Rejection Letters–An Editor’s Point of View

We’ve been hard at work putting together the latest edition of The Copperfield Review, making the usual tough decisions about which pieces will go in and which won’t.

Contrary to popular belief, editors don’t find a sadistic satisfaction from sending out rejection letters. There is that one editor with a voodoo doll and a case of push pins, but that’s another post. Most editors are writers too, and we know there’s nothing like the prick of a rejection letter to pop the air from a writer’s bubble.

There have been times when I received too many rejections in a row and I couldn’t help but take them personally. Was it my storytelling? My habit of submitting acrostic poetry? Was my Aunt Ellie just wrong and I really don’t have a way with words? But then I became an editor, and I realized that decisions aren’t always about storytelling or talent.

The Secret is No Great Secret

Here’s the big secret that’s really no secret at all: most decisions are based on personal preference. There’s no complex system editors use to determine quality (think of the formula in the textbook meant to determine a poem’s value in Dead Poet’s Society). There’s no list of writers to accept or reject. It’s not about what MFA program you went to, or if you even have an MFA. Not everyone’s style is to everyone’s taste. That’s it. If we turn down a piece at Copperfield, that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just not for us at that time.

At The Copperfield Review, we tend to have more literary, experimental tastes. I have great respect for Hemingway-esque simplicity, but it’s not the kind of work I’m drawn to publish. I love work that plays with, stretches, challenges the English language. We’re blessed to write in the English language. Truly. Our wealth of vocabulary, limitless possibilities for structure, and ability to be straightforward or lost in a stream of consciousness makes our language a vast artist’s toolbox to use to paint pictures in words.

One Thing is Too Much Like the Other

Since Copperfield is a journal of historical fiction, we get a lot of submissions set in the same era—World War II and the Old West are two of the most popular. But because we receive so many stories set during the same time, we can’t publish them all. I know the consensus is that you should read literary journals to see if those journals have published pieces similar to the work you want to submit. Generally, that’s true. But let some time pass if you want to submit a story on exactly the same subject as one that’s just been published. If you see a story in Copperfield about the American Civil War in our Spring edition, wait at least until Autumn before you send in your Gettysburg tale. We’re open to it, just not so soon.

Once we received twenty World War II submissions for the same edition. No joke. There was nothing particularly wrong with any of the stories, but we couldn’t publish twenty stories on the same subject. We rejected eighteen of them, most of which might have been published if they had been sent at another time.

Which brings us to the million dollar question: how can you know exactly when to submit your work? Unfortunately, you can’t. Sometimes journals ask for specific types of submissions for certain editions, but otherwise timing can be the luck of the draw. There is an element of luck involved in sending your work to the right publisher at the right time. But the more research you do, and the more you submit, the more opportunities you have to turn the tides of timing in your favor.

I know the form letter rejections aren’t very helpful for writers, but they’re a necessary evil due to the number of submissions most journals receive. Just remember, the next time you receive one, it’s not about your talent. It’s about the editors, their personal tastes for the type of writing they prefer, and the type of stories they’re looking to publish at the time.

For tips on submitting to editors, check here.

Tips 3-1 for Submitting to Editors

Do…

3. Proofread your queries and submissions

It’s important to proofread for typos and other boo-boos. It goes back to showing editors, agents, and anyone else you’re submitting to that you’re serious about writing. You’re not sending in something you wrote off the top of your head, and you took the time to read and reread to check for mistakes. Sometimes it’s hard to catch your own mistakes because your eyes see what they expect to see, and they expect to see what you meant to write. Maybe you meant to write ‘she’ instead of ‘the’ but your finger went to the right instead of the left and…you know how it goes. And spellcheck, while a great tool, isn’t perfect.

It’s helpful to have another set of eyes proofread your work for you. Whether it’s a friend with a firm grasp of language and spelling or you hire a professional editor, someone else will often catch those pesky typos before you do, and that will help you create a professional looking draft most editors will be happy to consider.

