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Five Reasons Why A Writer’s Work Might Be Returned By An Editor…*

(*…that have nothing to do with whether it’s actually good enough for publication)

I’ve been doing a few talks and workshops recently on ways into publication for writers, and one of the Frequently Asked Questions is why work is turned down.

Obviously, there are the usual reasons to do with quality of submissions, suitability for a particular magazine (the eternal mistake of not reading a magazine even once before submitting work to it shows few signs of taking early retirement), the vexing business of work that is wonderful until the last line fails to clinch the deal (or that stumbles its opening, before lifting off part-way in) and so on. There are the standard ‘include an SAE large enough to fit your work into’ (a surprising number of people forward their six poems or two short stories in envelopes that would struggle to house a postcard, making replying to certain submissions an exercise in advanced origami as much as editorial choice) and ‘do not send handwritten pages elaborately decorated with Celtic knot-work and pictures of dragons’. Then there are those who forward 75 pages of text, accompanied by a six-page CV and covering note typed and signed on the author’s behalf by a secretary (there’s a certain type of American ploughing alphabetically through the Poets’ Market directory who seems especially guilty of this). And of course, there are those who feel that real poetry means material that Robert Southey would have considered a bit outmoded back in the 1820s…all this we know.

But what about the perfectly good, professionally presented and perfectly publishable work that we, nonetheless, have to keep on returning? That’s where the following points come into play.

1: Whether it’s due to the increased availability of mentoring, writers’ workshops and courses, or the growth of MAs and undergraduate creative writing options, or the availability of more poetry and feedback online, or the activities of Book Doctors, library services and festivals in bringing good work to aspiring authors’ attention, it has to be noted that the average standard of submissions to publishers at all levels has been gradually creeping up. On the one hand, this is excellent news: the vast majority of the submissions to Staple are – as a minimum – competent, well-crafted, and often well on the way to being very fine writing. This also means, however, that we have to return far more perfectly good poems than might have been the case in the past, simply because we can only include so much in any given issue. Editing was no doubt easier when the general standard was lower, and a smaller number of good poems chose themselves: these days, more editorial choices are made between different kinds of good poem than between good and bad poems.

2: Certain subjects are eternally attractive to writers, and we receive many examples of these in any typical influx of submissions. This means that we are choosing among many versions of what are often essentially quite similar types of poem and short story when putting together any particular issue of Staple. For authors of short fiction, relationship break-up stories, stories where former friends meet and find they no longer have much in common, stories that centre on secrets coming to light, stories involving car accidents, stories about estranged children returning home after parents’ deaths, or to visit dying parents, stories about writers, and stories about people in their twenties just out of university, finding their ways in the world, have to be especially good to make it into our pages. For poets, observations on nature, reflections on children leaving home, feelings of spirituality triggered by views of the sea, recollections of childhood events, anecdotal poems about events witnessed in ordinary streets, poems that use standard workshop forms like the sonnet and villanelle, or take their cues from postcards and paintings, or poems about travel and foreign landscapes and cities; these too need to be especially powerful examples of their kind to rise above the general glut of material pursuing similar subjects and approaches. We have published examples of most of these types of story and poem since late 2007, when I first took over reading the submissions from my predecessor Ann Atkinson, but once we have even a small number of these in an issue, even the best examples will need to be returned.

3: Generally speaking, we try to maintain an overall balance between poetry and prose in our issues. Some lean a little more one way or another, but we hope to give roughly equal space to both. This can mean, for example, that certain issues may be more open to prose or poetry, depending on the balance of suitable submissions we’ve received. In the case of our forthcoming winter issue, on translation, for example, we have so far received more excellent and suitable poetry than prose: this means that anyone sending in good versions of short fiction cast into English from other languages currently has a higher than usual chance of winning a place in that issue’s contents. There is still room for more poems, too, and for essays and stories on themes more loosely related to the main thread of the issue’s theme, but there’s a bit more room for prose at this point in the evolution of that particular issue.

