My Top 5 Quick & Dirty Submission Tricks

Karyna McGlynn

Apr 12, 2011

Let's be honest: if you're reading this blog you've probably read your fair share of submission guidelines, and, like me, you've probably received plenty of solicited and unsolicited publishing advice--some of it bad, but a lot of it just useless: of course you should include an SASE, of course you should read the journal you hope to appear in, of course we should all write better poems and send only our "best" work. In an ideal world, perhaps, we would all hone our craft for years and not give a hoot about publishing--and when we did finally submit, we would send only our best work to the best journals, where it would be read by head editors who would instantly recognize our genius. Sounds great, but as a writer and editor in the real world, I'd like to take this opportunity to share 5 quick & dirty submission tips that you won't find in anyone's submission guidelines :

  1. Don't use a weird font; use their font! Looks count. You would not believe how many bad fonts come across my editorial desk--and I would be lying if I said that I wasn't immediately biased against poems written in Courier New. (No, typewriter-esque fonts don't make you look more legit.) In general, you should stick to a classic serif font like Times New Roman, Garamond, Cochin, Goudy Old Style or Georgia. (Sans serifs are okay for titles.) However, if you really want to improve your chances at a given journal, use their font(s) and layout. When editors read a submission that uses the same font/layout as their journal they will (often without even realizing why) give it a more careful and generous reading because it already looks like it belongs in the magazine. If you don't know what font a journal uses, it's pretty easy to figure out. Sites like Identifont and WhatTheFont let you enter links, upload images, or guide you through a series of questions that help accurately identify a particular font. For those doing electronic submissions, you may worry that less common fonts won't display properly when opened on somebody else's computer, but this is only a concern if the journal doesn't accept PDF files--and many of them do. If given the chance, always opt for a PDF; it just looks better, and you don't have to worry about your font/formatting looking screwy.
  2. Forego the traditional "Cover Letter" in favor of casual, personalized notes. People fret way too much about cover letters--remember, you're not applying for a job. No one wants to hear a rehearsal of your career highlights, aspirations and hobbies. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen a lengthy cover letter help anyone; as far as I can tell, it only gives you more rope to hang yourself with. If you must write a cover letter, keep it very brief and to the point. Don't attempt to explain your life circumstances or your poems, and don't request "feedback." If anything, list a couple of things you particularly liked about the last issue, express the belief that these poems "might be a good fit," thank the editor for his or her time, and end it. Mostly, editors are just curious to see if/where you've published, which is why I forego the traditional cover letter in favor of a personal note to the editor handwritten below my computer-printed bio. (More on the bio in a moment.) Example: Hi Phil-- Here are a few new poems for your consideration in The Dastardly. Hope you find something you can use. I really enjoyed the group interview on the Gurlesque. Keep up the great work! Cheers, Karyna Obviously you can't handwrite a note if you're doing electronic submissions, but I still advise that people follow the above format in the body of their e-mail (or in the notes section if using an online submission manager). In any case, the note should appear casually dashed off--as if you are too busy and unconcerned to bother with more--and should address the genre editor(s) by first name whenever possible. This sometimes tricks interns/assistant editors into thinking you know the head editor personally, thus saving your work from the slush pile and delivering it straight into the hands of the head honcho. Often, the editors will also be tricked into thinking they know you personally or have had some correspondence with you in the past. (Editors correspond with and meet lots of people--AWP, etc.) If nothing else, this increases the chances that your submission we'll get a careful read and that your rejection letter will also be personalized, often encouraging you to submit more stuff! You can usually find all the editors' names in the masthead of the journal or on the journal's website. If there are several genre editors, address your submission to all of them by first name. If there are a great many editors, or if they don't say who the poetry editor is, just write "Hi guys," but try to personalize whenever possible. The one thing you have to be careful to avoid here is getting the name(s) wrong. There's a lot of editorial turnover--you can't trust guides like Poet's Market to be up to date. You won't do yourself any favors by addressing your note to an editor who hasn't been at the magazine for three years.