2. Read previous editions of the journal/publication to see what they publish

Sites like New Pages or the Literary Magazines page from Poets & Writers are great resources for finding journals that publish stories like the ones you’ve written. When I first started writing historical fiction I searched for journals that published that genre, but I couldn’t find any. As a result, I started my own—The Copperfield Review. With so many journals online these days, it’s easy to click through their stories to see what they like to publish, and it helps to whittle down your list of possible submissions.

For the first nine years of The Copperfield Review’s existence, we only published historical fiction. During that time we received countless submissions that were not at all historical in nature. Writers wasted time sending their non-historical submissions to us. That was one more rejection letter they wouldn’t have received if they had checked our website. Even a cursory glance would have shown that The Copperfield Review was a journal of historical fiction.

If you write science fiction, seek out science fiction journals. If you write mystery, humor, romance, inspirational, literary—whatever it is, there’s a journal out there that publishes it. Send your work to those journals because you’ll have a better chance of being published. And if such a journal doesn’t exist, start your own. It worked for me.

1. Follow the submission guidelines exactly as stated

As a writer myself, I understand that sometimes submission guidelines seem petty, even vindictive—you know, a way to make writers more miserable. What does it matter if it asks for a third person bio? What does it matter if I send in seven poems at a time instead of three? But those guidelines exist for a reason, and editors notice if writers don’t follow them. You’re going to have to trust me on this.

Maybe the problem is the word guidelines, which sounds more like submission suggestions. The guidelines exist because the editors need some semblance of sanity, a method to our madness, to help us weed through hundreds of submissions per edition. For example, we don’t accept file attachments because we caught viruses when we did. We only accept three poems at a time and we have a word limit for fiction and nonfiction because we’re a tiny staff with day jobs, families, and other life obligations. We ask for a third person bio because books, newspapers, and magazines use third person bios. I understand that to authors it might not seem like a big deal whether they send in a bio in first or third person, but it makes a difference to us as we put each new edition together.

For writers who want a one-size-fits-all file that will work as a submission for fifty different journals, I’m afraid that’s not likely. Submissions that follow the guidelines are the ones we look at seriously for publication. Writers careful to follow our specific guidelines at Copperfield are showing us that they take their writing seriously, they care about presentation, and they’re making the process easier by giving us what we’ve asked for. All I can say is a hearty “Thank you!” to those writers.

It isn’t so hard to send in a strong submission. It boils down to being professional, sending in your best work, and following the guidelines. If you can do those things, the sky is the limit for your writing career.

Tips 6-4 For Submitting to Editors

Don’t… 

6. Resubmit a new version of your work after you’ve heard back from an editor

Whether your work is accepted or rejected, don’t resend a new version to the same editor. If your work was rejected, it wasn’t right for that editor for various reasons. It isn’t anything about your talent or even that particular story. Different editors have different preferences, that’s all. Keep sending the story out to different editors. But don’t send it back to the same editor, even if you’ve reworked it—that is, unless the editor has specifically said to send it back after you’ve made revisions.

That goes for work that’s been accepted too. It’s happened where we’ve accepted a piece for publication and then the writer says something like, “I’ve reworked my story. Here’s the new version.” If we accepted it, then we thought it was fine. We don’t need a new version. At Copperfield, we stopped accepting new versions because we were doing twice the work—formatting the original we accepted, then formatting the new one. Now on our guidelines it says writers need to send in the version they want to see online since what they send us (if it’s accepted) is what’s going up. Send in your best stuff the first time, and that will make the process easier for you and for the editors.

5. Forget to let editors know your work has been accepted elsewhere

I took a quick poll of a few editor friends of mine. I asked them what their number one pet peeve was concerning submissions, and every one said they’re most annoyed when they choose a work for publication and then find out the work has been accepted elsewhere.

The issue isn’t that the work has been picked up by another journal. Nearly every editor I know is a writer too, and we’re thrilled when other writers are published whether it’s in our journal or someone else’s. The problem occurs when we aren’t told a submission is no longer up for consideration. At Copperfield, we spend a lot of time reading and rereading every submission we receive. If authors don’t tell us their work has been accepted elsewhere and we spend time considering their work, we’ve just wasted hours, and, like many of you, we don’t have hours to waste. A simple e-mail is all it takes. No long explanations required. But it is expected, professional courtesy to let editors know your work is no longer up for grabs.

