It's not nice to annoy the editor. . .

Susan Terris


People sometimes ask me what I have learned as an editor about submitting my own work. Well, some of the things I’ve learned are probably well understood by most writers, but often forgotten. Literary magazines receive an overwhelming number of submissions. Of course, all editors are looking for excellence, but an editor must also keep in mind the theme — if any, and the shape of the coming issue. Sometimes a work editors admire and might want will lose out at the last moment because it doesn’t seem to fit in the overall make-up of the current issue. Maybe the tone is too different, or the theme duplicates too closely work already accepted.

Speaking now only for myself, here are some of my particular preferences (other editors may not feel the same way as I do) :

• Follow all the submission specifications for each magazine. If a magazine asks, as I do at Spillway, for submissions in a single document, don’t send each piece as a separate document. It also helps, for filing purposes, if the document is titled with the author’s last name first. If an editor must retitle documents, this takes time away from evaluating the submission itself.

• Pay special attention to the submission periods and don’t send in work early or late.

• Even if you know or can find the editor’s personal email, always use the email listed in the guidelines.

• Unless submitted work is a contest entry, all submissions, whether online or by snail mail, should have the writer’s name and email at the top of every page. This is especially important for PDF documents, because there’s no way for an editor to add a name except to print out the document first, remember whose it is, and write the name and email on the sheet by hand.

• Pagination helps the editor. So does numbering the pages.

• When submission guidelines call for 3-5 pieces (or whatever), do not send more than the specified number.

• Do not use fancy, half-unreadable fonts. They may call attention to work in a negative rather than a positive way.

• Whether submitting online or by snail mail, don’t make the font and line spacing small or tight to compress a poem to a single page. Again: hard to read is not helpful to the editor.

• When submissions have a theme, by all means, do find unusual ways to contribute to that theme. But don’t send 5 pieces about working overtime in an auto repair shop if the theme is “Chamber Music” or “Helicopter Parents.”

• As an editor, I don’t particularly like one poem or single story submissions. More work gives me a way to evaluate the writer and helps me decide whether to encourage a writer whose work is not accepted this time to submit to me again.

• For all cover letters, keep your bios short and pertinent. Only include specific biographical material if it’s related to your submission. (If you are a beekeeper writing about bees or a prison inmate writing about prison life, that is pertinent.) Also try to remember that the editor does not particularly care about the names of your family members or, especially, for the names of your pets. (Exception made for the doctor who told me his horse was named Remedy.) Nor does the editor care if you’ve published in 100 or 200 magazines. I, for one, never read cover letters until after I’ve read and made tentative decisions on the value on the submission.

• If you are submitting a long poem or story, try to make sure that the material is compelling enough for a reader to want to stay with it beginning to end.

• If you have to withdraw work for any reason, let the editor know promptly, and please do not send substitutes. Too confusing. It’s hard to put together with original entry.

• Do not send revisions. Same reasons as above. If your work is accepted, an editor can consider revisions then, but remember if your work was accepted, the editor may or may not feel that revisions improve it.

• Don’t query the editor about the status of a submission until after the time specified in the guidelines. (If it says notification in 6 months, for instance, don’t query the editor after 2 months.)

• Many editors, including myself, do some rolling admissions. Therefore, it’s harder to get work accepted at the end of the submission period because much of the page space has already been allotted. (Sometimes, almost 30 percent of submissions come the last week of the submission period.) I try to read everything fairly, and great work always rises to the surface, but . . . give your submission a good chance and send it in a bit earlier if you can.

Wrapping things up: Make sure you have proofed your submission carefully for grammar and spelling before sending it. You might also do an extra adjective and adverb check to eliminate the unnecessary ones. Do send along work you feel is as finished as you can make it, rather than work still in process.

Above, you have my personal editorial positions and feelings, but I am just one person; so as I sign off, let me repeat again: Check the specific guidelines for each publication where you plan to submit, and follow those guidelines carefully. And may you have much success in getting your work both accepted and published!

Susan Terris’ books include The Ghost of Yesterday: New and Selected Poems, The Homelessness of Self, Contrariwise, and Fire is Favorable to the Dreamer. Her work has appeared in many journals, including The Southern Review, The Journal, North American Review, and Ploughshares. A poem of hers from Field appeared in Pushcart Prize XXXI. She is the editor of Spillway Magazine and poetry editor of In Posse Review and of Pedestal. In recent years, she has won both the George Bogin Award and the Louis Hammer Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her book Memos will be published by Omnidawn in 2015.

Photo of Susan Terris