Monday, November 28, 2011

What I Learned As an Editor


Recently I served as Guest Editor for the inaugural issue of Adanna, a new print journal. The doors opened for submissions on January 31 and closed on April 30, so I had 3 full months of reading and selecting poems, short stories, essays, and book reviews. I'd like to now share some of my thoughts and observations about the experience.

1. It's a lot of work! If I'd just been doing the poetry, it would, of course, have been less, but this experience gave me a heightened appreciation for the silent work that editors do to put out a journal. Editors do a ton of work. It's easy to get angry at them. But don't forget to be grateful.

2. A significant number of contributors do not follow the guidelines. Ours were very clear. We asked for no more than 6 poems, we asked that contact information appear on each submitted piece, that prose be one piece only and no longer than 2000 words, that the submission arrive as one file. Here's some of what I received:
       • from one poet, 96 poems. No joke. Then she sent an additional 6. After I sent a rejection note, she sent 6 more.
       • several prose writers sent as many as 3 pieces. Sorry, but that's just an imposition on the editor's time.
       • one prose writer sent a piece that was close to 9000 words. When I wrote and said I could not read her piece as it was far in excess of our maximum, she replied that I should select my favorite 2000 words. When I said that wasn't the way it works, she replied that she didn't want to live in my world. Good. I don't want her there either.
       • far too many poets sent 6 files instead of 1. When I sent them back, I was asked to provide instructions on how to create a single file. I was nice about it and did so, but really, if you don't know how to do that, maybe you're not ready to submit?
       • far too many authors put their contact information in the email but not on the submission. Now somebody had to do that so we could keep track of what belonged to whom. I don't think that somebody should be the editor. I was nice the first few times, then started just returning with a note to review the guidelines.
       • a number of poets sent only one poem. Why would anyone do that? An editor wants choice. Side note: not one of those poems was accepted. Maybe there just weren't any others to send?
       • a number of authors sent a pdf although we specifically asked that authors not do so. Why not? Because if we wanted the piece, we needed to be able to make edits.

3. It's really not a good idea to submit to editors you know personally. The hardest part of my job was saying no to people I know. We received many submissions from NJ poets, but because the journal is both national and international, I could take just a limited number of pieces by NJ poets.

4. There are many reasons for a rejection. I've read that before, but now I know it's really true. I sent out acceptances on a rolling admissions basis. So if I'd early on accepted a poem about Alzheimer's, one that arrived later, no matter how good, wasn't going to get in.

5. If you know that the journal accepts on a rolling admissions basis, it's a good idea to send early in the submission period. (See #4) Towards the end of the reading period, long pieces just weren't going to get in as we were running out of available pages.

6. Mistakes happen. Even with a good system and great care and the utmost respect for the contributors, an occasional mistake will happen. We had submissions from approximately 450 writers, most with multiple pieces. 
      • And yet we almost omitted two accepted poems from the journal. Something went awry at the layout end. Fortunately, because I had a system which included a checklist, I spotted the omissions in time to rectify.   
      • We also somehow lost an entire submission. Submissions went to the editor and from her to me. Somehow this one vaporized. We became aware of it only when the poet withdrew one poem. By then, however, it was too late to consider the others as the journal was already in production. All we could do was apologize.
      • We were scrupulous about notifications, and yet we missed one. I hear writers complain a lot about a journal's failure to respond. I agree that that is unforgivable—if it's just laziness. But if it's a genuine mistake, please understand and forgive. Then try again.

7. If the guidelines ask for a bio, be sure to include one (and adhere to the length asked for). Do not tell the editor to go to your website to find the information. Won't happen.

8. Send your best work, work you'd be proud to have published. We received some submissions from poets whose work we knew and admired. But what a disappointment to discover that they'd sent inferior work. I wondered if these poets didn't want to risk sending their first team work to a new journal. Okay, but then it's better not to send at all. Wait until you've seen the first issue and decide if you'd like to be in the second issue. As this was a first issue, it was very very important to us to select work that would set a high standard.

