What Makes for a Successful Literary Submission?

So many submissions come in to the literary magazine I help staff – a relatively new literary magazine – that examining the framework of a “successful submission” becomes a lesson in self-reflection. From my experience working on various literary journals, the submissions that find a way through the editorial process have similar characteristics, even though the journal, the editors, and the submissions may be vastly different. For the most part, this framework can relate across different literary journals with different scopes as well. At the broadest level, I see the framework resting upon awareness. By awareness, I mean the submitter’s engagement in the literary sphere. Awareness, a step further on, takes two forms: external and internal. Almost always, the success of a submission can be traced back to the applicant’s awareness of herself as well as of the market she sends work to. These are necessarily vague because each market is different and each writer is different. They also seem to place a lot of the responsibility for the success of a particular submission on the writer, although this is not the intent. The writer does create the work, and decide where to send it, but awareness must also fall upon the literary magazine editors. An awareness of trends in the accepted pool, and an awareness of possible prejudices must always be lurking in the mind of an editor. I hope to offer an engagement with the journal’s responsibilities toward awareness, followed by the writer’s external and internal awareness to explore the constitution of successful submissions and successful writers.

As a team of editors on a journal, one of our primary tasks is to recognize and be aware of the results of our editorial processes. Often, as our team realized, these results can end up being skewed without intention. We had accepted several poems which were written by men, and few poems by women (two of which were withdrawn after our letter was sent). This led us to reconsider several poems which had scored well, but not the four votes we determined were necessary for immediate acceptance. Upon reviewing these works, and a discussion upon their merits and shortcomings, several of these poems were accepted for publication. While this may sound like a variation upon affirmative action, we may argue instead that reviewing our individual lenses assisted in realizing the value of a submission which may not have initially passed one individual’s lens. In other words, an editorial collective can easily become ensconced in trends whether those reflect gender, politics, style, race, etc. The willingness to step back from those trends and self-reflect upon the reasons for acceptances and trends in the acceptance pool is a responsibility for those editors. For that self-awareness leads to several things: a more fair editorial practice, a more representative acceptance pool, more openness to different styles or schools of writing, and ultimately, a more thoughtful literary product. As we will see when addressing the awareness of the writers, this level of self-reflection is difficult, but ultimately a requirement for the editorial staff of a literary journal. The final standard for acceptance must always be excellence, but self-reflection can unveil excellence which may be hidden by any one editor’s perspective.

Although the editorial team must be self-reflective when seeking out excellence, the excellence of the submission itself is in the hands of the author of that submission. In a journal such as the one I work at, we strive to be open to the excellence of a submission no matter the source or topic. Authors, too, must be aware of the journals to which they submit, which can be viewed as a matter of external awareness. This is one of the most-often repeated comments or pieces of advice given to writers, and there is a good reason for this repetition. The general market for literary publication spans thousands of journals and markets, and being aware of what is being published generally can assist in the self-evaluation we will discuss shortly. As discussed above, editors and journals vary in their tastes, and it is only through reading the journal that a writer can begin to understand what the journal is pursuing. A simplistic example would be a free-verse poem being submitted to a formalist magazine. However, there are more subtle differentiations between less focused journals which can only really be seen through consumption and evaluation of the market. Any of the editors of these journals would say that they are seeking excellent work; the question is what those editors consider “excellent work,” and that is readily on display in the journal itself. By spending time with journals the author is interested in, by taking the time to practice that external awareness and reflect on a magazine’s contents and contexts, the hopeful author can deduce what the editors’ preferences are. In addition to awareness of content and context, the hopeful writer also needs to familiarize herself with the submissions guidelines for individual markets, and tailor her submission to each market individually. Unless the work is earthshakingly brilliant, an editor will often view submissions which do not conform to the guidelines with skepticism, if not immediately filing them in the circular file. This awareness of the literary marketplace, both generally and specifically, allows the writer to target journals which may be most likely to publish a piece. Targeted submissions may raise the probabilities of being published, but this is only a partial solution because the editors will still seek out the best submissions they receive, and self-reflective awareness on the part of the author determines how good the work is.

This last level of awareness may be the most important in terms of generating successful literary submissions. In personal experience, most of the submissions which receive quick rejections display several qualities, each of which reflect a lack of self-examination and self-awareness on the part of the writer. These several qualities include obvious mistakes, inattention to craft, ungraceful treatment of a difficult topic, or a clear lack of reflection upon the work. This self-reflective awareness is also one of the more difficult skills to acquire or describe, but an editor will quickly recognize when a submission does not reflect it. As with any other ability, this one is earned through experience writing and reading, and discussing one’s work in a welcoming yet critical environment. Many writers receive this experience in MFA programs, but there are also many community groups and writing groups which offer a similar environment. This self-reflection results in a willingness to revise and rewrite a work until it is good, and the discipline to be able to step back from one’s involvement with a work is required for this. This is at the crux of self-reflective awareness: the ability to be critical of one’s own work. The development of this skill takes time, but helps resolve issues from basic editing problems to questions of craft, grace and empathy, and depth of reflection. Beyond resolving issues such as these, though, self-awareness also provides the writer a contextual knowledge of her work in relation to the general climate of the literary marketplace. This contextual knowledge, of course, allows the author to critically consider her work in relation to specific journals as well, resulting in more targeted submissions. There is also a reciprocal relationship between the self-reflection of a writer, the width and depth of her reading, and the success of her work. Everything we read becomes a part of the cupboard of language and ideas we pull from when we sit down to write. More than just reading, though, critical examination of others’ works is just as important as self-reflection, and helps develop that critical muscle which serves so well when looking at one’s own work.

In the end, the development of both the writer’s experience and abilities to be self-critical offer her a better chance to generate work which will stand out in a particular journal’s slush pile. Knowing where a particular piece might be more successful helps, but if the piece does not reflect the author’s unique perspective, insight, and an amount of critical awareness of itself, then the chances of a successful submission slip. The importance of the journal’s self-awareness must also be considered. Although this does not relate directly to the creation of the submission, editors must always be aware of why and how they make decisions. These different aspects of self-awareness result in a literary marketplace that publishes the best work being written, which reciprocates through a writer’s awareness of the market to result in even better work being submitted. The creation of excellent writing, though, always begins with the source, and relies on self-critical awareness all the way through the chain of creation and publication.



I think I will curate some interesting things editors write here:

1 – On Becoming an Editor / Sven Birkerts @ AGNI

What I am trying to say is that I am, at root, moved and heartened when I find what strike me as the best words in the best order, never mind the ostensible subject. Language used with high artistic consciousness. Words arranged in a way that declares: here is a living mind; here is a spirit.

2 –