How-To Step 1: Choosing and Editing Submittable Pieces
It feels like a big decision: when is a piece done? We all want our work to be ‘perfect.’ Naturally, we want to put our best foot forward and make sure that anything we submit is the very best it can be. But don’t forget, this challenge started with one of The Copybot’s 100 Ways to Become a Better Writer: #66 Rack up Rejections. You can’t wait until you know that a piece will be accepted to submit it. You need to submit it first to find out. Even the very act of submitting, whether they are accepted or not, will make you grow and learn and develop as a writer.
Of course, you want to send out solid, professional pieces. Make sure you are submitting work that you are proud to attach your name to. Ask yourself, if this comes out in print, would you share it with people? Would you be proud to have your name in the byline? To me, this is the most important criteria.
I personally am a big believer in the idea that if you wait for perfection, nothing you write is ever going to make it out the door. No piece is ever really finished. Your ideas about each piece of writing that you create will grow and change, just as you do. You can always look at your work from new, fresh, different perspectives. Some pieces will look good to you one year and like garbage the next. And it’s really a doozy to try to predict what will appeal to different readers or editors at different magazines. So pick pieces that you like, right now. Chances are that if you like them, others out there will too.
Your work doesn’t need to be perfect to be out in the world. Obviously, it’s important when polishing work to think about details. But there is a difference between meaningful details and minutiae. I personally spent days wondering if I should put one space or two between lines in a particular poem I was sending out. Finally, I had to admit to myself that if an editor liked it, they liked it and if they didn’t, an extra space wasn’t going to change their mind. No editor was going to pour over this poem for days the way I was. They just don’t have time for that.
So I think of it as a process of polishing. Your bits of creativity are diamonds. Maybe they start as diamonds in the rough, so of course they need to be polished. You want them to shine and shimmer and be as clear and beautiful as possible. But if you sit there polishing them for years, they will wear away until there is no diamond left. It will become just a pile of dust that you can’t sell or use or share with other people. Or worse, you’ll have a nice little diamond sitting in your desk drawer collecting dust instead of sparkling. Diamonds need to reflect light in order to shine, and so does your writing. It’s not going to shimmer in the darkness of your desk drawer/computer hard drive/recesses of your brain. It needs to be out in the sunlight. So, by all means, polish your diamonds. It’s necessary. But don’t chip away at them until there’s nothing left and don’t let them sit in darkness unable to sparkle.
To me, the easiest way to think about these decisions is to realize that in the end, it’s not my decision if something is ready to be published in a particular literary magazine. I only have to decide if I would be proud to see this piece, with my name on it, in print. If I would, I’m sending it out and the readers and editors at the various literary magazines that I’m submitting it to can decide if it’s ‘perfect’ enough to print in their publication. Do you want this piece published? If you do, then send it out.
Perhaps the most practical reason to submit something that might not be quite ‘perfect’ in your eyes is that you might get feedback on it. Last year I submitted to Flash Frontier and got a lovely letter back saying they liked the piece, but suggesting ways that I could make it more solid and clearer. (You can see the before and after pieces.) It was invaluable advice. I took the advice and it did polish that tiny diamond I had. And, they ended up publishing it. I found that many of the literary magazines I looked at offered to give writers feedback, if you asked for it and were willing to wait a little longer for a response. Some venues (like Hoot Review) even have scheduled workshops and are willing to work with you on a piece before you even submit it.
One more thing I’ve had a lot of comments about from people out there is that they don’t have enough pieces or work finished to do this challenge. Many literary magazines are happy to accept simultaneous submissions, which means you can send your piece to more than one litmag at a time. You could send just your favorite piece to 30 different magazines all at the same time. So, if you have just one poem or one book review or one flash fiction piece, you have enough to do the 30 day challenge.
I personally chose about 15 of my strongest pieces, gave them a little polish-up and made sure they were ready to go out into the world. Once I knew which pieces I was ready to submit, I made a handy little spreadsheet so that I could keep track of what I submitted to where and when (see below). This is incredibly important because when your pieces get accepted (yes, when, not if) you may need to withdraw them from other magazines. One of the pieces of info that I knew I needed was word count because I planned to submit some flash fiction, and I listed that below the title of each piece. This spreadsheet is also how I kept track of my responses. You can see in this image that Camroc Review sent me my first rejection (in pink), so then I knew that those pieces could be sent out to even more places or maybe that they needed more polishing. At the bottom of this spreadsheet, which you can’t see, is a total of how many times I submitted each piece, just a sum of all the 1’s I input to show that something had been submitted. It’s a really good idea to make this spreadsheet now so that you don’t have to do it while you are doing the work of submitting later on. You don’t need to know the litmags just yet, we’ll take care of those next week.
So, this is the goal for this week: collect one, a few, twenty pieces of writing that you like. Polish them (gently!) until you would be proud to see them published. Get yourself organized so that you keep track of your little diamonds, whether you are using Duotrope, a notebook, a dry erase scoreboard, or a little spreadsheet like mine. And get ready to rack up rejections – and probably some acceptances too!
P.S. Thank you to everyone for the comments and suggestions. Definitely keep the questions coming and feel free to suggest issues that you want to see addressed. I’ll do my best to respond to all of these. Keep in mind also that I’m learning as I go too, so your knowledge and experience is appreciated as well!