A newer three R’s for writing: Reject, revise, and repeat

Chicago World's Fair sky ride 2 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Sky ride, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933

Some literary magazines offer a few sentences of feedback if you pay a couple of dollars more for your submissions. A few sentences or a paragraph or two is what you get—not a full critique.

While a full critique can cost hundreds of dollars, a couple of dollars seems worthwhile to get something beyond the generic rejection of “doesn’t fit our needs,” “wasn’t right for us,” “unable to accept,” “not selected for publication,” and so on.

Note: On Submittable.com, you can search using the words feedback or comment to get a list of current submission opportunities that have a feedback option.

Nonetheless, feedback isn’t always easy to take. Here’s an excerpt from comments I received recently:

I liked this story, but a good amount happens here that doesn’t move the story forward. Some of it is in extraneous description; some of it is action. Reading these bits, I can see how they are good writing, but they don’t quite contribute to the story, which bogs down the reading experience overall.

This feedback applied to a short-short story of about 700 words. My first reaction was, “If you took out the description and the action, what would be left?” But then, the feedback only referred to “extraneous” description and “some” action. Where was it?

I reread the story and let it sit for a week. For me, time is an important revision tool. You come back to a piece with many assumptions forgotten, much like a new reader. More than once, I’ve reread a rejected manuscript and thought, “Rightly so.” Problems jumped out at me, but this short-short wasn’t one of those.

Having been taught to show not tell, I looked at elements in the story that were supposed to show. What I was showing didn’t seem to be coming across, if the feedback was any indication. I brought back a few of the story elements I had cut earlier. This also involved reordering some material to smooth progressions and connections. I had waffled over much of this earlier in the drafting process and had opted for a more streamlined piece, leaving much lurking but unsaid. Now, I was putting some of these things back in.

The story is resting again, like dough. We’ll see what rises with the next rereading, as well as the next steps in the submission/feedback process. Maybe these revisions have gone too far, and I’ll need to dial them back again. We’ll see.

Contests vs. general submissions for fiction, poetry, nonfiction: Economics & odds in publishing

Chicago World's Fair federal building (2) - clean copy

Vintage postcard: Federal building at night, Chicago World’s Fair 1933

I’ve rarely entered writing contests. At $20 to $30, most entry fees seem too high. Granted, some publications do ease the sting by sending you a copy of the issue containing the winning entries or a year’s subscription, but still…

When you could pay a $3 reading fee for 10 general submissions versus one $30 entry fee for a contest, the economics win. The return on investment for contest entries often seems too low.

Million-dollar contests

My view of contests was reinforced when I read about the Writer’s Digest contests in Jane Friedman’s book, The Business of Being a Writer. “When I worked for Writer’s Digest, the revenue from competition entry fees approached a million dollars a year,” writes Friedman. “The number of contests was a budgeted line item in the revenue forecast, and if the projected number was not achieved on time, the contest deadline was often extended to collect more entries.”

This gave me a new perspective on contests that announce they’ve extended their deadlines. Are they just trying to bring in a certain amount of money?

It also led me to do some math in my head—seldom a good thing—when an announcement for the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition popped into my inbox.

For this contest the regular entry fee is $30. I figured that to generate $1 million, the contest would need more than 33,000 entries distributed over the nine categories. Yes, the contest offers a $5,000 grand prize and several other higher-dollar prizes, but when I recently saw this year’s short story winner my first thought was, So that’s what a hundred-thousand-dollar story looks like (at least in terms of entry fees).

Here’s what I was thinking (mistakenly):

$1,000,000             (approximate entry fees)
             ÷  9             (the number of categories)
$111,111             (entry fees per category)

NOTE: This assumed that all categories received a ninth of the entries, or about 3,703 entries, at $30 apiece.

Okay, upon further examination, my math was really wrong because the Writer’s Digest competitions website also lists separate competitions for self-published books, popular fiction, short short stories, self-published ebooks, and poetry. These other contests must be part of the organization’s revenue projections, and I’ve only been looking at the Annual Writing Competition.

The one number I may be close to right on is that $1 million in contest revenue would require more than 33,000 submissions at $30 apiece, not counting expenses for prizes, administration, honorariums for judges, and so on. Nonetheless, the odds of winning or placing among 33,000-plus submissions doesn’t give me any sense that the odds may ever be in my favor, no matter how good or bad my writing is.

