I put a personal ad in a singles’ newsletter. Talk about generic letters.

Ambre said:

I’m glad you liked Ian Bland,Next time, let Mr C lend a hand,For my poetry isn’t too shbaby,Rhyming here and there quite snappy!I’d join in all the frivolity!With poems that were not mediocrity,I’d display all my talents to the full,Promise never to be the least bit dull!With rhyme and metre ruling my prose.I’d write and write, never doze (Unlike Lewis!)I’d kick off my odes with precision,Use vocabulary filled with distinction!!

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