4: The themes we work to at Staple are not intended to exclude work that doesn’t deal with them directly, but as the idea is for each issue to have its own identity and some of the underlying coherence of a good anthology, the editor’s eye is always reading with a view to the connections and contrasts between the various things already due to be featured in a given issue. This can often mean a poem or story is accepted because it offers a link to another piece in the folder, or brings a distinct fresh angle to the subject we’re trying to build an issue around. Obviously, this is not something writers sending in work can really know ahead of making their submissions, and to a large extent editing each issue is akin to holding a jigsaw in the head, and trying to match the distinct shapes of the pieces as they arrive in the post to the gaps in the picture. Where poems or stories are returned simply because they won’t fit this picture, we do try to give that reason and invite future submissions, though pressures of time might mean we’re not as consistent in doing this as we’d like to be. It is, however, another reason why some perfectly good pieces, that might otherwise have been included, might be returned.

5: The final point turns the tables slightly, and notes that some of the work I’ve been most pleased to include in Staple  has come from meeting people at events – not all of them our own events. Any halfway decent editor will be out attending readings, events, exhibitions and other places where writers and artists gather to support their colleagues, as well as giving talks, getting involved in those events, and generally on the lookout for two things: opportunities to dish out heaps of subscription flyers and promote the magazine to potential readers, and writers who might not be submitting their work to us who we may want to publish in future.  When we put on Staple events, we also talk about our upcoming themes, and many a good piece has emerged from someone coming up after such an event with an idea, or from someone performing in an open mic spot at a reading being asked to send the poem they’d read in for consideration. It follows that being out at events, attending readings, festivals and workshops, is one of the ways by which editors find new work. Consider regular attendance at these things to be as much part of the submission process as putting A4 sheets into stamped envelopes with SAEs enclosed, and the chances are you’ll be remembered when your submissions arrive in the editor’s post later.

So there we are. Four reasons why perfectly good writing might not always make it into a magazine, and one suggestion as to how those scales might be tilted, just a little, in your favour despite them.

18 Comments

  1. Most of this is good sense, but re the phrase “poems that use standard workshop forms like the sonnet and villanelle”, I would point out that these forms were in use a very long time before workshops were ever thought of, and are used by many poets who have never been near a workshop. I use a variant of the sonnet form if I think the poem suits it. I’m sure some folk use the villanelle for the same reason, though personally I can’t fathom why anyone would want to read a poem when they know from line 6 exactly how it’s going to end. I can understand why you wouldn’t want more than one (or even one) villanelle in an issue, but sonnets are very various and often very hard to spot, as indeed are most forms in sure hands; I have read a Paul Muldoon poem three times before realising it was a sestina. While I can see how the same theme repeated five times in an issue might be a bore, I don’t really think the same applies to form; if I were an editor I doubt I would say “oh dear, here’s a fine sonnet by X but I’ve already accepted ones from Y and Z. I think I’d take all 3 and assume people would read them not as sonnets but as poems.

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 4:25 pm | Permalink
  2. admin wrote:

    Hope it didn’t seem like an attack on those subjects and forms – we’ve published quite a few fine sonnets, at least one villanelle that I can recall, and a rather wonderful sestina about the painter Richard Dadd by Barbara Cumbers that was so subtly achieved it did take me until the third reading to spot the repetitions. The intention here is merely to point out that because so many poets use these forms, and write about these subjects, it’s probably more likely good examples will be returned, as there are always so many to choose from: obviously, poets using the sonnet in very inventive ways are exactly what we are looking for, and were we to receive several very different sonnets we’d use them, just as we would were there two contrasting poems about Paris, or stories about relationship break-ups – the problem is, generally, that most submissions approach the sonnet (or Paris) in broadly similar ways. And the mention of workshops is because we do receive a great deal that is obviously written in these contexts: it wasn’t to suggest that those forms are confined to workshops, only that workshops increase the numbers of examples in circulation. I don’t know if that is why we receive fewer examples of good blank verse, say, or terza rima, or even ballad stanzas, than we do of sonnets and villanelles, but I suspect a relationship exists…

    Friday, July 2, 2010 at 4:47 pm | Permalink
  3. sally evans wrote:

    as an editor I find this a very truthful article, I hope many people read it. The key to it seems to be that the writer does not really know what a magazine may want (or already have) at any given time. I’m beginning to wonder if “high quality work” really exists without being hype, or without a context. (well OK I know it does exist.) There’s also the need to balance contributors’ names – new, relevant, famous, with geographical base etc and gender too.
    I was flagged to your article by Sheenagh’s facebook post.

    Saturday, July 3, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  4. “I don’t know if that is why we receive fewer examples of good blank verse, say, or terza rima”

    You can’t have been getting stuff from my ex-students; I rammed terza rima down all their throats!

