First of all, no one has to submit their writing in order to call themselves a writer. A writer is someone who writes, although in our culture if you tell someone you’re a writer, their first response may be “Have you been published?”
But the fact is submitting your writing is an option. An add-on. A choice.
If you do decide to submit your writing, there are several approaches you can take, including these:
- Top-down: Start with the most prestigious, well-known and highest-paying markets, such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Rationale: If you’re going to spend all that time and energy making a submission, you might as well aim for the top.
- Bottom-up: Start with small-readership, relatively unknown, low- and non-paying publications, such as your local newspaper, chamber-of-commerce magazine or community college journal. Rationale: Earn your chops, garner some clips and work your way up.
- Mix it up. Simultaneously work the Top-down and Bottom-up approaches. Every other submission goes to the top; the rest go to the bottom. Rationale: If one approach doesn’t work, maybe the other will.
- Overproduce and undersell. I first heard about this approach from a celebrity chef being interviewed on TV. Until then, I didn’t know it existed but when I heard the chef explain how he focused on making the best possible food and spent minimal time on marketing, I realized that’s what I do. When it comes to my writing, I focus on producing the highest-quality product I can and then send it out. I also call this the Gentle Approach. Rationale: If it’s good, it will sell. Sometimes the soft sell works.
- The numbers game. Make as many submissions as possible. Focus on quantity. Send anything anywhere. Rationale: The more submissions you make, the greater the likelihood of having something accepted.
- Thin thread. Sometimes, when researching markets you’ll come across a publication or contest that exhibits only a thin connection with your writing, whether it has to do with tone, topic or genre. Make the submission anyway. Rationale: Even with exhaustive market research, there’s always a certain amount of randomness and unpredictability to the submission process. In fact, when it comes to getting published, “there is no system,” a published author once told me. Maybe randomness will work in your favor.
- Entertainment purposes only. Do it for fun. Make submissions to see how many rejections you can collect. Boast about every rejection to your family. Paper your office with rejection slips. Compete with your writer friends to see who can earn ten rejections first. Rationale: In the grand scheme of things, whether or not your writing gets published doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re having fun.
- The grand experiment. Think of the submission process as a scientific experiment for which you don’t know the outcome. Tell yourself the only reason you’re making submissions is to find out what happens. Be curious and open-minded. Have no ulterior motives. Keep accurate records. Rationale: Learn something.
- The soft-boiled egg. Save your vulnerable side (the soft-boiled egg) for when you’re writing. Don your suit of armor (the egg shell) before making submissions. Rationale: To write you have to be open; to market you have to be tough.
In the interest of full disclosure: Bad things can happen to those who submit. For instance:
1. The dreaded mailing list
When you make a submission to a publication, whether or not your submission is accepted, you may be put on that publication’s mailing list.
That means that not only was your essay or short story rejected but you may receive weekly, even daily, reminders of it in the form of emailed requests to purchase the rejecting publication’s online class, take part in its pay-to-enter contest or buy its anthology. Talk about salt in the literary wound. And to make things even less pleasant, those ads often are sent in the middle of the night, the better to greet you from your crammed inbox when you start work for the day.
That rejecting market may event enlist “partners” who also send you ads. When will the horror stop? When you opt out of the mailings, of course, but sometimes that’s complicated and, well, you get my point.
2. Never hearing back
And then there’s the rejection itself.
Just what is a rejection? You could say it’s a non-acceptance, an absence of a good thing. When your poem is rejected with a “sorry but not a good fit” email, no one comes to your door and beats you up about it. No one yells at you over the phone or mocks you online, although years ago I was severely chastised via email by a contest judge who made an inaccurate assumption about me and my writing. But for the most part, a rejection comes in the form of a belated email, if you receive one at all.
In the olden days, like five years ago, publications actually notified everyone who made submissions, but nowadays it’s more common for the journal or contest organizer to say something like “if you haven’t heard from us in three months, it means we won’t be able to use your submission.”
Wow. Kind of like asking someone to marry you only to have them respond with “If you haven’t heard from me in a week, it’s a no.” Talk about tone deaf. Talk about rude.
In my opinion, a publication, contest organizer or literary agent—anyone inviting submissions from writers—shouldn’t do so unless they can guarantee a prompt response. But, hey, I’ve been criticized for caring too much about writers.
Meanwhile, take a deep breath, remember the chance of getting published may be low and find other ways to maintain your confidence.