  3. Don't irritate the editors with your bio. This goes hand in hand with the cover letter thing. Be super brief (never more than 100 words) and stick to the facts. Don't send cute, weird, overly personal or pompous bios. You might want to check the contributors' notes at the back of the particular journal you're thinking of submitting to see what the MO is. Example of an acceptable bio: Byron Bluffman lives in Madison, WI. He attends the creative writing program at the University of Whatchamacallit and works as a freelance photographer. His poems have recently appeared in Aluminum Shed, Glitter Bus, X² & The New Caprica Review. Example of a bad bio: Magda Swinburne is the literary guru of the Puget Sound. In her free time she communes with salmon & frolics with her toy poodles, 'Lord Byron' & 'Peaches.' She has over 1,000 publication credits to her name and was hailed by the Seattle Sinner as the sole voice of reason in a universe of mediocrity. She's single and loves cupcakes. Word to your mother. No. No. No. A bio is no place to exercise your wit or creativity; save it for your poems. If you do have publication credits, list the credits by name, never ever by number, and don't list too many. Just a pick a couple of the best & most recent ones (3-6), and stick with that. If you have no significant publishing credits, schooling, or awards to list, here's some advice. Rather than try to trump up your poem in the community newsletter, your near-victory at the college poetry slam, or your children's book "in progress," make your bio as short and vague as possible--I call it a "micro-bio". This is a good trick even if you have lots of bio-worthy credits. It makes you look humble and vaguely hipster-maverick by allowing for the possibility that you may be more important than you're letting on: Example of a micro-bio: Ralph Macchio was born in Long Island. He lives and works in New York City.
  4. Use acknowledgment pages and contributors' notes to find your camp. Acknowledgements pages are, hands down, the best way of researching markets. If you find a contemporary poet whose work is aesthetically, stylistically or topically similar to yours, the first thing you should do is raid the acknowledgments page in their most recent book. Find out where their poems have been published, research those journals online, then submit to those places--paying particular attention to newer journals and/or ones you haven't heard of. This technique works best with "emerging" poets who only have 1-3 books out. The more established a poet is the more places they're able to publish; thus you won't find as much of a recognizable aesthetic linking the journals in which they appear. Similarly, whenever you get a contributor's copy of a magazine you should check out all the bios in the back, noting any trends or connections. For example, if you get a copy of Salt Hill and four of your fellow contributors' bios list The Lumberyard as a publication credit, maybe you should submit there--your chances are probably pretty good. You'll start to notice that many of the same names keeping popping up in the same journals. This isn't an accident; it means you've found a camp of poets with a shared aesthetic. Use this discovery to streamline your submission process instead of submitting willy-nilly and crossing your fingers.
  5. Turn publishing into a game. This may sound irreverent and careerist, but hear me out. A lot of writers I know have a complex about publishing--it's expected of them yet, somehow, they're not supposed to care about it or talk about it. This can result in all sorts of paralysis, weird guilt and silent angst. I say lighten up and play the odds. So, yes, turn it into a game. Simultaneously submit. Display rejection slips on your wall like badges of courage. Edit rejected poems if you feel they need it, then send them right back out again. Don't let yourself leave the coffee-shop until you've submitted to three journals that begin with the letter "C." Get yourself a publishing buddy and make weekly dates. I used to have a map on my office wall, and whenever I get a piece accepted for publication, I put a red dot on the city where the journal was published. I jokingly called it my "Map of World Poetry Domination," but it was actually quite motivational. Whenever I didn't feel like submitting, I looked at the map and thought "Hmm, I've never been published in Wyoming; I should really get on that." It sounds dumb, but it worked, and I found all sorts of great literary journals and poets in the process. If you just write more and submit more, your chances of publication go up and the angst associated with rejection goes down. I'm not knocking the importance of introspection and revision here, but I think bouts of sluttish writing and submitting can also be useful--not only does the practice keep us in tune with the shifting literary landscape, it also helps reminds us poets of something we're inclined to forget: that we are, ultimately, writing to be read.