    I take your point in the reply entirely. I’m sure it is as you say and that form X or subject Y is not automatically debarred, just needs more thinking about on the author’s part. Nonetheless, editors are busy folk and there must be a risk of seeing “sea” or “university” in the first line and mentally writing it off – I know there are words that would make me, as a reader, turn the page, though neither of those are among them. This raises an intereting question; I have myself advised folk when a theme is being done to death and is therefore less likely to succeed with editors. But in the end, you have to write what’s on your mind, I suppose, even if the world and his wife are doing it too… Tough call!

    Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  5. PS

    btw, it occurs to me that the poem I’m currently working on is terza rima (good) but about the sea (bad). Should I try it on you, I wonder…:)

    Sunday, July 4, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Permalink
  6. admin wrote:

    I read in Cheltenham tonight and realised nearly every poem I read had either a train or coastal location in it…so I can talk.

    I think we all do have certain turn-offs in poems, but the instant you admit to them, you’ll remember an example that confounds the generalisation. Somebody says ‘never use word X’, your response is inevitably to want to stuff a poem full of word X, just to meet the challenge. After all, a really good poem can make anything work…

    I hope listing the common themes and forms doesn’t discourage people from sending in poems or stories using the forms or subjects in question (and besides, it’s far from a complete list) – but perhaps knowing there are so many writers pursuing them might make us all try a bit harder when they come up in our own notebooks.

    Monday, July 5, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink
  7. Maryanne Khan wrote:

    Wayne

    the themes you have listed as no-go zones are perfectly legit. I would say that anyone who writes about raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens (and the themes you mention) hasn’t read much.

    University student doing an MA in creative writing, on train to Brighton realises that the friend he has been staying with has changed muchly since they were eight and it’s not been the same for his Mum and Dad since he left home, specially since his brother died. But how lovely the morning light on the sea, reminds him of his first girlfriend whom he met under the Eiffel Tower but whose terrible secret he had discovered at lunch on the Left Bank when they were buying a painting she particularly liked because it reminded her of her childhood.

    All I have to do is work in a vampire . . .

    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  8. Becky Gethin wrote:

    Incredibly helpful – thanks very much.
    I now see that trying to guess what an editor might need for the poetic jigsaw is as difficult as sniffing-out said editor’s likelihood of attending a poetry reading… esp hard when you live in a far-flung rural backwater!

    Tuesday, August 3, 2010 at 9:32 am | Permalink
  9. Sue Cook wrote:

    As a new writer it is great to see this frankness. I confess though that I find the current trend for poetry without any discernible form quite baffling.

    And as you haven’t listed the theme/type of my latest short story as one of your many pet hates, I may just investigate further.

    Sunday, September 12, 2010 at 6:36 pm | Permalink
  10. Zachary Jean wrote:

    I suppose it says something that “set number of pages in the magazine” is no longer making the list as a restriction of what editors must face. I’ve only edited once, back in my undergraduate days at MSU’s “Red Cedar Review” (1993) but, seeing as it had laid dormant for several years, by the time the secretary in the English Department had handed me the backlog of submissions I was looking at work that had been postmarked 1991. The first thing I did was send everything back with a note apologizing for the delay, asking for the poet to resubmit if they still wished. I had always assumed that on-line journals would have an infinite amount of space to publish and the only restriction really lay with the quality of work submitted. Is this, in your opinion, true? Or do you work within the framework that you’ll only take a set number of poets in each issue?

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 1:56 am | Permalink
  11. admin wrote:

    Hi Zachary – I think you’re right that space is less of an issue online, but as we’re print only (for now at least) the old rules apply. That said, I think even if it didn’t, and we had unlimited space, there’s something in the idea of focus that’s implied by a contained selection that has strong appeal – just because a story could be 20,000 words instead of 2,000 words long wouldn’t necessarily improve it, and adding ever increasing numbers of writers means those you do include might end up going unread – more material probably means more skimming, less engagement with the whole range of work included. I noticed this happened with CDs at one point – suddenly every album had to contain 70+ minutes of music, when 30m might have made a much better record for the listener, and it’s interesting that many online magazines hang onto that idea of focus, and run to only as many pages online as a print equivalent would tend to use…

    Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 2:27 am | Permalink
  12. mike o'kelly wrote:

    ‘feelings of spirituality triggered by views of the sea’ – That’s comedy gold. Gratsias!

