Every time I teach Creative Writing: Poetry to college students, I spend some time going over how to submit poems for publication, and then they send out two batches of poems to different literary journals at the end of the semester. I set them up for the reality of disappointment by talking about acceptance rates (often lower than 1% of submissions to journals) and by showing them my own Excel spreadsheet record of acceptances and rejections. I’ve actually had a handful of students get poems accepted on their first try with submitting, and my own acceptance rate has improved greatly over time, so we must be doing something right.
Here’s the quick and dirty version of my publication lesson, which is based on tips my poetry professors gave me, on my own experience of submitting poetry, and on my experience of editing literary journals. Of course, the first step is actually writing and revising some brilliant poems, but being brilliant isn’t enough to get poems published.
1. Find literary journals.
Check out the literary magazine databases on Poets & Writers and New Pages. Look over calls for submissions on CRWROPPS. Follow the breadcrumb trails left by poets who seem to be your kindred spirits by looking at the acknowledgments pages of their books and submitting to the same journals that published them. Most importantly, be a good literary citizen and support the publications you most enjoy: purchase a print subscription, follow online issues, share on social media, and invest yourself. You can’t subscribe or donate to every journal you ever send a submission to (or at least I don’t have the money for that), but being an active reader of a handful of publications will likely make you a more savvy submitter of your work. When you have a better sense of which publications might prefer which poems, then you’ll be more likely to have work accepted.
Also, connect with real, live poets and editors as much as possible at local readings, national conferences, virtual events, or wherever else you can find them. Connect with the writers, editors, and journals you enjoy on social media. The more you network with other people in this community for the sheer joy of having their company and experiencing their art, the more you’ll hear about publication opportunities and find readers and publishers for your own work too.
2. Follow directions.
You MUST follow the guidelines for each specific journal when you submit your poetry. Each publication’s website will likely have a tab for Submissions (sometimes housed under About or Contact Us). If they say to send 3-5 poems, don’t send just 1. If they say not to put your name on your poems, then don’t do it. If they want you to paste your submission into the body of an email, don’t send an attachment. Nothing will get your work tossed aside more quickly than ignoring simple directions.
3. Cover letters matter (sort of).
If you’re submitting in hard copy, then your cover letter should be in business letter format. If you’re submitting by email, then you can be a little more casual with the formatting, but you still want to be somewhat professional. If you’re submitting via an online system, then you might only have a tiny box for a cover letter, so keep it simple.
If you want to show your familiarity with a journal, it’s appropriate to address your submission to the editor(s) by name. [Note: If the editors’ names are not available to you because the journal has no masthead on the website, rethink that submission. Lack of transparency is a red flag.] If the journal has more editors on the masthead than you can list in a salutation, then it’s okay to stick with “Dear Editors.”
Keep the letter brief! You might tell them what you enjoy about their journal or mention a specific piece you liked, but don’t go overboard. A simple “I’m submitting three poems for your consideration” with a “thanks for your time” is often best.
Many journals want you to send a brief (2-3 sentence) third-person bio. A short bio is customary to include after the cover letter unless otherwise specified in the guidelines. There are different ways to approach this: some poets are strictly business (notable publications, current job, location), and some mix in more casual and fun details (hobbies, family info). If you’re able, see what the journal’s bio notes usually look like and match them. If you’re not able to do that, then do what makes you happy. Just be sure that your bio isn’t more interesting than your poems…
One final thought: I was told as a student not to say that I was a student in my cover letter. Even editors who think that they love undergraduates might be inclined against a set of poems if they assume that the writer is especially inexperienced. Then again, some editors are thrilled when they get to bring a writer’s first published poem to an audience. Your bio should be honest, of course, but it can’t possibly include everything about you, so you can be strategic with what you reveal.
4. Keep good records.
Tracking submissions is important. If you’re submitting in earnest, then you can’t possibly remember when, where, and what you sent. Keeping some kind of log will ensure that you don’t send the same poems to a journal that already passed on them. It will also ensure that you don’t submit another batch of poems to a journal that is already considering a submission from you… that’s a sure way to annoy editors!
Find a system that works for you. As I already mentioned, I keep an Excel spreadsheet with columns for the journal title, the poem titles, the date of submission, the date of response, whether or not it was published, any fees (which I avoid), and payment. I also like to note how I submitted—online system, email, or hard copy. Some people like to track their submissions on Duotrope, a subscription-based website, but I don’t recommend services with fees to my students. I had a professor who kept records on notecards in recipe boxes. Do whatever makes you feel organized and happy.
This brings us to the topic of simultaneous submissions. Most literary journal editors are now comfortable with the reality that poets will send the same poems to a few different journals at a time, meaning that most journals will accept simultaneous submissions. [Note: Some publications still say in their guidelines that they won’t consider simultaneous submissions. You will have to decide if those publications are worth your time.] The deal here though is that if a poem is accepted for publication in one journal while it’s under consideration at other journals, then it’s the poet’s job to be a good poetry citizen and withdraw the poem from consideration with those other journals. This might be done via email or within an online system; again, follow the directions in each journal’s submission guidelines for best results.
5. Keep submitting.
If you’re not one of those rare, lucky poets who have poems accepted on the first try, don’t worry. Most of us took a long time to get a first poem published, and sometimes even well published poets have dry spells. Submitting poetry can be discouraging, but keep doing it. To pass along advice that was given to me: this is a numbers game. The more you send out, the more likely you’ll get something published. When I was first trying to get poems published in literary journals, I would try to keep around 40 submissions out at a time (usually sending a batch of 3-4 poems to 3-4 journals at a time). Your poems have to find the right editor in the right mood, so give them the best shot possible.
–earlier version originally published on Editing Addict, LLC in 2014
Katie Manning is the founding editor-in-chief of Whale Road Review and a professor of writing at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. She is the author of Tasty Other, which won the 2016 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award, and her fifth chapbook, 28,065 Nights, is newly available from River Glass Books. Her poems have appeared in december, The Lascaux Review, Kahini Quarterly, New Letters, Poet Lore, and many other venues. Find her online at www.katiemanningpoet.com.
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