Do…

4. Send in your most polished work

I’m a writer too, and I know what it’s like to be eager to be published. It takes discipline to keep reworking a piece until it’s polished and ready to submit, especially since the revising process could take weeks or even months. You don’t need to rush the submitting process. Literary journals, agents, and publishers aren’t going to disappear (maybe publishers will disappear if you believe what you read).

Run your work by a critique group. Take writing classes. Read some great short stories and examine their greatness. Develop an ear for well-written dialogue. Unwieldy or unnecessary dialogue is a common problem in submissions we see at Copperfield. Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be. I know we live in the “I want it now” era, but there’s no rush. You’re on no one else’s timetable but your own. Make sure your story is the best it can be before you send it off to editors.

Tips 10-7 for Submitting to Editors

After I was invited to speak at the Henderson Writers Group, I had to decide what I wanted to say. What did I have to offer that was useful? As the executive editor of an award-winning literary journal, I realized I could offer tips to the writers on how to make their submissions stand out so they had a better chance of being published.

Most writers write with the intention of being published. Not all writers. A few years ago I taught a creative writing workshop for adults in California and I had a lovely older lady as a student. She was taking my class because she wanted to write her life story for her grandchildren and she wanted to write it well. But most writers want to submit their work to magazines, journals, agents, and book editors so they can be published.

Every day writers give editors many reasons to say no to their submissions. If you can help your submission stand out from the crowd, in a good way, then you can increase your chances of getting a yes and being published. In honor of my friends at the Henderson Writers Group, I thought I would share my Top 10 Tips for Submitting to Editors here. Today, numbers ten through seven.

Don’t…

10. Cc every editor you’re submitting to in one e-mail

Most editors understand that writers are sending simultaneous submissions, meaning that writers are sending their work to several journals at a time. Even so, it’s important for writers to take the few extra minutes to send a separate e-mail to each individual editor. It looks more professional, like the writer cares about presentation. Cc’d submissions look lazy, quite frankly, and other editors I know agree with me. Every time I’m included in a cc list with other editors, inevitably a few of the other editors will e-mail me and ask “Did you see that e-mail?” Then they’ll follow the question with something like “What a jerk!” or some other expletive I won’t include here. I don’t look too closely at cc’d submissions, and neither do other editors I know.

9. Misspell the editor’s name

8. Confuse the editor’s gender

Make sure you spell the editor’s name correctly, and check to see if the editor is a boy or a girl. If I had a dollar for every time I received an e-mail addressed to Mr. Allred I could have bought out Borders and prevented it from going out of business. I’ve seen my name as Allston, Allen, Allan, and every other variant of All— you can think of. On The Copperfield Review The Staff page, my name is there, spelled correctly, and you can see at a glance that my gender pronoun is ‘she.’ It’s the same for other editors or agents—the information is on their websites. Just three weeks ago we received a submission addressed to “Dear Sirs.” There isn’t a single “sir” on the staff of Copperfield. That submission was laughed right into the no-thanks file. Details are important. Really.

7. Add editors/journals to your groups on Facebook or tag them in your posts

This is a relatively new phenomenon, but one many editors find annoying. The Copperfield Review is fortunate enough to have 5000 friends on Facebook, along with about 70 subscribers. We’ve also just started a page so we can keep our network of great readers and writers growing. If even only 20 of our friends add us to their groups in one day (and this has happened), that’s many, many e-mails in my inbox I have to weed through. Then I have to find the group on Facebook and stop the e-mails from coming. It’s the same for tagging us in posts. About a month ago I saw an editor of another literary journal respond in real anger because she had been tagged for the umpteenth time and she was tired of weeding through e-mails from people she didn’t know. She said she would never accept a writer’s work based on a Facebook tag. I tend to agree.

Facebook is a wonderful way to meet other like-minded souls. We’re thrilled to have every single one of our Facebook friends. But I don’t pay attention to groups I’m added to or tags. I don’t have time. If you want to attract an editor’s attention then send in an excellent submission according to the journal’s guidelines. Outstanding writing will get you the attention you want every time.