Writers vs Literary Journals: a Lesson in Respect and Etiquette

As David Attenborough once said (in a dream I’m pretending to have had), ‘A curious relationship exists between the writer and the staff of a literary journal.’

Today I wanted to talk about the different ways writers and literary journal staff regard each other. A couple of days ago, my buddies at [untitled] wrote a blog that really resonated with me. The blog touched on some of the hidden etiquettes to consider when submitting fiction. If you’re someone who actively submits, or you’re thinking about submitting in the near future, I’d strongly advise that you check out this post.

(Fun, vaguely related fact: Not only do [untitled] publish short fiction of any genre, they also have an outrageously accommodating word limit. If you happen to write short fiction of any genre, make sure you check out their submission guidelines.)

I’ll assume you’ve had a gander at the link. Hopefully most will consider it common sense, but to those who haven’t sent their work out before, or to those who are just innately assholish to everyone they cross, it would pay to keep the suggestion of courtesy at the forefront of your minds.

I read a lot of writing articles (forget Spider Solitaire; this is procrastination, 2013 style), but what I particularly liked about this [untitled] one is that it sheds light on The Other Side. Publishers, that is – not the afterlife. I like that the insights come from someone who’s played both roles: the benevolent gatekeeper and the impoverished artist banging futilely against the iron gate. I also like that it reveals something about the people and processes who exist behind the label of Literary Journal.

Demystifying journals helps to even the playing field between writers and publishers. Although one camp holds the power, it reminds us that, ultimately, publishing isn’t about ego or prestige; ideally, what both parties want is for good fiction to flourish. And when you think of it like that (like an idealist with an acoustic guitar and a multi-coloured lei), how can writers and journal staff have anything but respect for each other?

Of course, people aren’t that simple, and neither is the world of publishing. It’d be great if the system always worked: writers would respect publishers by honouring their guidelines, and journals would deliver on their promises of swift response times and no mistakes. But these systems are governed by humans, and humans, the slippery suckers, are just so goddamned fallible.

* * *

Now I’d like to dissect both viewpoints – writers’ and publishers’ – so that we might learn something.

First, let’s look at a publisher’s biggest peeve: writers who neglect submission guidelines. For this, I’m going to refer you to another existing blog, this one written by Vine Leaves editor, Jessica Bell.

In this post, Jessica candidly reveals how distressing she finds it when writers disregard the guidelines. Now, just so we’re clear, Jessica is no tyrant. She’s a cool, empathetic person who would go to great lengths for her journal and its readership. If she could, she’d even willingly overlook author negligence and reformat incorrect submissions if it meant that person’s work could still be considered. Jessica struggles with the idea of penalising writers because she wants everyone to have their shot. But Vine Leaves is growing – fast! – and correcting mistakes has just gotten too time-consuming.

You see, Vine Leaves, like many other literary journals, is run exclusively by unpaid volunteers. There isn’t any money in putting together poetry or fiction anthologies. There’s a lot of hard work, some external gratitude (if you’re lucky) and the satisfaction of knowing you’ve created a platform for some great emerging talent. But that’s it.

I don’t mean to sound all soapboxy, but the people who run literary journals devote hundreds of hours of their personal time to do what they do and often get very little in return. The sooner the hotshot young writer realises this, the sooner they can start helping things along by following guidelines. Guidelines are there to make those tedious administrative tasks easier and spare the eyes of poor journal staff.

* * *

Last year I was an intern for a local literary journal. I noticed, in my time there, and by reading online articles, that there are some writers out there who harbour a very ugly sense of entitlement when it comes to submitting their work. These writers treat journal staff less like human beings and more like the bothersome necessity between where they are now and where they can see their name in print.

I’m not just referring to their disregard of submission guidelines, either. I’m talking about their general attitudes.

If you’ve never managed a company mailbox, whether for a journal or for something altogether unrelated, let me tell it can be harrowing work. Enquiries written with even a slither of humanity are rare; more often, budding writers are weighed down by the heaviest of crowns: professionalism. With regards to their submissions, these writers equate professionalism with brevity and rarely stray from using stilted academic language. In most cases, I think this is a front. It’s like they think that by revealing even a hint of their personalities they will hinder their publishing chances. So they do away with warm greetings, tasteful anecdotes and well-wishes and offer a cold, sterile:

‘DEAR SIR OR MADAM.

I AM THE T-1000 AND THIS IS MY SUBMISSION, ‘A BURGEOIS SUMMER IN FLORENCE’. TWENTY-ONE HUNDRED WORDS.

TRANSMISSION OVER.’

