By Katherine Mayfield-
As editor of the Maine Review, I’m often asked what I look for in submissions. As a writer who has submitted to literary magazines, I know the process is fraught with anxiety, hope, and an occasional bit of dread. It’s sad that there’s no easier way for editors to discover excellent writing than through an impersonal submission process, and I hope that by sharing my thoughts I can help make the experience of submitting a little easier for you.
Let me say first that there would be no Maine Review, or New York Times, or Amazon.com without writers. Though writers often feel they’re at the bottom of the totem pole, the fact is that writing is actually the cornerstone of the entire industry. Be proud that you’re a writer.
As an editor, it’s a thrill for me to read a piece of writing that grabs me in the first paragraph, carries me along, and moves me in some way–whether to tears, laughter, or amazement that someone could so clearly express powerful feelings, ideas, and metaphors that I can deeply relate to as a fellow human being.
Writing is powerful. The process of writing can be powerful, healing, enraging, ennobling — it’s one of the purest forms of self-expression because it comes straight from inspiration. What many writers ignore (or don’t realize) is that there’s a second part to the process, and that is craft.
There are many excellent books on craft: Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are two of the best. You owe it to your muse to learn the craft of writing, so you can make the words of your inspiration as compelling as possible.
Over the years, I’ve edited books in every genre, and I’m amazed that some writers will write a novel without reading over it to tighten, focus, delete, and expand to make the book as compelling as possible. Rewriting isn’t always as fun as penning the first draft, but it’s what truly makes the story.
That said, here are a few tips to keep in mind when submitting:
1. Find out what kind of work the lit mag publishes, and choose your submissions accordingly. You can often get a copy through your interlibrary loan system, or find previously published issues on the website.
2. Go deep. Readers love to experience what they’re reading, to relate to it on a visceral or emotional level. Gutsy writing is always appreciated.
3. Reading a piece through without noticing an error is a real joy for editors. I always suggest that writers have their work edited before submitting it anywhere. At least run the work through the spell checker, and fix what comes up. One or two typos doesn’t mean the end of the world, but a piece that has numerous typos feels carelessly done, no matter how good the writing.
4. Follow instructions. It’s amazing how many people, in every walk of life, fail to follow instructions. At the Review, we usually ask for a cover page along with a submission, so that we can easily keep track of a writer’s contact info. When we’re running a contest (deadline for the current contest is February 10th), we need a separate cover sheet to tag entries for the blind judging process. When we receive a submission that doesn’t follow instructions, there’s a tendency to assume that the writing might not be that good either — even if that’s often not true.
Above all, enjoy the process of writing! Remember that editors love discovering the next great writer — and it could be you. Good luck!