Submitting to Literary Magazines 101: Professionalism

I am truly honored to have Vince Gotera as my guest today. Vince writes poems and stories, as well as the occasional creative nonfiction. His books include the three poetry collections Fighting Kite, Ghost Wars, and Dragonfly, as well as the critical study Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans. Vince serves as Editor of the North American Review, originally established in 1815, the longest-lived literary magazine in the US. He has been a Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa since 1995. He earned an MFA in poetry writing and a PhD in English from Indiana University. Gotera writes:

In a couple of days, I will be starting my tenth year as Editor of the North American Review — a tremendous privilege and honor since the NAR is the longest-lived literary magazine in the US, originally established in 1815.

About a year and a half ago, in a Facebook group titled “MFA in Creative Writing,” as part of an online discussion of editing and publishing, I dashed off an impromptu list of my pet peeves as NAR poetry editor. This list quickly took on a life of its own and was re-run on at least one other writerly blog and perhaps others. (As the movie Dorothy said of the Munchkins in Oz, blogs “come and go so quickly” so I can’t be certain how widespread the list “viraled,” so to speak.)

In any case, here (officially) is the precise text of that offhand list, originally written on 29 August 2007:

Okay … for me, the “turn-off” is different for each poem I ultimately reject. Here are a few immediate turn-offs, in no particular order:

• Botched ending … forced, too explanatory, too “universalized”
• Clumsy use of form … for example, if sonnet or sestina, etc.
• Slow getting going … should rock from first line down
• Too much full rhyme … I prefer slant rhyme
• Uninformed line breaks … be aware of lineation effects
• Abstract or image-less … unless experimental
• Superficial topic or handling
• Obviously unaware of poetic tradition(s)
• Cover letter explains poem … inexperienced submitter
• Poem sent with vita or résumé … very inexperienced submitter
• Says “copyright …” … does writer think I’ll steal the poem?
• Centered lines … unless important for theme
• Badly edited … errors, typos, grammar, etc.
• Font too small … many editors are older and have old eyes
• Monotype font or font too fancy … hard to read quickly
• Pseudonyms … let’s back up our writing with our names, ppl
• Handwritten … usually from prisoners, though I’ve accepted poems by prisoners.

There are other turn-offs but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

I do want to say that I don’t just drop the poem. My eyes touch every word. I read very quickly and wait for the poem to say, “whoa, you’re reading too fast.”

I also want to say that not every poem we take is already “perfect.” if a poem has something good going for it but has errors or whatever, we are willing to work with the poet in the proof stage. Not full workshop of course … that would be inappropriate … but suggestions and queries. In the long run, though, the writer’s in charge, of course.

Well, I’m grateful Pat has offered me a slot here as guest blogger. I would like to use this opportunity to expand on and clarify some of the items in that offhand list above. And maybe, if she’ll allow me, devote some later guest blogging slots to other pet peeves.

Today, I want to address professionalism in submitting to literary magazines. Five items above plus one other are germane. What I will say below about these six items are part of what many people — both writers and editors — refer to as “unwritten rules.” Oh, incidentally, what I’ll say below pertains directly to poetry, but of course writers of other ilk are welcome to adjust my advice for their own genre(s).

(1) The Cover Letter. Many writers don’t include a cover letter at all. The reasoning, I suppose, is that the editor will of course know why the poems are coming to the magazine. That’s okay, but I personally like to get cover letters because I think they’re polite. If they’re handwritten and say something like “Some poems for the magazine,” that would be fine. Our grandmothers told us we should send nice notes, and that’s what the cover letter should be. Sorry if I seem fussy here; I just think the transaction between the writer and the editor should be civil and friendly. A cover letter certainly can dispose me favorably (a little) toward the submission. Especially if a cover letter is fun or entertaining.

But … don’t try to impress me in your cover letter. Don’t tell me you were published here or there. Or that you have published so many books blah blah blah. When I see that in a cover letter, I don’t read it. For me, the poem and only the poem can get itself into the magazine.

Definitely do not explain the poem in your cover letter. As an editor, I’m trying to gauge how readers will understand the poem, and I don’t really care how you read your poem. Or what you meant. Or what poetic form or style you used. If the poem can’t “say” all that for itself, it’s not getting into the NAR.

It’s a good idea to list in the cover letter the titles of the 3 to 6 poems you’re sending. This will make our lives easier should your cover letter get separated from the poems. Not likely to happen but it could.

