As a writer who dutifully submits her work to literary magazines, I often wonder: how do the editors of literary magazines handle submissions? What really goes on behind the scenes?
Each time I click “send” and cross my fingers for the submissions page to say “your work has been sent”, questions run through my mind. Each time I weigh a submission envelope at the post office and check the address and postage, the same questions return:
What happens to my manuscript when it arrives in the editor’s mailbox? Who reads submissions? With hundreds of worthy submissions flowing in, will my work even be read? How do the editors of literary magazines go about the impossible task of selecting submissions?
As the editor of Poecology, I can’t speak for how other literary journals handle submissions. But I know how we do things here. Each submission is read by at least two people, and always by me, the editor-in-chief. I don’t just read the first line of a poem or story. I read every line of every piece. As an editor and as a writer, I wouldn’t do it any other way. It’s my belief that every line, sentence, and page is a work of art. Every piece has potential. And even though as writers we’re told to put the strongest pieces at the beginning of our manuscripts, I’ve often been surprised to find the strongest part of a manuscript tucked away on the very last page.
Submissions for Poecology Issue 2 close today at midnight, and I am left with a conundrum: How do I go about selecting pieces to publish from a treasure trove of poems, stories, and other creative works sent daily over the internet from every corner of the globe? It’s a terribly tough choice, and making these choices takes patience and practice.
Before I dive into the final submissions for Issue 2, I need to remind myself of a few things. The first thing I tell myself: you can’t accept everything. I know I will have to return some work back to expectant authors, along with the inevitable rejection letter. I can only hope that these authors take it not as a rejection, but as an opportunity to return to the work, to re-inhabit it, and send it again.
The second thing I tell myself: Be methodical and slow. Read everything twice, and write down a quick note about the strengths of each piece. Each and every piece I’ve read this year has been strong. But I’ve learned that the job of an editor is not always about choosing the strongest pieces, but about choosing a strong variety of pieces that speak to each other. If there’s one thing I could tell submitters, it’s this: don’t fear the rejection letter. A rejection letter doesn’t always mean that your work isn’t strong. It means try again.
The third thing I tell myself: Let the submission sit after you’ve given it a good read. This is useful advice for writers too. Often a vivid image or passage will follow me wherever I go. If a passage still haunts me several days later, then I inevitably go back and read it again: there’s something there that readers might also be haunted by.
Given all of the things I tell myself, there are still several factors that influence our decision to publish a work:
1. Does the piece fit the philosophy of the journal?
2. Have we already chosen a piece with a similar subject or feel, either for this issue or for previous issues?
3. Have we chosen work from a variety of styles, view points, and lived experiences?
4. Have we chosen work that represents a diverse range of environmental concerns?
5. Have we chosen work from both emerging and established writers?
6. How will readers respond to the work?
Going through this list of questions helps us along in our decision-making process. But we often get stuck. We receive far more worthy submissions than we could ever hope to publish in one annual journal. At this rate, we have enough work to fill up two or three issues a year. If only we had the staff power and resources to pull that off!
As we close submissions for Issue 2, we open them up for Issue 3. We hope you’ll submit again. The backlog of work prevents us from writing personal comments, but rest assured that your work is being read with great care.
Kristi Moos and the editorial staff at Poecology