Now, please don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting you write aimless, indulgent cover emails about how your mum doesn’t take you seriously as a writer, or about how you’ve always wanted to visit Germany because that’s where your favourite writer, Hans Harischnikopf, was born. I’m not suggesting this at all (although it would be funny…). It’s vital you put your best foot forward when contacting a publisher, and that means keeping all correspondence clear and direct.

It doesn’t, however, mean you need to sound like a robot. If, in your queries and submissions, you end up moderately engaging with the person on the other end, this will not destroy your chances. In fact, I’d say it will leave an infinitely better impression (I’d rather hear from a sunny professional writer than a moonlighting robot). Who knows, if you submit often enough you might even build rapport and make a contact out of it. It’s not impossible.

* * *

Now, let’s get back to those faux professional writers and see what they’re liable to do in the face of rejection. I’d hazard their recourse would be to say nothing, to feel indignant, slighted, and to turn their backs, since the journal has failed to fulfil the only use it had to them.

This condemnation might be a bit harsh. Probably most writers – polite or otherwise – would cut the chord and move onto something else. But even if that’s true, who says you have to? Why not be different than most writers? Why not be memorable?

Consider sending them a brief response, like:

‘I understand. Thanks for notifying me, and for all the time and effort your team has put into their consideration of my work.

I wish you all the best with the issue. You’ll be hearing from me when submissions open for the next one!’

You might think that sounds insincere or, y’know, arse-kissy. But I don’t. Not if you mean it. Hell, you could even personalise it with a joke, or leave them some feedback about one of their previous issues. I promise, as someone who’s manned a lit journal’s inbox, it will brighten their day and foster good will.

* * *

Last week I was the unlucky recipient of a rather lengthy rejection letter. In the letter, all five members of the editorial staff left comments and suggestions. Their feedback was detailed, encouraging and employed with diplomacy. Rejection or not, I was chuffed, and would subsequently submit to them again in a heartbeat. It was clear that they’d valued my submission, shown me respect (even though I was rejected scum) and that they take great pride in what they do. Personalised responses are rare, so I made sure to tell them how much it meant to me.

Obviously, experiences like this are the exception rather than the rule. It’s more likely that you’ll receive a curt, unsympathetic form response, which will probably make you feel like just another cog in the submitting machine.

Remember how I decried writers who try too hard to perpetuate a super serious air of professionalism? Well, there are publishers like this, too, and it’s best not to get upset if you find yourself on the receiving end of their frosty manners. For one thing, personalities differ. No one said they, as the gatekeepers, had to be warm and accommodating (given the stressful nature of their work it’s more likely they’d be jaded). It’s also important to remember that it can be notoriously difficult to convey warmth in an email, especially if you want to maintain a professional image (as most publishers do). This means that emoticons, triple exclamation marks and bubbly fonts are out. In short, your editor mightn’t mean to come across as harshly as they do. And even if they do, it might be out of necessity, and not something you should take personally. The manner they’ve adopted may just be the most efficient way for them to deal with writers en masse. Unless they’re flat out rude to you, I say let it go.

* * *

DO NOT ABUSE PUBLISHERS!

Sorry. I don’t know what—

SERIOUSLY! DON’T DO IT!

I was very disappointed to read in that earlier [untitled] blog that there are writers out there who think it’s okay to be condescending, or even plain abusive, to lit journal staff. Though it’s already been detailed in the link I gave, I will second that there is no need to get like that. Being a dick to struggling publishers doesn’t make you a Serious Artiste. It just makes you a dick. If you perceive that a journal has wronged you (i.e. they’ve taken too long to get back to you, or… geez, I can’t even think of another legitimate way a journal might wrong a writer), try enquiring with a polite email. Don’t get emotional or call their professionalism into question. That is beyond unnecessary. (Plus, I’ve never heard of anyone getting what they wanted by being petulant.) Sometimes delays occur. There could be, if you asked, a completely legitimate reason for the hold-up, and then not only will you be blowing your chance of getting published, but you will also feel like a complete asshat.

Sure, it’d be great if every journal could keep on top of every submission they’re considering, but sometimes that isn’t possible. They mightn’t have the time or resources to chase up every outstanding author to inform them of a delay, so instead of stewing about it, try contacting them.

* * *

Going to start winding this down now, but first I wanted to recount the one pseudo negative experience I’ve had dealing with a publisher, and offer one final piece of advice.