    Friday, January 28, 2011 at 6:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Bertrand Axelent wrote:

    The problem with reading poetry magazines before you submit to them is expense. If I subscribe to ten poetry magazines to find out what kind of stuff they publish I’ll be bankrupt in no time. And I’ll get a headache from the unreadability of most of it.
    You mention ‘workshop’ forms like the sonnet, the sestina, the villanelle. It would be nice to know exactly how a lot of of the works I’ve read on poetry websites would be classified in terms of form. Most of the time I fail to identify what the metre is (mostly there doesn’t seem to be one) and find it difficult to see what determines the line breaks. How about getting a poet who writes in irregular unrhymed lines to explain exactly what is going on in his/her poem in terms of form? If I were to write down such a poem from dictation, is there some way that I would know where the line breaks are? If the line breaks don’t have a particular formal purpose, why make them?

    Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Permalink
  14. Ian McEwen wrote:

    Bertrand: the trouble with not buying poetry magazines before you submit to them is that the magazines will go bankrupt.

    Oh, and the line breaks in (good) free verse do have a particular purpose – but obviously it is not a formal purpose, because then it would be formal verse.

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  15. Dave Duggan wrote:

    Many thanks for this article.

    Dave Duggan
    breathingwithalimp.blogpsot.com

    Monday, August 29, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink
  16. Geoffrey Bailey wrote:

    I am not one who thinks that poems should be written in rhyme and regular line length, though they can be. However, I would support Bertrand Axelent’s suggestion about free verse poets explaining themselves. Ian McEwen may be right in saying line breaks have a reason but it isn’t always obvious and often ignored my readers.
    When I have got over the financial shock of Christmas I shall buy Staple!

    Thursday, December 15, 2011 at 1:57 pm | Permalink
  17. Bat Chain Puller wrote:

    What a lovely article, thanks for the editorial lowdown : this has dettered me from making any furture submissions, as I am of the “I thought I saw a purple cow” school of poetry.

    Monday, January 23, 2012 at 10:06 pm | Permalink
  18. Safe As Milk wrote:

    I subscribe to several magazines including Poetry London, The Rialto, Acumen, Brittle Star. Some of it is good poetry, some of it is abysmal. And that is not a subjective view. Not when clonking cliches appear, or absurdly incompatible images, or when the poem is there because it fits a theme and not because it’s a well crafted poem. There was one a few months ago in a magazine that was an appalling mess of mixed metaphors and contradictory, cliched expressions, but it was about gay marriage…And the editor obviously wanted to tackle this topical and tricky subject in his magazine; hence this terrible piece of writing was printed…so that’s okay then? Of course not. Choosing poems to fit a theme or agenda is a dereliction of duty. And an insult to the intelligence of a person with a pulse who has paid good money to subscribe to the magazine expecting to read poetry; not pseudo-politicking presented as broken prose masquerading as poetry.

    So, I remain baffled (or sometimes enlightened but annoyed) as to what publishers deem ’suitable for their requirements’ poetically. That’s also because there is no consistency in the quality or subject matter or the theme or the tone or the form. They are all just a hotch potch of subjective choices which at times make me wonder what makes them think they know a poem from a piss pot.

    The only consistency in poetry magazines is nepotism. Indeed it seems you encourage it by taking poetry from people you’ve met on the social scene. Forgetting (or not caring) that social networking is primarily for sychophants and egotists. You print my poem and I’ll print yours, or give it to my friend who knows someone high up…Don’t worry that your poem is garbage; you’ve bought me a couple of beers so let’s call it quits….yadda, yadda…

    Worst of all though, certain names can send in any new piece of crap (I’m thinking Simon Armitage, Les Murray, Ruth Padel, Christopher Reid to name but four of these serial offenders) and editors will spontaneously cum in their underwear, such is their delight at having the scribblings of these over-rated ‘right place, right time’ dross mongers submitted to them.

    And don’t even start me on poetry competitions… The ultimate exercise in intellectual and fiscal thievery within the poetic world. Corruption is rife and blatantly so. Some of them even boast that last year’s winner is this year’s judge and this year’s winner is last year’s competition administrator! They charge £3 to £5 a poem to show whyyou never had a chance, because you don’t go to the same dinner parties as these people. This kind of deviance from decency is the biggest disincentive to engaging with competitions or publishers.

    Other than to expose their failings, corruption, arrogance and conceit; whenever the opportunity arises.

    Thursday, July 19, 2012 at 3:07 am | Permalink

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