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Some tips on how to submit work to literary journals

Gary Cummiskey

At the moment there are a number of literary journals being published in South Africa. In print form alone we have Botsotso, Chimurenga, Carapace, Green Dragon, Fidelities, Kotaz, New Coin, New Contrast, South African Writing and Timbila.

Most of these journals are produced by independent publishers and not by commercial operations with their own offices complete with administrative staff and in-house editors and designers. These journals are produced mainly from home on a part-time basis by people who have commitments to full-time jobs, families, studies and bread-and-butter concerns.

Very often it is one person – the editor – who collects submitted material from a post box, goes through submissions, answers correspondence, makes the selection of material and oversees the production of the journal, if not actually undertaking its layout and design. The editor also liaises with printers, undertakes the promotion of the journal, and in some cases distributes to bookshops as well.

If you wish to submit material to local literary journals, it would be worthwhile to keep the above in mind. To assist the editor to manage the number of submissions it would also be worthwhile to consider the following:

  • Before you send material, obtain a copy of the journal so that you can get an idea of the sort and genre of material that it publishes. It would be a waste of time (and money) sending fiction to a journal that publishes only poetry, for instance. There is also little point in sending sexually explicit poems to a conservative or religious publication, or sending traditional-form poems to a journal that publishes only experimental works.

  • If you cannot find a copy of the journal in a bookshop, contact the publisher and ask to purchase a copy. Avoid asking for a freebee; although you may be lucky and receive a free copy.

  • Find out the submission guidelines for the journal. If you are asked to send no more than eight poems, then do not send more than eight poems. If you send a 100-page manuscript it would probably not be treated with enthusiasm.

  • Do not submit previously published work. This is a debated topic as some writers (and editors) feel that internet and print publishing should be treated separately and so submitting work already published on the internet to a print journal is acceptable. Other editors are completely against this practice, feeling that it downplays the role of internet publishing. If you want to submit work that has already been published on a website, it would be best first to check the submission policy of the print journal. If you can’t get clarity on this, then when you submit work to the print journal indicate which submissions have been previously published on the internet.

  • Do not make duplicated submissions by sending the same material to more than one journal.

  • Find out the preferred means of submitting material. Most journals will gladly accept electronically submitted material because manuscripts do not have to be retyped from hard copy. However, if you are going to submit electronically, make sure whether it is acceptable to send by email attachment or whether the editor would prefer the text to be cut and pasted into the body of the email. Most of us, whether editors or not, are naturally wary of opening attachments from unknown sources.

  • Also make sure that you send the material in a commonly used text-based programme such as MS Word. Do not send material to the editor on programmes such as PowerPoint. Make sure that you use a standard font that is easily readable.

  • Avoid “illustrating” your submission with computer graphics unless it is essential to the text.

  • Whether you submit work electronically or by normal post, make sure that you include a short covering letter that includes your name and contact details. A postal address and (preferably) an email address should suffice. I doubt whether any editor is likely to call you on your cellphone to discuss your work, so there is little point in including a cellphone number.

  • If you send material by normal post, you should include a SASE. Many independent publishers cannot afford the costs of returning manuscripts, and if you do not send a SASE it is unlikely that your manuscript will be returned. Even if work is submitted electronically, some journals will only reply to writers whose work has been accepted.

  • If you do not hear from a journal to which you have submitted material, do not contact the editor to establish if your work has been accepted and, if so, when it will be published. As I’ve said, independent publishers have many other responsibilities and it may take a while before you hear from them. I know this can be frustrating (I have gone through it myself), but it is fair to say that if you have not heard from a journal after six months, it is unlikely that your work has been accepted.

  • If you receive a reply stating that your work has been rejected, do not enter into correspondence with the editor unless invited to do so. Most importantly, do not complain about it. Accept the editor’s decision. Do not take the rejection personally; it is only the editor’s opinion. If you are provided with feedback on why it was rejected, and receive suggestions on how to improve your work, consider the feedback, even though you may not agree.

  • If your work is accepted by a journal for one issue, do not assume that all further submissions by you will be immediately accepted.

As a writer myself I am aware of the frustrations that writers experience when submitting work to journals, but by adhering to the above guidelines, writers can help the production of a journal to run more quickly and more smoothly. When an independent publisher is faced with producing a journal that involves extremely time-consuming administration, there is a possibility that they may choose to discontinue publishing the journal, resulting in fewer publishing opportunities for writers.

This article originally appeared as Dye Hard Press Newsletter #9

LitNet: 30 May 2006

Click here to visit Gary Cummiskey's index page on PoetryNet.

Comment on this article. Send your emails to webvoet@litnet.co.za, and become a part of our interactive opinion page. Or submit your own poetry to Michelle McGrane for consideration.

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