I apologize for picking on Writer’s Digest, but their contest just happens to be the one I read about recently. I don’t think their contests are alone in being a “profit center,” to quote Friedman again. I also doubt their odds are unusual among big contests.

Better odds in local and regional contests

When considering contests, I look for better odds. I’ve found this in local and regional contests, especially those held by nonprofits. These contests may attract a few hundred entries instead of thousands.

For example, the annual Wisconsin People & Ideas contests for fiction and poetry received 69 fiction entries and 585 poems in 2014 (the most recent year that I could find reported entry numbers for). The odds were much better for fiction (1 winner in 23), whereas the poetry odds were much tougher (1 winner in 195).

The regular entry fee is $20, and cash prizes range from $500 to $100 for the first- through third-place, respectively. While both the odds and the potential ROI for this contest seem more attractive, entries are limited to Wisconsin writers.

NOTE: In addition to cash awards, the Writer’s Digest contest offers introductions to agents and other benefits that are difficult to place a cash value on. Similarly, Wisconsin People & Ideas, a publication of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts & Letters, offers winners benefits such as a residency, publication in the journal, and a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival.

Acceptance rates for general submissions

Acceptance rates of 1 to 2 percent seem common among many literary magazines, based on what I’ve read through the years.

In a 2016 Review Review article, “Is Duotrope Accurate? Ten Lit Mags Provide an Answer,” writer Jason Peck compared journal acceptance rates to what Duotrope users were reporting.

Here are a few of the acceptance rates literary magazines provided to Peck:

  • Colorado Review 1.06% acceptance rate
  • Flash Fiction Online 0.7% acceptance rate
  • Rattle 0.717% acceptance rate

Tahoma Literary Review regularly provides acceptance rates on a page titled “What We Pay (and how we do it).” For example, the fall/winter 2018 issue received 1,225 submissions, of which 25 were published, which is a 2% acceptance rate (if my math is correct). If you’re interested, the TLR website breaks the submissions down by category.

Final thoughts (for now)

In the end, contests may offer a bit more recognition, money, and perks, but their entry fees could quickly drain your budget for marketing your creative writing. On the plus side, contests offer a deadline, which may help push a project through to completion. Remember, however, that deadlines may be extended to attract more fee-paying competitors.

10 ways to access literary magazines before submitting: How to research markets for your writing

Race horses postcard2

Vintage postcard: On the turn at Gulfstream Park Race Course, Hallandale, Florida

The warp speed way to exit the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts isn’t what you want, but writing that is poorly targeted may get just that treatment at literary magazines.

As a former fiction editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review, I remember the easiest (and most frustrating) rejections were the texts that weren’t in the universe of our submission guidelines: Literature written for very young children. No. Graphic sex and bestiality scenes with little story. No. Academic essays. No.

NOTE: See the Hayden’s Ferry Review website or Submittable portal for their guidelines. They’re currently seeking submissions for their “Magic” issue.  

While university literary magazines run by graduate or undergraduate students may demonstrate changing literary tastes or themes from year to year, they seldom make wide swings away from a core mission. Therefore, it’s easy for the editors at almost any publication to see who submitted works for consideration without researching guidelines or reading published issues first.

Ignore the oft-heard advice “read an issue before submitting” at your peril. Here are 10 ways to access current literary magazines. Many ways to do this market research are free.

Printed sources

Strategies for getting your hands on recent publications include:

  • Sample issues: Many literary magazines offer online pay portals.
  • Book fairs: Associated Writing Programs and other writing conferences and festivals.
  • Newsstands: College and commercial bookstores.
  • Libraries: Current periodicals sections, especially at college and university libraries. (free)
  • Literary magazine offices: Many magazines exchange copies with their peers, but you may need to know someone on staff to gain access. (free)

Electronic sources

Exploring a magazine’s content continues to get easier through online options:

  • Web excerpts: Content may include pieces from current or past print magazines. (free)
  • Web-only content: In addition to excerpts from print issues, some magazines offer web-only content. Note the submission process and guidelines may be separate from that of the print issues. (often free)
  • Publication newsletters: Magazines such as Kenyon Review offer weekly newsletters that link to content currently available online. (free)
  • E-magazines: Print magazines may offer pdf versions that can be downloaded immediately. Prices for these e-issues tend to be lower, possibly noting the absence of printing and shipping costs.
  • Databases: Some literary magazines are indexed by databases available through college and university libraries. While some entries list only bibliographic information, others offer full-text files of individual sources (short stories, poems, essays, and so on). (free)

While reading an issue before submitting may help you target your writing efforts to more receptive publishers, the process also makes for good literary citizens. As much as you work hard and want your work to be read, other writers and publishers want the same thing.

