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  • Skylar Hamilton Burris

Avoid the Pet Peeves of Magazine Editors

Having trouble publishing your poetry and short stories in literary magazines? To avoid instant rejection, avoid these seven pet peeves of literary magazine editors. I have experienced each one repeatedly in my twenty years of editing Ancient Paths literary magazine.

(1) Lack of Professionalism

Remember to treat e-mail communication with an editor as you would a formal letter. Use proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization, and don’t use internet shorthand. Maintain a structure and format to your submissions, just as you would if you were printing them. If requested, include a brief cover letter.

If you receive a rejection with criticism, and you disagree with the editor’s comments, simply thank him or her for his time. Do not belittle the editor’s judgment or react in self-defense. It is rare for an editor to make the effort to offer criticism. Either learn from it or politely discard it, but don’t fight it. The publishing world can be a tight-knit community, and if you are rude to an editor, your reputation for a lack of professionalism may travel.

(2) Obvious Ignorance of the Publication

“I’ve never seen your magazine, but…” Unfortunately, I can’t count on just two hands the number of times I’ve received a cover letter that begins with these words. No editor wants to know that you haven’t bothered to read his or her publication. We all know that an author can’t afford to buy a sample copy of every publication to which he wishes to submit, but you don’t need to announce your ignorance.

If a sample of the magazine is free or you can afford one, read a copy before submitting your work. If you can’t afford a sample, review the publication’s website and guidelines and learn as much about it as you can. If you like something about the publication (selected literature on the website, the fact that it fills a void in the publishing world), mention that in your cover letter. However, as your mother told you, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” When you know little or nothing about the publication to which you are sending fiction, stay silent on the subject.

(3) Insincere Compliments

While it helps to let an editor know what you like about his or her publication, don’t exaggerate. An editor can discern a genuine compliment from an insincere one, and he or she may regard obsequiousness as an insult. Above all, don’t lie. I once received a cover letter in which the author claimed to have read and admired several copies of my magazine. I had never mailed a copy to this individual, and at that time my magazine was available by subscription and mail order only.

If you have never seen the publication to which you are submitting, simply refrain from mentioning anything about it. If you want to say something kind, say something truthful. For instance, you might say that you appreciate that the publisher has started a magazine to fill a special niche market of interest to you.

(4) Amateurish Statements

If you are new to the submission process, you may inadvertently label yourself as an amateur. Certain statements can set off an alarm in an editor’s mind. Here are just a few that have crossed my desk in cover letters and on poems and short stories:

  • “I’ve never been published before, but…” Every writer must start somewhere. But if you’ve never been published, there’s no need to call attention to the fact.

  • “I took a creative writing class in 10th grade…” Information that pre-dates college is generally not considered relevant, unless you are a high school student submitting to a youth publication.

  • “Copyright 2004, John Doe.” You don’t need to put a copyright mark on your work. You own the copyright to your work the moment you set it down on paper, and every editor knows this. Some editors may interpret a copyright mark as a signal of distrust (at worst) or ignorance of copyright procedures (at best).

(5) Careless Multiple Submissions

When I receive an e-mail submission and the CC: line is littered with scores of addresses, I can’t help but groan. An e-mail sent to several editors at once sends a signal that you may have simply harvested a slew of magazine’s addresses without taking the time to read their guidelines. If you are sending a simultaneous submission, send a separate e-mail to each magazine, with an appropriate cover letter revised for each market (if a cover letter is required).

Many editors consider simultaneous submissions, but if you are submitting a work to more than one magazine, do so in a courteous manner. First, ensure that the magazine considers simultaneous submissions. Next, notify the editor that your work is a simultaneous submission in the cover letter, but you need not list the publications you have sent it to. Finally, if you work is accepted elsewhere, notify the editor immediately. It’s frustrating for an editor to send out an acceptance letter and reserve space in an upcoming issue, only to find that the author has already sold all rights to his work elsewhere.

(6) Requesting that Editors Choose a Work

Back when I received submissions by mail, I always rolled my eyes to find a large, fully stuffed envelope in my P.O. box. I knew what was in store for me: an author had sent me an entire manuscript of poems or short stories and affixed a post-it note asking me to “choose a work” from among his entire collection. The modern e-mail version of this involves sending an editor a URL link and asking him or her to read the works on your website.

Editors simply do not have time to wade through a website or an entire collection of writings. It is your job as an author or poet to choose which of your works you think are most appropriate for the market in question and to send only those works. Most editors have a limit as to the number of works they will consider at a time, usually averaging around three to five. Consult the publication’s guidelines to determine how many works you may send at once.

(7) Failure to Follow Guidelines

Did you send off a work to a magazine and never receive a response? Maybe you failed to follow the submission guidelines. When I still received submissions via mail, I would hold the best in a file for further consideration. I occasionally flipped through my hold file only to discover that a particular work of interest contained no mailing address. I always asked authors to include a name and address on each poem, in case they became separated or in the event that I only wished to hold one poem. When that information was missing, I had no way to contact the author to send an acceptance. Each editor has a different system for keeping track of submission, so be sure to read each publication's guidelines.

Guidelines will also tell you how to format your manuscript, how many works to send at once, whether a publication considers reprints and simultaneous submissions, and what topics and genres to avoid. No editor wants to receive short stories when his or her publication contains nothing but poetry.

Now that you know some of the top pet peeves of literary magazine editors, dust off your manuscript, and good luck!

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