In the last seven days, I’ve been talking about the submission process whereby writers submit their writing to publications. I’ve had a couple of Facebook discussions with literary journals about our acceptance/rejection process, and then I’ve had a couple of experiences of my own, one as the submitting writer, one as the editor. And they’ve brought home to me the fact that everyone in this process treats each other badly more often than not.
First, both Facebook discussions centered around how editors treat submissions. How do we feel about the use of form letters for either acceptance or rejection? How do we handle work that needs some polish to be publication-worthy? These questions were posed by other literary journals who were obviously feeling torn between trying to get through the crazy number of submissions journals typically receive in a publishing cycle, and feeling like they’ve treated each of those submissions with care and respect.
In that discussion, other editors weighed in saying that given the demands on an editor’s time, accepting work that was less than finished wasn’t a great idea. We get such a lot of work that is already finished, and the most I’m willing to correct would be a typo or some punctuation. In addition to reading submissions, I have to take care of the business end of the publication, as well as layout, etc. And I’m a writer myself. With a family.
The writers, however, all seemed sad that editors couldn’t take the time to give line edits to every story, or to go back and forth with them re-working things until they’re perfect. From a writer standpoint, I understand the feeling that submission is an arbitrary process. That, while most publications say “read a copy of our journal to see what we publish,” it’s hard to know whether a certain story caught the editors’ eyes because of its style, or because the writer was a friend of the staff, or because the editor had a dog like that when she was a kid and it struck a chord. It’d be really nice to hear from an editor exactly where you’ve gone wrong.
In looking at the comments left by editors in the journal I edit, the most common comments are things like “too much passive voice,” “chronology of events is unclear,” “there’s no conflict in this story.” These are things that would take far too much work to fix. Some of them are things that indicate the writer needs to get some basic education in the craft of writing. There’s no way I have the time to teach someone how to write in the context of being an editor.
I am grateful that the rejection letter our journal sends out is thoughtful and respectful. So much so, that we routinely receive thank-you notes telling us that the submitter felt encouraged by our rejection and would submit again. I’ve also been known to put in personal notes to authors whose work I really liked, asking them to let me know if it gets placed elsewhere so that I can tell people. I think it’s important to be encouraging as well as honest.
Today I received an email from a potential submitter to my journal. This person had emailed before, telling us that we didn’t know how to do our jobs, that we were making his life difficult, that if our journal doesn’t pay, he was going to put us on his list of markets that didn’t pay and tell all his friends. The email was peppered with words in all caps and multiple exclamation points per sentence. I ignored it. When I received a second email from him stating again that we were incompetent, I had to wonder what he thought he was going to accomplish. If I told him that my journal paid a hundred dollars per word, did he really think that I would see a submission with his name on it and think “Oh, great!”? I would never retaliate against someone for sending me a rude letter; it’s more about the fact that if you’re using your caps key and exclamation point to carry the force of your words, I don’t hold out much hope for your writing.
Then this morning, I received a reply regarding a story I submitted on Friday to an anthology publication. The reply was perfunctory, not what we were looking for, etc., but it was also at the end of what was obviously an email string relating to that story. The other commenter had written “boring to me.” Nothing else. I wrote back to the woman who had sent the original email to tell her that it might be wise to double-check before sending responses containing comments from other editors, and that, while feedback is often helpful, that the word “boring” was neither instructive nor professional. The woman was mortified. She wrote back apologizing, even offering to help me re-work the piece, but I passed on her offer. She did tell me that I had taught her an “eye-opening lesson.”
You know what it was? Be nice. As an editor, be nice and respectful when you handle the submissions of writers. Give them honest feedback if they ask for it and you have the time. Send rejection letters that acknowledge that writing is subjective and that you appreciate the writer’s efforts. Don’t be rude or dismissive. And writers – the same goes for you. You’re asking editors to put their own reputations and the reputations of their publication on the line by publishing your work. Maybe what you wrote is stellar, maybe it was terrible, maybe it was somewhere in between but just didn’t strike the fancy of the editor who read it. But if you’re going to interact with publishers, don’t be a jerk about it.