First, the advice: beware of submitting too many pieces to a lit journal at once. This is not a hard and fast rule (unless the journal in question actually specifies a limit; you’ll know this by reading the SUBMISSION GUIDELINES). Rather it’s an unspoken etiquette. In my opinion, over-submitting gives the impression you’re not completely confident in your work. That may not be the case, but when I was interning we would, on occasion, receive emails with five or more attachments in them. This gave me the impression the writer was just throwing everything they had at us to see what would stick. Unless the pieces are super short, or showcase distinctly different styles (i.e. one’s poetry, one’s horror and the other’s an epistolary drama set to the backdrop of WWII), I say stick with one submission at a time. Or two, tops. Otherwise you risk giving the publisher a negative perception of your work before they’ve even looked at it and nobody wants that.

* * *

Will someone take the damned microphone from this guy!?

Okay. Here it is, my swansong: the only irksome experience I’ve had with a literary journal (so far). I’ll keep it short.

One evening I logged into Gmail with the intention of submitting to a journal. The email began with ‘Dear editors of X Magazine’. I read over it a couple of times, as I am wont to do, then hit send. Not five minutes after I’d sent it, I received a response. I was anticipating a simple receipt, a ‘Thanks for submitting. We’ll get back to you in yada yada’. What I got, however, was more brazen and personal.

This editor decided to cut me down with an email that was staggeringly condescending – all because I’d had the gall to address my submission to ‘the editors of X Magazine’ and not ‘Specific Staff Member A, B and C’.

It didn’t end there. Moments later, I logged into Twitter and saw, on my feed, that this editor had taken to the journal’s official account to relay how frustrated they were with writers who don’t stringently personalise submissions.

Firstly, I was astounded this person had gotten quite so upset over an innocuous mistake (admittedly, this was awhile ago, in my greener days), and secondly, I was mortified that they’d thought social media – specifically the officially account of their very professional, very prestigious journal – an appropriate way to air such a petty grievance.

Though far from a horror story, this forever affected my opinion of the journal, and I haven’t submitted to them since. You might say that’s my loss, but if that’s how they treat their prospective contributors at the submission stage, I can only imagine how they are at the editing stage.

It’s possible the person who emailed me was just having a shitty day. This is what I’d like to believe, because I’m not really one to hold grudges. In time I’ll probably re-evaluate and send something else their way. For now, though, there are loads of other markets in my sight.

The main thing I learnt from this experience was to personalise my submissions whenever possible. That’s fine. I had no objections to doing this, anyway. I was more peeved at the editor’s snarkiness; she’d insinuated I was lazy, or somehow indifferent about the process, because I didn’t know the journal personnel by name. I agree that addressing the hard-working staff by name is a nice courtesy, but I don’t see how skimming the ‘About Us’ section of a website and subbing in the names of strangers makes your submission any more personal or sincere. To me, it sounds like egotism’s at play and I’ve little time for that.

* * *

And that, folks, is everything. Thank you very much if you’re still reading – I know this was a damn stretch longer than my usual posts. If there’s anything you’d like to add, comment on, or contest, please do so below. And if you’ve had any particularly negative (or positive!) experiences while liaising with journals, publishers or writers, make sure you share it!

Until next time, I have an icepack to put on my face.

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6 thoughts on “Writers vs Literary Journals: a Lesson in Respect and Etiquette

  1. Pingback: Writers vs Literary Journals: a Lesson in Respect and Etiquette | dockstone

  2. Like Jessica, I’ve been on both sides of the desk. I think some of writer’s perception of “rude” or “cold” behavior from journals comes from unrealistic expectations of editors. I’ve had some rather nasty e-mails because, as a policy, we don’t give detailed critiques on rejections. We simply don’t have time, and authors shouldn’t expect publications to be a free critique service.

    The other thing is to have generous expectations about responses. Please don’t berate an editor’s professionalism if s/he doesn’t respond to a query within an hour. For all you know, the editor might be at a spouse’s funeral, getting chemotherapy or picking through the ruins of a burned-down home. We’re real people and real life kicks us in the butt just as much as it does anyone else. If you don’t get a response within a few weeks, a second, gentle inquiry (perhaps my e-mail misdelivered?) is better than a mean-spirited flip-out.

  3. I think rejections are just notches in our writer’s belt. Stephen King once told how when he was a kid and sending stories out he would spike the rejections on a big nail he had pounded into the wall above his desk and move on. Even as a kid he knew that.
    I’ve seen agents blogs where they said do not write to thank me for a rejection -it clogs up the email box.
    Now I send out and forget until the rejection (or contract!) comes in. I think sometimes both sides forget this part of writing is business and should be treated as such. Respectfully.
    Great post!

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