Submission: 6 Rules of Thumb From an Editor-Turned-Writer

Photo by Caro Wallis / Flickr
Photo by Caro Wallis / Flickr

Today’s guest post is by writer and editor Jennifer Niesslein (@jniesslein), who is based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

I’m experiencing karma.

For more than a decade, I co-edited a literary magazine—I was the person who wouldn’t respond regarding your writing for three months, sometimes longer. And now, for the past nine months, I’ve been writing.

It truly does feel like submission.

My years as an editor most definitely influence my submission process and how I interact with editors. I can’t say my tactics have gotten my work published more often, but they reduce some of the gut-wrenching anxiety. Here are my rules of thumb.

I submit to publications I like.

I don’t submit to any publication that I haven’t read thoroughly, and enjoyed at least 75% of its content. On a basic level, this is a smarter way to submit than to pepper editors far and wide with work that may or may not be a good fit. I want to get published, not grow a collection of rejection notices. I also want my work to be published alongside work I admire.

A few years ago, I saw that a writer was publicly criticizing my magazine on Facebook, yet still wanted to write for us. Her criticisms weren’t sweeping, such as pointing out a lack of gender or racial diversity; I’d leveled those at other publications myself. Instead, they were little nitpicky things that showed she didn’t respect our editorial choices and wanted us to run the show differently. Someone on the thread who knew us as open-minded people suggested that she pitch us something. And I thought, “Oh, please do not.”

This is what I would have told her (if I thought it wouldn’t come off as mean-spirited): If you already think you could do a better job choosing content, chances are excellent you’ll think you can do a better job editing. The whole process will be frustrating on both ends, a fight at every comma. Art may be long, baby, but life is short.

After an editor rejects three pieces of my work, I move on.

I have an unusual name (last name, anyway), and I know that when I was on the other side of the desk, it took pretty much three times for me to start associating a name with writing I didn’t want for my magazine.

There’s one publication in particular that I would love to be published in; many of my writer friends are published there, and the site is part of my daily read. But I’ve sent three different essays and received a form rejection for each. (Two of these essays have since run elsewhere in places I’m thrilled to be in.) I suspect that “Jennifer Niesslein,” for that editor, is synonymous with “no, thank you.” Worse, now that I’m associated with unwanted writing, the bar has been raised from Pretty Damn Good to This Has to Blow My Motherfucking Mind.

There is enough rejection in the world. I’m not setting myself up for more.

I try to be easy to work with.

I try to remember to do all the things that made me want to work with a writer again. I turn in fully cooked work that represents the best that I’ve been able to manage on my own. I use whatever system the editor prefers to look at drafts (track-changes in Word, Google Drive, etc.). Most importantly, I understand that we share a common goal: to get the piece in the absolute best shape it can be in before publication.

Editing is often thankless work. The pay usually sucks (if it pays at all), and all the glory goes to the writer. Most, if not all, editors are in it because they love great writing and want to be part of a team that disseminates it to people who share that love. There probably are bad editors out there, just as there are bad plumbers and bad doctors and bad rodeo clowns. But I don’t encounter those bad editors because I only submit to publications that I admire.

It’s pretty much a cliché at this point that it’s only the writers most in need of a good edit who are the most resistant to one. But it’s true. An actual reply I received after e-mailing a round of edits: “Sigh. Sometimes I wish I were a sculptor so when I finish my masterpiece, it’s done.” Yes, and sometimes I wish I were in a time machine so I could snatch that acceptance letter back, but that’s neither here nor there.

Writers and editors both have something at stake: The writer’s name is attached to the piece, and the editor’s name is on the masthead. There is nothing so lovely as forming a post-publication mutual admiration society.

I recognize what control I have.

The only real power a writer has in the editor/writer relationship is the power to withdraw the piece. That’s it.

Most of the time, though, it shouldn’t have to come to that. When an editor tells me something is wrong with an essay I’ve written, her fix might not be the one I prefer—but it does need a fix. I’ve become a better writer both my listening to what editors tell me and by editing some fine work.

It’s not personal.

Everybody says that, but seriously, it’s not. Editors are rejecting your work, not you.

And there are about a million reasons work gets rejected. The biggest is that the quality isn’t up to snuff, but some reasons have absolutely nothing to do with the quality. I have rejected work because we ran something on the same topic one or two issues ago; the essay is really more of an op-ed; we were already committed to a number of essays on emotionally dark subjects; the writing was fine, but the piece lacked a fresh take on the subject; the story being told seemed unfinished; the opinions were expressed condescendingly to the reader; the short story’s first-person point of view wouldn’t work in a magazine composed mostly of personal essays; we just had some other contenders that we liked more. I could go on.

Please re-read the above paragraph whenever you need some salve. You might also try a meditation CD or a nice drink.

I think carefully about endings.

A surprising number of writers flub the ending, so I try very hard to land on just where I should.

When I read submissions, this is how I knew we had a keeper: Interesting opening, middle that gave me a lot to chew on, and an ending that knocked my socks off. If the ending fizzled out, all that momentum the writer built into my reading experience suddenly slowed.

I clearly remember reading a draft of an essay last year that nailed it, and when I got to the end, I immediately went to the Google doc that the three editors shared and typed next to the writer’s name, “I don’t know how she did this, but I love it. Accept.”

And I think that’s the mystery of the whole process. I can offer you as many nuts and bolts as I think are helpful, but really, it boils down to this little bit of alchemy:

Write so that you make someone say, “I don’t know how she did this, but I love it.”

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