So far in the submission process, we’ve talked about:
- Read the magazine and know it well!
- Read editor and/or other submitters work (optional)
- Read the guidelines for the magazine and follow them
We’re going to talk a little more this week about some of the typical components of a submission listed in the guidelines. This DOES NOT mean that you can now ignore all magazine’s submitter guidelines, but that you can go into the process more informed, and ideally have much of your work already in format, making submitting an easier process.
This week, we are going to focus on two main components of a submission: the cover letter and the contributor’s biographical notes.
Beside your work itself, there are some materials you want to have prepared for your submissions.
The first is a cover letter. A cover letter is what editors describe as the “handshake” accompanying your submission. It’s a form of etiquette to introduce your work. Now, when I say “introduce” I do not mean you should be describing your work, or giving background on yourself. The handshake metaphor is actually very accurate—a cover letter should be brief, and give an editor the basic information they need:
- a header with your name and contact information
- an address to the appropriate editor (Dear [name of editor], to show you know who you’re talking to)
- the titles (and word count, if prose) of your pieces
- a polite greeting/closer
- a brief bio (optional, but good in case they need it)
Many editors also appreciate an acknowledgement of their magazine—if you can begin with a sentence on why you chose this magazine, what you love about their magazine (maybe even referencing a specific poem you read that you loved), you should. Not only will the editor personally appreciate this, but it will have them entering your submission, knowing that you know what you’re talking about. Since so many submissions are “crap shoots”, to see that you’ve tailored your submission to them specifically will already make you stand out.
In the materials section below, I’ve included a link to a couple sample cover letters. You’ll see here that I try to be brief: that I make a quick connection, I briefly discuss my submission (if appropriate, I might mention why it’s a good fit thematically to a specific magazine), and then I end in a polite closer.
An important question to ask yourself is: when should I include a cover letter? For some online submissions, a cover letter might not be necessary. Some editors even request that you do not include a cover letter. Usually if I’m doing an online submission, unless I have something really good to say (e.g., I’ve met one of the editors personally or am head over heels with their magazine) I just put a copy of my bio in the cover letter field. However, if you are sending in a paper submission (which we’ll get to in a little bit), you should always have a cover letter. Here, it’s extremely important that you have that header with your name and contact info, as it’s probably their only point of contact to find you if they want your submission.
For more perspective on cover letters, check out this article from the editors of Ploughshares.
The second material to have prepared is a contributor biography. When your work is published, editors typically want to publish a bio for each contributor. A bio typically includes one’s education, a sample of their publications, a link to their website, or a brief personal statement. For the sake of this lesson, I’m going to discuss “traditional” and “non-traditional” bios.
“Traditional” bios are academic in nature. They usually revolve around previous publications, or relevant experience, qualifying the writer as an expert in their field. I recommend trying to always have some sort of “traditional” bio, as this is helpful for trying to get jobs or apply for grants. Selling yourself is an important element of publishing, and the bio is a great way to learn how to do this effectively.
When you’re first starting to send out work, it can be tricky to create a bio. If you don’t have any publications, how do you still present yourself as a qualified writer? First of all, if it’s your first publication, you may prefer to begin with a non-traditional bio. However, traditional bios can also include other information:
- writing education (MFA, participation in writing programs, Fellowships, teaching experience, Bachelors, etc)
- other education (BS/PhD/Masters in field outside of writing. This may allude to another career, or the content of the accepted piece)
- “This is his/her first publication” (I personally don’t like this one, but some choose to use it)
- working as an editor on a magazine (including high school or college literary magazines)
- If referring to high school/college experience, don’t say “I worked on my high school litmag”. Instead, frame it precisely and succinctly: “I worked as staff on Stylus”.
- contest wins (again, including high school/college)
- a link to a professional website (I strongly encourage you, if you’re pursuing writing as a career, to make a professional website)
You might be thinking to yourself “I don’t have any of those qualifications!” That may be true, but if you think long and hard enough, it’s likely you’ll be able to find some good relevant experience. If I was able to make a professional bio in high school, I’m confident that you can make a good bio. To show you what I mean, I’ll give you the example of my first bio:
Meg Eden has been published in various magazines and anthologies, including Teen Ink, Listen, Characters, and Sloppy Noodle. She has also won first place in Characters’ fiction writing contest and Heroes and Dreams Foundation’s Essay contest.
You probably noticed that none of these are spectacular publications. However, I did get my first agent when I had this bio. While the publications are anything but impressive, I think it did show that I was active in the writing community, and that my work was beginning to get acknowledged. In your first traditional bios, that’s the goal.
As I continued to publish, I replaced the magazine names with the publications I thought were the strongest. The same goes for contest wins. My most recent bio reads like this:
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and Gargoyle. Her poem “Rumiko” won the 2015 Ian MacMillan award for poetry, and she has four poetry chapbooks in print. She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at: www.megedenbooks.com
Non-traditional bios are a little bit more complicated (or at least I think so). It can be challenging to find the tasteful balance of personal information and style with professionalism.
The best source for “non-traditional” bios is Rattle. Rattle actually requires its contributors to focus their bio on why they write, what they love about writing, and how they came to writing. If you’re thinking of the “non-traditional” route, please check out Rattle for examples. These bios are clean and crisp, but also personal and meaningful.