9. Format your work correctly. It's so annoying to get work with weird margins. Stick to the one inch rule. And it really surprised me to see how many writers are still inserting two spaces after a period. That practice has gone the way of the dodo bird. With the advent of word processors, the rule became one space. Using two spaces dates you as someone who learned how to type on a typewriter. Now this might seem really petty, but each one of those extra spaces has to be deleted by somebody. Let that somebody be you, the writer.

10. Putting out a print journal is truly a labor of love. There's no money to be made. Think of the print journals that have gone out of business. Think of the ones that have converted to online formats. Then support the print journals that give us paper pages for our work. If we want them to continue, we need to support them. If you can't afford author copies, perhaps you could recommend the journal to your library, to your students, your friends. Mention your appearance in the journal on your blog, at Facebook, and via other social networks. Help spread the word.

11 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for this, which I will share with my poetry workshop, some of them fairly new to submitting work and some old dodo birds like me!

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  2. Great! Thanks for spreading the word. And you can bring a visual aid--the journal!

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  3. Wonderful post. So much of this is about following the directions. You've struck a nerve with my teacher-heart, as I spend a ton of time telling students "to review the guidelines" or simply repeating myself over and over and over. Sigh. Thanks for your graciousness on this!

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  4. My pleasure. First you have the challenge of getting people to read the directions. Then the challenge of getting people to follow them.

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  5. It's encouraging to think that if you just follow the guidelines, your chances of acceptance will skyrocket, by default.

    96? She must have figured that a journal with a 3% acceptance rate would have to publish two of her pieces.

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  6. Thanks for sharing what you learned, Diane. I appreciate these reminders.

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  7. this was good to read- ah! we've had similar experiences. being an editor has helped me be a better submitter and responder. when my work is published in a journal, i read the entire issue, purchase what copies my budget allows, and then i reach out to other poets in the journal whose work i enjoyed. oh! and respond back to the editor with your impressions of her/his journal. it's a labor of love.

    thanks, diane!

    sherry o'keefe

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  8. Teaching college, running a reading circuit, and being an editor has taught me that everyone, EVERYONE, needs a course in how to follow directions. My one rule as editor: if a submitter breaks any guideline, do not even read the piece. Automatically reject it.
    Also, I once received a laminated part-poem part-prayer that included a picture of the writer taken circa 1970something. Kudos to you for getting through it unscathed.

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  9. Sherry and Christine--thanks for chiming in with your own perspectives. I was pretty forgiving but know for sure that I would have toughened up if I were doing that work on a regular basis.

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  10. I've worked for two magazines, and I laughed and shook my head at the examples you gave of how extreme (and odd!) some of these submissions were. I know well the frustrations of dealing with people who ignore simple instructions. (I taught 8th grade for three years! Boy do I know it!)

    That said, I remember a story Rodney Jones told me when he was my poetry teacher. I asked him about cover letters and how to write them. He said something like this: "When I'd never had a poem published, I used to put a lot of care into crafting the perfect cover letter and following all the submission guidelines to the letter. After years of this, the rejections were too many to count, so I just started sending poems out to magazines en masse with my name and address in the headers. Next thing I knew I had an acceptance from Atlantic Monthly."

    His is not the only story like this I've heard, but it is the most dramatic one. I think about this when I'm reading for a magazine and try not to confuse the mass submission with the insane/ridiculous submission. In other words, I think it's good to remember that, while the writer who sends 96 poems instead of 3 doesn't deserve our time, the writer who doesn't include a cover letter or a bio, or who sends one poem too many or one too few, well, that writer might be a Rodney Jones who's been trying for years to get a foot in the door and has finally just shrugged and said, "What the hell. Either they'll like the poems or they won't." What a shame it would be to pass on a poet like Jones because we're so rule-bound we won't even consider reading something that doesn't follow every last instruction. A lot of great writers are rule-breakers, after all.

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  11. I'm glad to know that it's not just me dealing with this kind of stuff. People that don't know how to put more than one poem in a Word document need to take a class or just give up. Come on, people.

    :)

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