Thinking about what to write in your cover letter? Nervous about approaching an editor? In short, what’s the “ediquette”? Here’s some durable advice that has weathered the tempests of time.
When you’re trying to get that short story or poem published in a reputable magazine but can’t seem to pass the muster, it might not entirely be because of the quality of your submission. Editors have many reasons to turn submissions down. The two primary contenders being, one, that there were many other good submissions that caught the editor’s eye before they reached yours, and two, by the time they did, the journal was full for the subsequent issue. In this case, editors usually ask you to submit again, and when they do ask you, they mean it (though they might not always tell you why).
Editors don’t usually have the time to cajole everyone who has something to send along ‘if only for feedback’. This is the feedback. Do send more work, with a good mix of your old submissions (preferably slightly improved), and some new work in the draft: this is a pleasant tendency, making editors remember you for the right reasons, familiarizing them with your writing, and showing that you’re resolute (but not odiously obdurate: that usually happens when you re-cycle a rejected submission and send it again to the same publication) and earnest in your attention to their publication. The second, more important reason, simply put, is etiquette.
Basic manners can substantially grab an editor’s attention, and ensure that you have a continuing association with them. Etiquette distinguishes you as a professional, and earns the respect of anyone about to open your submission a tad beforehand. Believe it or not, they do end up reading your work more attentively if your cover letter reads as though it went through a few intelligent revisions.
Be sure to submit to an editor for the right reasons (and not just because you want your work to appear in the magazine’s pages). Do you like their aesthetics? Are you particularly taken by the previous few issues? Why do you think your work will look good there? Put it all in a short, crisp cover letter. Close it with a small note of thanks. This really does matter, as almost all editors in this area, that is to say, literary writing, are either underpaid, or unpaid, doing it doggedly, along with their demanding (sometimes demeaning) day jobs. Very few writers and editors in the world truly live off of doing just this work. It’s thankless, and unnerving. Good manners and consideration take your work a long way (I can safely testify that this advice is transferable, and works equally well with waiters, house help, and that ever frustrating call with customer care).
Following is a modest list of things that may plainly cause editors to dissociate with you, at least professionally (if they do know you personally); things that may give them the pip, impressing you in their memory for the wrong reasons.
This is a job with a professional code of conduct—one can’t stress this enough. Don’t bug your editor on their phone, Facebook, Twitter, VKontakte (some things are as real as they are weird), or their personal email addresses. They too have families to go home to, things to do, people to please, and you probably figure last in the long, arduous list of individuals they can give their reserves of sympathy and affection to. They have haircuts to get, air conditioners that need fixing, a lovable dog that prefers the indoors, causing their home to suffer a chronic open defecation problem, often a weird friend they are trying to get rid of (but don’t know how to put them down gently), and sometimes, sometimes they’re mentally preparing to have a wildly irritating conversation with customer care (did I mention customer care before?). In summation, they’re like you. Leave them alone.
This will never stop being a problem that’s out of your hands, and will keep happening till the end of your life (or writing career). You have no control over who accepts your submission when, or better yet, rejects it in time. The best way to go about it is to divide up the journals you want to submit to in ‘tiers’ in a neat little excel sheet, so you don’t have to slap your forehead if Granta accepts your work two hours after it was accepted by the The Ultimate Sh*t Platter. When you pull a stunt like this, it tells the editors that you were not interested in their publication in the first place. This was your backup plan. If it indeed was, aim higher in general. Make sure your work is published in the journal it deserves. This is one way to do it. Don’t alienate editors who could be helpful in the long run.
Usually one would not have the gumption to do this at all, unless they were familiar with the editor. If you, in fact, share a pleasant parlance with a particular editor, and want to withdraw your submission that is currently being considered, and give them new work in lieu of it, send them something in the same genre. If it’s fiction, send another work of fiction, if poetry, the same. Why? Because issues have a certain number of submissions they can upload for each genre (unless it is specified that they take submissions on a rolling basis). This causes unnecessary inconvenience, and makes them feel as though they’re being taken advantage of, simply for establishing a dialogue with you and appreciating your work.
It’s not a matter of pride. You might actually be hurting someone else with this behaviour.
Manners, manners. They go a long way.
So you got rejected, or there is no room for you in the op-ed they’re doing on their favourite writers. One factors in several things when making these choices as an editor: personal taste, the right register, preferred genres, personal experience, memory and trauma, reading habits, politics, aesthetics, and so on. Your work may differ wildly from their sense of what is standard which isn’t the same thing as what is good. Always have this in mind. This would keep you from taking rejections personally.
If you don’t like the work this editor does, simply don’t submit to their publication. There are hundreds of journals to choose from. This is a great list.
Right. You’ve resorted to insults. If you know the editor is a woman, and have addressed her by her name before, whether you like it or not, you’re probably sexist. You’ll be seen as such. And everything you submit henceforth would be understood as (what we call in polite conversation) poppycock, phooey, eyewash, malarkey, balderdash, nonsense, claptrap, twaddle, piffle, codswallop, stuff and nonsense, blarney, crapola, utter manure and so on. Never submit again. This usually happens to women more, and they always know sexism for what it is. Does not matter if you are a woman yourself. Patriarchy is a weird beast that lives inside all of us, it thrives in some places, and in some, it withers. What do you do with your burden? Take it out in writing. Give us the rage. But, er, in fiction.
Irritating though it may be, this one is also a bit endearing at the same time. We know you’re suffering. It’s alright. Make as many drafts as possible, be patient with your work, don’t be impulsive. Almost all writers loathe what they write in the morning. I’ve routinely burnt a slew of my journals over the years, and now I don’t keep one. Or I do, but I call it a ‘thought diary’, makes it easier to forgive oneself.
No one is reading them. You look like you’re new in the game. Editors have an intuition that this may not be good if you need to submit a preamble to your work, already dreading the minutes of their life they’re about to waste. Let your work do the talking. Keep it short, keep it simple, be sincere. No one cares if you’re Dr. Franny Zoe with an array of papers published on the ontological concerns of Brodkey’s aesthetics. It’s better to be Franny Zoe, and submit your work with a bio that states where your other creative writing has appeared. Pick your top three places. If it’s your first time publishing, specify.
An ingratiating manner, that is. Editors can smell that a mile off. It’s one thing to be thankful, another to shower excessive praise when it’s clear as day (and it often is) that you haven’t read their work as much as you claim. You will get caught, and possibly made fun of.
This is the giveaway. You did not bother to read the magazine, their submission guidelines, and what they are looking for. Instead, you scrolled to the submission button, their contact address, and shot off what you thought was the best of the best of what they’re about to see. Bad decision. We know your blood is up, but it’s our job to temper your excesses. Don’t do this. Don’t be so transparent.
No one will say “yes” unless they have seen your work. (Real) Journalism works differently, because it’s fuelled by a sense of political urgency. This is another game, with a different set of rules. If you don’t know them, learn them. Don’t seem like a rookie. Show your madness in fine literary flair, be patient, show that you’re capable of the perfect madness, that obsessive, intelligent editing, those twists in language, that unseen, unfathomable clarity.
We’re all dying to read something like that. Most desirable. Yum.
“Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih.”