(2) Résumés and Vitas. Sometimes writers who know the cover-letter pitfalls listed above will instead send a list of publication credits. From my point of view, that’s equally annoying. Actually, more so, because it’s not as friendly as an actual letter.

What ever you do, never send a résumé or a vita; that really smacks of inexperience. Of not knowing the “unwritten rules.” There may be fields or disciplines in which one sends a vita with a submission, but not in the literary magazine world. Sending a résumé or a vita could possibly dispose me against your work. What I mean is that your poems will have to work that much harder to catch my attention. It could happen … the poems could be so good that they make me overlook the résumé faux pas but that would be a rare occurrence indeed. It’s never happened, actually, in my twenty years of poetry editing.

(3) Copyright. The experienced writer should be aware of how copyright law works: that as soon as you write something, you own its copyright; in other words, you only have to show that you wrote something and when to defend your copyright. Inexperienced writers, on the other hand, will sometimes fear that their poems are leaving their hands and could be stolen by someone at a magazine. So they will include a copyright notice on the poem itself.

This is quite an insult. An arrogant one. First, this practice suggests that you think your work is so good that the editor or some other staff member will, instead of publishing your work, be driven to steal it. Second, this tells us you think we are thieves. Do you think this makes us friendly to your poem?

There are how-to articles and books out there that say put a copyright notice on your piece. That is old advice for an older time and is no longer necessary in today’s copyright environment. So just resist doing it. Your chances of getting published will increase. What I mean is that the poem will have a chance of a better reading without a copyright notice.

(4) Fonts. Something that we see quite often is a poem that has been printed out in 9- or 10-point font. Sometimes even smaller. I’m not really sure why people do this. Perhaps they’re trying to save postage. Or they want to squish their entire poem onto a single sheet. Who knows?

Look at it this way. When you are interviewing for a job, do you make it difficult for the interviewer? Or annoying? Do you dress in garish colors that make it hard for the interviewer to look at you directly? Do you whisper your answers to the interviewer’s questions so that you can almost not be heard?

What you do with fonts can be equally deleterious. Let’s face it, editors are writers who have some mileage on them; and that mileage takes years. So quite often, an editor will be someone with older eyes. How do you think the miniature font you’ve used to get your poem all on one sheet will be received by that editor with the graduated bifocals or trifocals? There is no problem with having continuation pages. In fact, when I send out poems, I use 14-point Times to make sure they are readable by all.

Speaking of Times font: I would dissuade you from using a typewriter font like Courier. Those are harder to read than Times or Palatino or Georgia or some other standard non-typewriter font. Remember that the editor must read quickly. For example, at the NAR, we read 7,000-10,000 poems a year. If the poem is hard to read fast, there’s a possibility it may not be read at all. Ditto with fancy curlicue or script fonts. Hard to read. Bad. Also sans serif fonts like Helvetica. A little easier to read but not as easy to read as Times. You may think Times is boring but it could help you get published.

(5) Pictures. No. Very bad. No pictures with poems. Even if you’re sending an ekphrastic poem — one based on a painting or a sculpture, for example. The enclosed or attached picture is a definite tip-off that the writer is inexperienced. An ekphrastic poem has to be good enough to stand on its own without the visual image next to it. In a blog, including a picture next to a poem is a plus. In a submission, BIG minus. Just say no.

(6) Pen Names. This last one is not the same kind of no-no as those above; it is not patently a bad idea. Nevertheless, it is still a no-no (at least for me). Pseudonyms were important to publish in previous decades for many reasons; one of these is that women or minorities had a harder time getting their work accepted without a “good old boy” name. This situation has changed, however, and people who use pseudonyms often do so now for romantic reasons. Or because they feel their poems are somehow NSFW (“not safe for work,” as we sometimes say in Internet slang).

A pen name some poet might think romantic, like “Valentine Lovesmith” or “Genevieve Queensryche,” is just straight-out silly; the real name of an American 19th-century romance writer, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte), helped to make her a bestselling success story, but taking on a name like that won’t work today. I feel writers should stand by their own names; their poems should carry the weight and significance of their real names. Not all editors will probably agree with me on this, but I suspect a majority of them will.

Okay, that’s it for now. I hope you will see the sense of these “unwritten rules.” Basically, for me, it’s about friendliness and civility, again. Editors are your friends. They want to publish your work. They want to discover the next great poet. So make the submission easy for editors, professional, and your poems will be able to shine on their own as they should. Good luck with your writing and with your submissions.

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