Decisions, Decisions: Where to Send Your Poetry and Short Stories

The conventional wisdom is clear. You should take these four steps when deciding on the journals to send your creative work (spoiler alert: I don’t really follow any of them).

First, don’t submit your work too quickly. Revise and revise and revise and revise.

Second, carefully research potential markets before submitting any work.

Third, read multiple copies of any potential journal to see the types of works the editors select. If your work doesn’t “fit,” send it elsewhere.

Fourth, read and reread the submission instructions. Follow them precisely.

OK: I mostly agree with the last one.

The first three worry me, though.

The problem with endlessly revising your work, in my view, is that revision doesn’t always improve matters. With essays, I believe, revision lifts the quality about 90% of the time. With poetry and fiction, that number drops to maybe 50%. Indeed, you might well revise your way to a weaker piece. Also, all the time you spend revising is time you won’t spend creating new work. Finally, I have known a lot of would-be writers who use the “it’s not ready yet” line as an excuse not to send out anything. This is not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t revise . . . just that you shouldn’t assume that revising is always the better choice.

Two and three, I believe, have the same problem. Trying to send works that sound “just like” the ones that a journal has published in the past might actually hurt your chances. Editors might think, You know, we just published something a lot like this. Most editors, I believe, are searching for work that stands out, that feels fresh. Not sounding like the other work might actually help you catch an editor’s eye.

Even number four is not always reliable. Years ago, for example, I read the submission guidelines for a journal and saw that they did not want humorous poetry. But one of the four poems I had ready to go was humorous. I sent it anyway. So what happened? That was the poem they took. Indeed, the editor sent me a note to say she didn’t know why they didn’t receive more humorous work. Go figure.

The truth? My experience has been that I am terrible at figuring out which of my poems or stories might appeal to editors. Often editors select the work I would have said was “the least likely.”

So why not send out a lot of poems and stories and let the editors figure out which ones they think are worthy?

One final note: I have heard writers suggest that you should submit your work to the most prestigious journals first, then work your way down to less prestigious journals. I suppose that makes sense, but I have some reservations here too. Writers, I have found, don’t always agree on which journals are the most prestigious. If I were to be cynical, indeed, I would say that a lot of writers list at the top the ones where they’ve been published.

In short, there are a lot of really good journals out there. Worrying too much about prestige can’t be healthy.


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