"Don't Think About Getting Published." Editors Offer Advice for Writers Seeking to Break Through
Pulitzer Prize winning writer William Saroyan received over 7,000 rejections before publishing his first short story. Gertrude Stein spent twenty-two years trying to publish a piece of poetry. Regardless of the adversity, writing requires hard-work and grit. A few editors from around the literary community share their best advice for those looking to break through.
- Matt Broderick, Reviews Editor, The Review Review
Question: What advice do you have for an emerging writing who is struggling to publish their first piece?
Molly Hill, Editor, Blue Marble Review:
Craft is more important than having the biggest or best idea for a story or poem. Take a look at how your story unfolds—is there something unique, innovative, and different about the way your story is written that will make it stand out?
Content is key. This seems broad and vague, but what makes a piece successful is whether each sentence is doing its work, advancing the story, providing key descriptors or details or dialogue. Everything in there should be necessary, and not read like extra filler.
Edit. But not until the end! Once the writing is finished, take a careful look at your own work (or solicit a reader or two). See if you can spot what's confusing, needs developing or expansion, and what can be eliminated. While you're editing, be a perfectionist. Your work should look great on the page before submitting. Check margins, white space, spelling and grammar—more than once. Make sure what you present is your best finished product.
Give yourself a pep talk, or select your very own personal theme song. You CAN do this, even if you've worn out the SEND button on Submittable, you CAN. The 'no thanks' responses you might get from journals may just mean your writing doesn't fit their particular, theme, style, or even taste of the particular editor reading your submission. Because you've researched the journal you're submitting to, to make sure your writing fits —right? (highly recommended)
Resubmit your writing at the same time you're starting to work on something new.
Joe Ponepinto, Publisher and Fiction Editor, Tahoma Literary Review:
Several bits of advice come to mind:
Submit to fledgling journals. They typically don't get nearly as many submissions as more established publications do, so your chances are much better.
Look for journals that state they like to publish new or emerging writers. It's usually on their guidelines page.
Those guidelines also may have specific advice from the editors about what they're looking for.
It should be obvious, but read some of the work a journal has published to see if yours might fit their editorial philosophy. Many journals have free samples on their sites.
Be willing to work with an editor. We recently had a first-time author who withdrew his story rather than work with us on a few edits. He may find it very difficult to place that piece elsewhere.
Kris Baker Dersch, Producer/Editor, No Extra Words:
Read lit journals! Get a sense of what is out there and what you are competing against. It will help your quality of work and will help you understand the standard you are being held to. Also please please please copy edit very carefully. I don't automatically reject work for small spelling and grammar errors but when I am looking to weed through submissions seeing that stuff will bias me against you, I'm sorry to say but it's true.
Remy Barnes, Senior Fiction Editor, Cleaver Magazine:
As an emerging author struggling to publish myself, I’m going to give some very nebulous, holistic advice here: Read. Read, read, read. I mean books. Spend your time reading really great literature. Old stuff, new stuff, forgotten stuff, men, women. All of it. Just read. It’s great to familiarize yourself with the magazine you’re going to be submitting to but, to be honest, most of us are in air-raid mode when it comes to submissions. If you’re submitting effectively, you’re probably sending out twenty to thirty submissions every couple of months (likely more). Some outlets might lean more toward experimental, some toward realism, but all of them are interested in good fiction. Don’t sweat hunting down the newest copy of Ploughshares to see if your story will be a “good fit.” If it is, it is, y’know?
Second, if you’re going through edits, keep going. We are very lucky at Cleaver that our aesthetic attracts some unique submissions but the number one problem with our emerging submitters is that they’re not editing enough. So often there’s a story that’s so close, I mean, if they would have just spent some more time honing the piece, it would have been a sure fit. But it gets fired off still a little loose, a little ragged. Edit until your eyes bleed and you hate the story. And then send it to Cleaver. Because it’s probably pretty good now and we’ll want to publish it.
Adam Morgan, Editor-in-Chief, Arcturus:
Read more. Most of the emerging writers who submit to Arcturus (or who enroll in my classes at the university) just haven't read enough fiction, or nonfiction, or poetry, or whatever they're writing. Within a few sentences, it's pretty easy to tell. It's like trying to paint when the only colors you know are blue and green.
And I don't just mean "read the classics." You can learn a lot from studying Hemingway and Ursula K Le Guin and Octavia Butler, but if you want to get published in 21st-century literary magazines, you have to know what kind of work they're publishing in the 21st century. All of those "year's best" anthologies are a great place to start, but I really advise finding the dozen or so publications that you really love, the mags or websites you would be thrilled to see your name in, and reading as many back issues as possible. If you don't know what's come before you, how can you take the next step?
Lucie Shelly, Associate Editor Recommended Reading, Electric Literature:
Revise revise revise. Check your word repetitions, your tics and habits. Don't be precious about cutting a lot or starting again. Give yourself distance from the piece before you submit--wait at least a week, and read it again. You need to be as close to reading it with neutral eyes as possible because that's how editors are reading it.
