Understanding The Submission Process

Greetings from within the stony Sheepshead Review lair.


It’s more of a nook really.

One of our favorite things to do as a staff is explore all of the different personalities we find in our stack of submissions. We make charts and brownies, and then we wrestle each other to the ground (metaphorically), all in debate over which submissions we will publish this time around. After shuffling through hundreds of subs, each genre staff chooses only a few pieces for each issue. It’s grueling.

At some point, our omniscient and gracious genre editors peel us apart, and make a final ruling. Then we buy each other Colectivo coffees, and make up.

If there’s one thing I wish more writers, artists, and submitters of soul-wanderings could know, it’s that the process of choosing works for publication is not a cut and dried, objective, good/bad dichotomy.

There are a lot of different questions a staff can ask itself while making a decision, and the set of pieces chosen can vary from issue to issue. The time span from when a sub leaving its creator’s hands to when the submitter receives a final decision from a genre staff is elusive for those of us that haven’t shuffled through the decision making process.

To address this issue we have a short, sweet list of submission advice straight from our ancestral staff chambers to your glowing computer screens.

1. Read the fine print.

Every journal is different regarding formatting: whether to put multiple subs in one document or separately, include or omit identifying markers; whether or not to type allegiance to their leader, whether they accept simultaneous submissions or not.  And the list goes on.

Some publications are super-mondo specific, and others leave the details to be a matter of personal discretion. Some will immediately disqualify subs that don’t comply with formatting quirks; others will not. However, if a sub is not properly packaged it will very likely slow down the staff that is trying to efficiently and objectively analyze all pieces. Befuddling the people judging your work rarely cultivates favor.

While specifications can seem silly, and maybe some are intentionally so, most journals try to standardize submissions to streamline the reading process. This streamline means you hear back faster! Even if works aren’t immediately disqualified for formatting errors, compliance will boost your overall professional appearance, display proof of literacy, and will show respect for the staff working to give your sub all the tender love and care possible.

When I  tutor college students, the first thing I do is scour their assignment sheets for any specific instructions the professor has laid out.  I always tell tutees it’s silly to miss out on essentially free points.  Whether or not a publication actually uses a points system to evaluate works, you don’t want to miss out on any freebies!

2. Do some (super fun) research.

If you’ve sent your work out to journals before, you’ve probably read on every website ever that submitters are encouraged to read previously published work before submitting. As much as that might seem like a secret plot to get you to subscribe to fifty different lit magazines, there is a good amount of logic behind this motion.

First of all, most journals have a personality comprised of the combined intellect, wit, and vision of its staff and editors. Others host rather specific genres, regions, or styles of work that become apparent and are best defined by strolling through the existing backlog. Sitting down with a copy of a journal in print or online is kind of like having coffee with them. You get to see what they find funny or profound, what their favorite color is this month, and whether or not they have any celebrity crushes.

Sometimes there are more subtle nuances to be excavated by this recon. For instance, the layout designs of magazines can differ wildly. They might print several pieces to a page or only one. How do they handle longer pieces? How many pieces are long as opposed to short? How do they handle experimental forms? Do they print experimental writing or more straightforward work? Narrative poetry or lyric experimentation? Beyond the simple revelation, “this journal is just my style!” or, “NOPE,”  it can often help you choose which of your pieces will fit with the overall aesthetic.

There is a fallacy of infallibility in publication. The truth is, choosing work to publish isn’t a simple binary decision. Some issues will adopt a style or topic or changes in layout design could lead to a slightly different aesthetic preference in the works accepted; and then there are the pragmatic issues of space, readership considerations, and the sway of financial supporters.

Although it’s impossible to predict exactly what a staff wants, you can sure boost your chances with a moderate amount of work. Plus, it’s good practice to keep up with what other writers are doing these days!

3. Take a breath.

It’s hard once you’ve identified a journal you really idolize (*cough* Sheepshead Review *cough*) to not be overly influenced by your understanding of their style. There might be a subconscious tendency to say to oneself, “They printed a bunch of prose poems, I have to write a prose poem to get published.”

You can use the archived work as a guide, perhaps an inspiration or a compass toward which of your previously penned works seem a good match, but try not to let them turn into a blueprint for the pieces you have in the works. Our favorite part of checking out so many cool, unique subs is the individuality. We love discovering new styles and perspectives that perhaps haven’t surfaced in our pool of submissions before.

You never know what a staff will be thinking when they read your work, so try not to overanalyze it. Most of the time, even we don’t  know how we feel until the moment comes, after discussion is sparked, and the debate has sunk in.

4. Edit, edit, peer review, edit.

Every artist is at a different place in their journey. Many of our contributors are in college with access to workshops and writing groups with their peers. Others come from all over the world: cities and villages, and yurts on vast trackless plains.

In any case, published writings tend not to be a solitary endeavor. That’s why we want to publish and be published, an audience, right? There is a desire to make a human connection with written work but a professional publication isn’t the best place for feedback. If you have some fellow nerd-fabulous, grammarly friends, try soliciting a quick read over.

Some of the best ways to edit your work are to find or set up writer co-ops where you can swap work; maybe even casual open mic style readings to small groups (or large, whatevs) to foster some interaction. If all else fails, revise, revise, and revise yourself.

Nothing is more painful than having to decline a brilliant work of art because it is beyond grammatical repair. It’s not fair to other submissions that came to the table polished and ready to rock if we have to babysit the others. Plus, we know you’re super-smarties or you wouldn’t be submitting.

5. Follow journals on social media.

If you think you want to submit somewhere, or you have already, like them on Facebook and stalk them in the twitter-hood. Not only will you be kept apprised of deadlines, possible contests you could win, literary events, and where to scoop up their latest editions, but it’s another way to get to know the personalities of publications.

Their final product/archives hold a lot of information about their style and flair, but having an open internet dialogue can transport you into the inner workings of their collective brains. Bonus: networking can be fun and will potentially link you up with other similar journals you might be interested in.

There’s basically no reason for aspiring writers not to follow lit journals on social media!

6. Be yourself, embrace your unique voice and perspective, and be gracious in both acceptance and denial.

Please remember that we do spend a lot of time and energy considering submissions. We’ve all had to watch some of our darling subs get turned away for pragmatic reasons, due to an executive veto, or that darn democratic vote stuff. A rejected submission is a far cry from a condemnation of the work. It is instead a reminder to take a second look and ask if the work needs some peer review and a revision or two, or if it was a simple case of wrong place/ wrong time.

We hope this helps to both understand a little more about the inner workings of submission selection and how to give your submissions the best possible journey.

Do you have any questions or concerns about the selection process, or what it takes to be a successful Sheepshead Review Submission? Tell us in the comments!

Bo, out.

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