The Top Ten Pet Peeves of Literary Magazine Editors

If you want to publish your work in literary magazines, you need to avoid the top ten pet peeves of editors, from illegible and unwieldy submissions to a failure to follow guidelines.

Are you having trouble publishing your poetry or short stories in magazines? Perhaps you have subjected an editor to one of his or her top pet peeves. Read on to find the ten things that most irk editors so that you can be sure to avoid a future faux pas.

1. Illegible Submissions

You should type your works for legibility. If you do not own a typewriter or computer, visit your local library. Be sure to use a standard font (times, courier, and Arial are good choices) and standard font size (generally 11-12 points). Fancy fonts, mainly cursive fonts, are difficult to read and appear amateurish. Print on plain white paper. Coloured papers are distracting, and it may look unprofessional.

2. Unwieldy Submissions

Editors prefer not to work with origami. They don’t like extracting large pages from tiny envelopes, being forced to unfold them multiple times, and having to smooth out the pages before reading. Use a no. Ten containers if you are sending two to three pages. Use a larger envelope (a 6 X 9 or 9 X 12) for longer works. Staple or paper clip pages together (editors may state a particular preference in their guidelines). Never enclose a submission in a report cover or other binder, unless specifically requested to do so. Report covers are cumbersome and consume already scarce space in an editor’s filing cabinet. Most editors will directly remove and discard them, and they will be annoyed by the extra work and trash such bindings generate.

3. Lack of Professionalism

In e-mails lack of professionalism is common. Remember to treat e-mail communication with an editor just as you would written communication. Use proper spelling, grammar, and capitalization, and don’t use internet shorthand. Maintain a structure and format to your submissions, just as you would if you were printing them. If submitting via regular mail, be sure to include a professional cover letter, not just a sticky note. (Some editors do not require cover letters, in which case you can directly submit your neatly formatted writing.) If you receive a rejection with criticism, and you disagree with the editor’s comments, thank him or her for his time. Do not belittle the editor’s judgment or react in angry self-defence. It is rare for an editor to make an effort to offer criticism. Either learn from it or politely discard it, but don’t fight it. The publishing world can be a tight-knit community, and if you are rude to an editor, your reputation for lack of professionalism may travel.

4. Obvious Ignorance of the Publication

“I’ve never seen your magazine, but…” Unfortunately, I can’t count on just two hands the number of times I’ve received a cover letter that begins with these words. No editor wants to know that you haven’t bothered to read his or her publication. In reality, we all know that an author can’t afford to buy a sample copy of every single publication he or she wishes to submit to, but you don’t need to announce your ignorance. If a sample is free or you can afford it, by all means, read one before submitting your work. If you can’t afford a sample, review the publication’s website and guidelines, and learn as much about it as you can. If you like something about the publication (selected literature on the website, the fact that it fills a void in the publishing world), mention that in your cover letter. But, as your mother told you, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” When you know little or nothing about the publication, you are sending poetry too, stay silent on the subject.

5. Insincere Compliments

While it helps to let an editor know what you like about his or her publication, don’t exaggerate. An editor can discern a genuine compliment from an insincere one, and he or she may regard obsequiousness as an insult. And above all, don’t lie. I once received a cover letter in which the author claimed to have read and admired several copies of my magazine. I had never mailed a copy to this individual, and my magazine is available by subscription and mail order only, so I had to doubt his veracity. If you have never seen the publication to which you are submitting, then refrain from mentioning anything about it. If you want to say something kind, say something truthful. For instance, you might say that you appreciate that the publisher has started a magazine to fill a special niche market of particular interest to you.