Kimberly Ann Southwick, Editor-in-Chief, Gigantic Sequins:
The best advice I ever got as a poet was that sometimes you'll need to send a poem out thirty different times to 30 different places before it gets accepted. This doesn't mean, I discovered, that every poem deserves to be rejected 29 times before being accepted, it means to me that sometimes, poems really are just "not right" for that particular journal at that particular time, while other times, this means a poem needs work. Don't be afraid to do both: keep sending out work you know is strong and take time to reconsider the strength of work being consistently rejected.
At Gigantic Sequins, we always come across writing we wind up rejecting that is stellar work, but just not right for us, at that time. Some journals, journals you might read eagerly each month, might not be a good fit for the work you happen to be producing at a certain time. A rejection isn't always a judgement on the quality of work but often an indicator of a journal's taste and current focus. What editors are reading and loving at the time influences the work they choose. This means, reading the most recent issue of a journal is often the best way to see what the editors were "into" when they made their most recent decisions--and probably the best indicator a writer has available to them on what the editors might like. As the editor of a print journal, it's wild to me how many writers who have probably never read an issue of our journal feel comfortable sending us their work. If emerging writers want a tip on how to minimize the competition of more established writers, reading the journals they are sending their work to, giving special attention to the genre in which they're submitting, will definitely give them an advantage to anyone who's submitting who hasn't read the most recent issue.
R.M. Cooper, Founder & Managing Editor, Sequestrum:
Determine your goals, research, and then read.
Goals: Do you want to just get published, or do you want to see your name in a brand-name publication? Do you want to get paid? How do you handle rejection? What’s your end goal, and how are you working towards it?
Research: Find journals which meet your goals. Make lists. Note their submission deadlines and general guidelines.
Read: This is the most important step. Read the journals you plan to submit to. Read writers who are regularly published in those journals. Determine what they do better than you. Ask in what ways their writing could be better. Then be better.
Philip Elliott, Editor-in-Chief, Into the Void:
First, know your limits and embrace them. Limits are positive; they're walls to smash, short-term goals to achieve. So, don't go submitting to The New Yorker. For some reason we all do this at first, it's pretty funny. The first place I ever submitted (my first ever short story) to was Tin House. Of course, that story, being my first ever, was terrible, and didn't get accepted anywhere. I forgot all about it, and around fourteen months later, much to my surprise, I received an email from Tin House. It was a rejection letter. I couldn't stop laughing. Even though that story was bad, I didn't submit it to anywhere realistic. Glimmer Train was one of the other places, Carve another . . . you get the idea. So, know your limits and submit accordingly. Find a new magazine that's only finding its feet too and submit there. Inaugural issues are good. Climb your way up the prestige list, don't aim straight for the top (or even the middle). It's part of the fun.
If you're struggling to see improvements in your writing/acceptance rate--are you studying the craft? Are you reading voraciously? Two excellent books on craft every writer should read are Stein on Writing by Sol Stein and On Writing by Stephen King. Read them with a highlighter and mark lines that illuminate things for you. Then when you've read the whole thing you have a quick reference book in highlighter. When you understand the reason for every one of those 'rules' or guidelines presented in those books, you can break them. Read each of those books three times each over some period of time, and find others. Read like crazy, everything and anything. Vary it. Read all kinds of novels, read poetry, read nonfiction, read articles. Read. And if you want to write speculative fiction, read so much speculative fiction you know the genre inside out. Then you can rip it apart and remake it whatever way you want. And keep reading all the other stuff. If you're not a poet, try your hand at poetry. It will boost your writing and create new connections in your brain. Write everything. Lots. It's a muscle to keep fit. Fill yourself with words and fill pages and pages with your own. If you do all that, you'll get published. It's just a matter of time.
RW Spryszak, Managing Editor, Thrice Fiction:
Don't think about getting published. Don't imagine you will ever be famous, or interviewed on TV with millions of people watching, or spark a cult following, or be able to live off your writing and wear sweaters with patches on your elbows and live in some quaint New England town where it is eternally Fall and everything is cold and red and brown and beautiful and somewhere there's a dog. Write. Write your ass off. Keep writing. Make a collection of reject slips and rejection emails in a box and be proud of them. Those are your bones. Keep looking for the right venue. Then look for the right venue some more. Follow the damn guidelines. Don't piss and moan to the editors who reject your work. Don't send angry, adolescent emails in response to their form rejects. The best advice I ever got was from someone in the business forty years. Before she died she told me, "you can write. You write very well. This last piece is exquisite. Don't quit your day job."
Dismiss the idea that you have to take every reject to heart. Shrug it off. Write some more. Have a life. Fall in love. Make babies. Take care of them. Write in the spare seconds. Use the backs of napkins and receipts. And when you finally get one accepted, act like you've been there before. Then go back to writing. Never be satisfied. Make a point of hating everything you've ever written, even if it's published. Don't explain the deeper meaning of the work. Ever. To anyone. Nobody wants to hear about your latest project or how it is a metaphor for a ghost of a shadow of a nuance. Keep it a secret. And remember - the first draft is always shit. Always.