7 Submissions Mistakes Writers Make and How to Fix Them

by Nicole Rollender

April 2016

I straddle both sides of the writing fence, first as a B2B magazine editor and poetry editor for a publishing house, and second as a freelance writer and poet. As a poetry editor who’s looking for manuscript gems in the slush pile, I can’t tell you how important it is for creative writers to follow guidelines, and submit with care. You wouldn’t believe how many submissions are discarded due to these seven submissions mistakes that I (and other editors) see writers make most often. The good news is that I’m also going to tell you what to do instead.

1. Addressing the cover letter to Dear Sirs. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? You couldn’t be more wrong, as this is the editor’s first introduction to you. “Please don’t assume that I’m a man,” says Allie Marini, co-founder of Lucky Bastard Press. “‘Dear Sirs’ makes me want to write back, ‘Did you even look at the staff page, or do you just assume that a man runs the show?’” With so many woman-run presses, Dear Sirs is insulting, especially because most presses clearly list staffers on a masthead.

What you should do: Check the masthead. Address your submission like this: “Dear Jane Smith, Dante Jones and the ABC Press Staff.” Use full names, rather than just first names. Address the top editors and also the genre editor. Remember, “If you’re sending poetry, don’t address it to the fiction editor and vice versa,” says Jordi Alonso, editor of The Whale (thewhalesings.com). And double-check that you’ve spelled all the names correctly.

2. Not specifying what you’re submitting. Many journals and presses set up their submission systems so that you must choose where your submission goes: to your chosen genre, to a specific contest, or to a general themed category. Others don’t. Even so, it’s a mistake not to specify what you’re submitting your work for in the cover letter. For example, Carly Joy Miller, co-founder of Locked Horn Press, wishes that writers would mention what genre of piece they’re enclosing and if they’re a past contributor. “It saves us a lot of legwork, guesswork, and Googling when we need to assign submissions out [to our readers],” she says.

What you should do: List the titles of all the poems or the short story you’re sending in, in addition to the genre and the special issue or contest for which you’re answering the call. Example: “I’m submitting three poems, ‘Aubade,’ ‘Nocturne’ and ‘The Raven,’ for The Third Wheel’s poetry contest.” And again, ensure that you’ve spelled the magazine or press’s name correctly. “People used to send me inquiries at Vox, rather than Local Vox,” says Lisa Marie Basile, founder of Luna Luna Magazine. “More than 20 times. Please double-check.”

3. Including the wrong personal information. “When I was working at The Southampton Review, this man who sent five poems also wrote us to tell us that he loved his cats, his wife and his farm, which was X number of acres,” Alonso says. “That had nothing to do with the contents of his submission, and we had a good laugh about it, but it felt like a waste of time.” Similarly Marini isn’t thrilled when submitters liken themselves to super-authors: “Compare yourself to reasonable authors – I promise, not everyone is ‘the next J.K. Rowling,’” she says. “Nor do they have to be. Wouldn’t you rather be yourself?”

The moral of these funny little anecdotes is that editors, including myself, take diving into the submissions queue seriously, and we’re looking for professional writers who are serious about their own work. Overly personal bios and bombastic claims smacks of newbie-ism, and we’re already dreading reading the actual work.

What you should do: Write a short, professional bio. Look at journals you like online and read the writers’ bios. Usually, they include the names of five journals where the writer has published work, along with their book or chapbook titles, awards or fellowships, city where they live, and a website or blog address. Remember, shorter is better. Editors don’t want a page-long bio, or a list of every journal or magazines that has ever published your work.

And really, the only time you should write an offbeat bio is when the publisher requests it. For example, I wrote this unique two-line bio for Porkbelly Press’ forthcoming Sky+Sea Anthology: “Nicole Rollender is interested in all kinds of divination by land, sea and sky, following constellations, discerning omens, and meeting the dead in dreams. She is the author of the poetry collection, Louder Than Everything You Love (ELJ Editions).”

4. Not following instructions. This, by far, is one of most editors’ biggest pet peeves. This could mean subbing eight poems instead of three, 10 pages of poems instead of five, or previously published work. It could also mean that the editors ask that you don’t put your name on the manuscript, since they read blind, but then you head each page with your name and contact information. Formatting also falls under the following-instructions headline. “The older I get, the less generous I am with making exceptions for single-spaced, purple 10-point font in Comic Sans,” Marini says. Humor aside, editors write submission guidelines for a reason, and they expect writers to follow them.

What you should do: Luckily, this is simple: Follow the guidelines to the letter. If you have a question, email the editor. If guidelines are sparse, I paste my cover letter as the first page of the submission, and then include one poem per page thereafter. I use a 12-point font like Times New Roman or Garamond.

5. Submitting scattershot. This is another top pet peeve for editors. Sometimes new writers will put together a submission packet of five poems or one short story and then send it to 35 publications, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s a problem, however, when you submit to journals that accept work totally opposite to yours – like a found poetry review to which you submit original formal poems.

What you should do: Get at least a little familiar with the journal or press. “If you mention something my press made, I’m more likely to take an interest in your pitch/submission, because it means that you’ve taken an interest in the editorial curation, and see something in your work that bears a commonality with other projects we’ve invested our time and resources to produce,” Marini says. In your cover letter, mention a poem you liked in the latest issue, or comment on the cover art.

6. Not waiting for a response. Writing is often a waiting game. Some editors will get back to you within days; some won’t respond for a year. Also, don’t “send emails to let me know there’s a typo over and over again,” Basile says. “Assume the editor will edit the work. … Similarly, don’t send work and then re-send another version a day later, without knowing if the editor’s been working on version one. Instead, ask the editor if you can send another version.”

What you should do: Check the journal or press’s guidelines for following up on submissions. Some will say, “Feel free to query after three months.” Feel free to do so. Otherwise, wait for the editors to contact you. In addition, Basile says, once your piece has been accepted, don’t send multiple follow-up emails to see when the piece will be published. The editor will let you know. Which brings us to …

7. Sloppy simultaneous submissions. First, if a journal says not to simultaneously submit work, just don’t do it. It’s just not cool. 
Editors who allow simul subs are infuriated when a writer doesn’t withdraw their submission if the work gets accepted elsewhere. 
Related issue: when editorial guidelines ask you not to send multiple submissions, don’t. It’s confusing, and most likely your additional submissions will be deleted unread. 
Another don’t is when you do receive an encouraging declination, review the guidelines to see how much time you should let elapse before you send your next packet along.

What you should do: Track your submissions carefully either in an Excel spreadsheet or on Duotrope.com. When you receive an acceptance (congratulations!), notify editors who are also holding the work that it has been taken elsewhere.

Nicole Rollender’s work has appeared in The Adroit Journal, Alaska Quarterly Review, Best New Poets, The Journal, Memorious, THRUSH Poetry Journal, West Branch, Word Riot and others. Her first full-length collection, Louder Than Everything You Love, was published by ELJ Editions in December 2015. She’s the author of the poetry chapbooks Arrangement of Desire (Pudding House Publications, 2007), Absence of Stars (dancing girl press & studio, 2015), Bone of My Bone, a winner in Blood Pudding Press’s 2015 Chapbook Contest, and Ghost Tongue (Porkbelly Press, 2016). She has received poetry prizes from CALYX Journal, Ruminate Magazine and Princemere Journal. She is editor of Wearables magazine and executive director of professional development for the Advertising Specialty Institute; she holds a bachelor’s degree in literature from Stockton University and an MFA in creative writing from Pennsylvania State University, where she taught rhetoric and composition and creative writing courses for several years.