The risk with “non-traditional” bios is that they can quickly go into “my two cats are named Callico and Spunky” territory. Make sure that if you chose this route that you keep the personal information tasteful and to-the-point. Many writers go with something like: “She lives with her husband and two cats in the mountains of West Virginia.” Unlike the “Callico and Spunky” route, this gives personal information without feeling invaded.
Regardless of going “traditional” or “non-traditional”, a bio should be brief and succinct. You’ll notice that my max bio goes to four sentences long. I would recommend two to three sentences as a healthy length for a bio.
When creating your bio, I strongly recommend you look at examples in literary magazines. You can see the diversity of bios, which ones appeal to you and which ones don’t. You can go back to the earlier units’ literary magazine samples, but maybe focus looking at magazines in your Tier 1 goals. Also look at samples in your Tier 2 and Tier 3 goals—what would you like your bio to one day look like?
Submitting: Is it Worth It?
Students often ask me what I think of reading fees. I have mixed feelings about them, as many editors argue that they’re “necessary” when just seven years ago, they were virtually non-existent (let’s just say that when I was in high school, I sent in an unsolicited manuscript of poems to Graywolf, free of charge). There are so many magazines that don’t require reading fees that I am often reluctant to pay them. You’ll have to decide your own stance on reading fees, but here are my criteria for whether I’ll pay it or not:
- Do I love the magazine? Reading fees can be thought of as more of a donation to an organization you love. If you love what they do, why not give them money?
- Do I get something in return? I view the writing world as a business. There are thousands of litmags; why should I invest in yours? When a litmag does something creative, and I feel like I’m getting something for my money, then I’m more likely to feel OK paying a reading fee.
For example, Hawaii Review holds the Ian Macmillan contest, where for the $10 fee, you can submit to all three genres (first place in each wins $500), AND you get a copy of a back issue of Hawaii Review! Not only is that a killer deal, but I have won first place before, so it’s attainable. Plus, the staff are great people and I love supporting their work.
Some organizations like Rattle will offer a critique or an expedited submission answer if you pay a fee. I personally am happy to give money for feedback on how to improve my work. Whenever I see that option, I usually pay for it. Expedited answers don’t really matter to me, but they might for some.
- How much is it? I’m more likely to pay $2 to River and Sound Review, who are using the fee to help pay authors than the $35 fee to submit a book to Alice James books for, well, their own expenses. Again, you’ll have to figure out your own stance, but personally, if I’m being published by a press I feel that that is the press’ responsibility to keep their organization financially stable. The author has to do enough work; they shouldn’t have to be paying to be considered as well. (Again, this represents my standpoint, not necessarily the Dr. TJ Eckleburg Review’s, or the literary world at large.)
Paper submissions are quickly dying, so you might not have to deal with them at all. A couple good magazines like The Gettysburg Review and Poet Lore are determined to stick with paper submissions as long as they can, and many contests still require it. International submissions also still have some paper-only policies. So it’s good for you to know what to have for them:
- Cover letter: We talked about this, but a cover letter is vital in a paper submission as it’s their POC for yoru submission. If they love your poems or stories, it’s probably the only way they can get your contact information.
- SASE: This is a self-addressed sealed envelope. This is typically how the magazine sends back a rejection, or a form of agreement for publication. Usually if your work is accepted you get an email as well, so honestly I don’t understand why this process is still a thing. But I usually get smaller envelopes for this, so they’ll fit more easily inside the submission envelope.
- Formatting: Many paper submissions require your contact info to be on every page. Make sure to follow the guidelines all the more! Unlike an online submission where a formatting mistake is just unprofessional, it may result in your work getting lost in the paper world. So watch out!
- Stamps: If you do a lot of paper submissions, go to Sam’s Club and get a 100 count stamp roll. It’s definitely worth it in the end.
- Is it worth it?: I only do a paper submission if it’s a magazine that I think is a realistic goal for me, and that getting published there would make me proud. That, or it’s a contest with a really good cash prize.
We often don’t hear about international magazines, but there are a few reasons you should be checking them out:
- They often pay better. I’ve found this particularly true in Canada (It seems like they have good funding for the arts there).
- They’re often very excited to meet new writers! I’ve built some great relationships with writers from Canada, the UK and Australia. I’ve even had the opportunities to have chapbooks published internationally, and to meet editors of magazines around the world!
- You get to say that you’re an internationally published writer, which can be a good resume-booster.
- A lot more are turning to online submission policies, making it easier to get your work to them!
Submittable is arguably the most common online submitter for creative writing out there. What’s nice about submittable is that it organizes all of your submissions: it tells you when you submitted what, and the final verdict on the submission. I’ve found it pretty simple to use, but if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask!
You are going to prepare a full submission for a magazine of your choice! For some of you, this might be intimidating, but not to worry! This is a dry-run, and will allow you to get feedback before submitting!
For the purposes of this assignment, a “full submission” means:
- a cover letter
- a professional bio
- a submission of work, formatted to a specific magazine’s guidelines.
Important: DO NOT submit this to the magazine yet! You will receive feedback on your submission, which may mean you’ll want to go back and revise before submitting to your magazine.
Meg Eden’s work has been published in various magazines, including Rattle, Drunken Boat, Eleven Eleven, and Rock & Sling. Her work received second place in the 2014 Ian MacMillan Fiction contest. Her collections include Your Son (The Florence Kahn Memorial Award), Rotary Phones and Facebook (Dancing Girl Press) and The Girl Who Came Back (Red Bird Chapbooks). She teaches at the University of Maryland. Check out her work at megedenbooks.com.