6. Amateurish Statements

If you are new to the submission process, you may inadvertently label yourself as an amateur. Certain statements can set off an alarm in an editor’s mind. Here are just a few that have crossed my desk in cover letters and on poems and short stories:

  • “I’ve never been published before, but…” Every writer has to start somewhere. But if you’ve never been published, there’s no need to call attention to the fact.
  • “I’ve been published in the National Library of Poetry’s anthology…” The National Library of Poetry is famous in the publishing world as an organization that publishes anyone and everyone and then attempts to sell you an expensive anthology containing your work. It’s not a legitimate publishing credit. There are many other such operations in the publishing world. If you’ve been published in an expensive anthology and you didn’t get a free contributor’s copy, merely refrain from listing it as a credit.
  • “I took a creative writing class in 10th grade…” Information that pre-dates college is generally not considered relevant unless you are a high school student submitting to a youth publication.
  • “Copyright 2004, John Doe.” You don’t need to put a copyright mark on your work. You own the copyright to your work the moment you set it down on paper, and every editor knows this. Some editors may interpret a copyright mark as a signal of distrust at worst, or ignorance of copyright procedures at best.

7. Insufficient SASEs

When submitting a manuscript by mail, be sure to include a SASE, that is, a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Always use a no. 10 or larger SASE. Don’t force an editor to fold your reply and manuscript eight times to cram it uncomfortably inside a tiny envelope. If you only want a reply, a no. Ten envelope is sufficient. But if you want your entire manuscript returned, use a larger size envelope. For a reply only, one first-class stamp will cover postage. If you desire to have, your entire manuscript returned, however, make sure to affix sufficient postage to your SASE. A single stamp covers only one ounce. Editors receive hundreds of manuscripts, and they can’t afford to use their postage to reply to writers. If your SASE has no postage or insufficient postage, you risk receiving no reply at all. Make sure your outgoing mail has proper postage as well. I once received a submission with a postage due stamp on it! Naturally, I instantly incline against the submission.

8. Careless Multiple Submissions

When I receive an e-mail submission, and the CC: line is littered with scores of addresses, I can’t help but groan. An e-mail sent to several editors at once sends a signal that you may have simply harvested a slew of magazine’s addresses without taking the time to read their guidelines. If you are sending a simultaneous submission, send a separate e-mail to each magazine, with an appropriate cover letter revised for each market (if a cover letter is required). Many editors consider simultaneous submissions, but if you are submitting work to more than one magazine, do so in a courteous manner. First, ensure that the magazine considers simultaneous submissions. Next, notify the editor that your work is a simultaneous submission in the cover letter, but you need not list the publications you have sent it. Finally, if you work is accepted elsewhere, notify the editor immediately. It’s very frustrating for an editor to send out an acceptance letter and reserve space in an upcoming issue, only to find that the author has already sold all rights to his work elsewhere.

9. Requests to Choose Work

When I see a large, fully stuffed envelope in my PO box, I know what’s in store for me. An author has sent me an entire manuscript of poems or short stories and has affixed a post-it note asking me to “choose a work” from among his or her entire collection. The e-mail version of this involves sending an editor a URL link and asking him or her to read the works on your website. Editors do not have time to wade through a website or an entire collection of writings. It is your job as an author to choose which of your works you think are most appropriate for the market in question and to send only those works. Most editors have a limit as to the number of jobs they will consider at a time, usually averaging around three to five. Consult the publication’s guidelines to determine how many works you may send at once.

10. Failure to Follow Guidelines

Did you send off work to a magazine and never receive a response? Maybe you failed to follow the submission guidelines. I have occasionally flipped through my file of works on hold, only to discover that a particular work of interest contained no mailing address. I always ask authors to include a name and address on each submission, in case they become separated or if I only wish to hold one poem. If that information is missing, I have no way to contact the author. Other editors may assign numbers to submissions and prefer that you not include a name and address. Always be sure to read each publication’s guidelines. Guidelines will tell you how to format your manuscript, how many works to send at once, whether or not a publication considers reprints and simultaneous submissions, and what topics and genres to avoid. No editor wants to receive poetry when his or her writing contains nothing but short stories.

Now that you know the top ten pet peeves of editors, dust off your manuscript read through some guidelines, grab some envelopes, and…watch your step!

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