Literary Hook: Tips for ‘Dancing with the Editors’

By Christine Swanberg

Author and Poet

I recently returned from the Other Words Writers’ Conference, co-sponsored by Flagler College and Jane’s Stories Foundation, in St. Augustine, Fla. I was part of a panel on publishing. My specific topic was to present suggestions for poetry publication. We were supposed to think of titles to catch the interest of participants, so this one is “Dancing with the Editors.” When I give workshops, classes and salons with other writers, the topic of publishing arises more than questions about craft.

One of my biggest pet peeves is the notion that publishing is egotistical. I couldn’t disagree more. I believe that writing, like visual art or music, is truly finished when it has been received. It is a gift, and not to give it is an act of selfishness and timidity. Writers—when they are ready after serving their apprenticeships through study, experimentation and groups—really can put their dancing shoes on and dance with the editors.

Following are some suggestions:

1. Why publish? To share you work with those who would enjoy it. It’s like taking dance lessons for many years and finally going on a cruise where you can really use the training.

2. Where to publish? Again, who would enjoy your work? Newsletters, local papers, trade journals are a good place to start locally. To branch out, read calls for manuscripts in newsletters from writers’ clubs, writers’ guilds, and organizations (such as Jane’s Stories). You can check writers’ magazines such as Writers’ Digest, P and W, etc. It’s worth investing in a marketing book such as Poet’s Market.

3. How do you use a resource such as Poet’s Market? I suggest looking at the index first. Then, order sample copies of journals that appeal to you to be sure your work would be a good match. It’s good to build a shelf of literary journals and anthologies. Read the selection carefully, noting the needs and protocol of that journal. Read the journal when you receive it. Is it what you expected? Would you like to appear in it? Who will you be “dancing” with if you appear in that journal? Do you think the editors will want to dance with you?

4. What’s the difference between a journal and anthology? A journal is usually more eclectic while an anthology usually focuses on an issue. Some journals have theme issues, though.

5. OK, I get it. So how do I approach an editor? You will want to write a cover letter that sparkles but isn’t full of itself. First, remember to acknowledge why you are submitting to this particular journal or anthology. For example, you might say that you picked up a copy at the Other Words Festival and admired the work in it. (It’s like asking someone to dance, politely.) Then, do give a bio of your best publishing history, training or experience. If you don’t yet have a publishing history, you might say that you have been working on refining your work and are beginning to send it out. If sending snail mail, you absolutely must include a SASE, or you may never hear back. Electronic submissions vary, but usually the ones not taken are simply deleted, depending on the editor’s protocol. Don’t get cute with big, pink envelopes or decoration. There is no need to distinguish yourself in that way. When I edited a number of women’s and regional magazines, the cutesy presentation spelled “amateur.”

6. Now, dancing with the editors…I think very positively about this, and over the years have established relationships with them. I have been surprised at how helpful many have been. Once you get your dancing shoes through the door, it’s more likely that the “judge” will give you a 10 and that you’ll be invited back.

Christine Swanberg has published about 300 poems in 70 journals and anthologies. An interview with her appears in the 2008 Poet’s Market. She is available for mentoring through Jane’s Stories Foundation.

From the Dec. 9-15, 2009 issue

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