Print vs. online: Less of a debate, more of a strategy

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In the print versus online dilemma for publishing creative works, reputation and reach have been among the issues to consider. But the lines keep blurring and (spoiler alert) online magazines are offering more than ever.

As for reputation, the online sites of print literary magazines have been viewed by some as the “lite” version, writes David H. Lynn in “Editor’s Notes: Print vs. Internet: An Ongoing Conversation,” which included poet G. C. Waldrep, in The Kenyon Review in 2009. Based on this perception, it would follow that publishing online might be seen as lower status, especially for creative writers seeking a publication record for retention, promotion, and tenure in higher education.

Since Lynn’s 2009 article, the roster and perceived quality of online literary magazines has continued to develop, whether they were linked to print journals (such as The Kenyon Review and KROnline) or solely Internet-based (such as Electric Literature).

For example, both the printed Kenyon Review (ranked No. 4) and Electric Lit (ranked No. 70 and climbing) show up in the “2017 Perpetual Folly Literary Magazine Ranking—Fiction.” This ranking for fiction is compiled annually by Clifford Garstang based on Pushcart Prize results.

Attitudes, as well as some university guidelines for promotion and tenure, have been evolving along with the literary magazine rankings. Online searches for professional development guidelines for creative writers within colleges and universities make points such as the following from the University of Wisconsin Colleges:

“Online publication has become increasingly more respectable and that trend will likely continue. There are many high-quality online markets for creative writing, run by professional editors and designers who are highly selective in the works they chose.”

These same guidelines, however, encouraged junior faculty members to “defend the validity” of publications not specifically listed among high-quality markets. In other words, the status of some journals, and especially online magazines, may be works in progress.

Research published in 2014 concluded that online literary magazines or “post-print magazines can be taken seriously…and will remain relevant,” writes Laura Dietz of Anglia Ruskin University in her article “Online versus Print: The Reputation of Literary Fiction Magazines,” which appeared in Short Fiction in Theory & Practice.

Based on her survey of 139 “authors, editors, students, reviewers, book enthusiasts and anyone else interested in the question,” Dietz predicted that influential online journals will fall into two categories:

  • “[E]stablished magazines exploiting new technology without abandoning the trappings of pre-Internet success”
  • “[N]on-charging magazines moving online specifically to take advantage of receptivity to free literature when offered digitally”

The advantages of free literary works on the Internet is an important point in the print vs. online conversation.

DC-area novelist and writer Leslie Pietrzyk blogged about this issue in 2017 when her short story “We Always Start with the Seduction” was accepted for publication by Southhampton Review Online.

“When they accepted the story for the online journal I was at first confused and then slightly irritated,” Pietrzyk writes. “But I consulted with the wise minds on Facebook which sparked a long and interesting thread about online vs. print publications. Maybe I have some residual bias toward print…but also, if this story were in print only, I would be begging you to fork out ten bucks to have a journal sent to you a week from now.”

The broader reach and access of digital content is something Lynn at The Kenyon Review also noted. “As it happens, we’ve already seen the evidence with KROnline that the potential audience on the Internet is far greater than those who read the printed journal,” he writes. Instead of reprinting content from print editions, KROnline offers content targeted toward online readers. “Evidence suggests that they are looking for shorter pieces, more timely work too, and even a little more experimental,” writes Lynn.

In addition, online publications offer features not available in print. For example, Superstition Review, an online literary magazine at Arizona State University, just completed its fourth issue with embedded audio files of authors reading their work. This is a feature Tahoma Literary Review and other publications provide as well.

Also, the Superstition Review staff is active in promoting issues and contributors (past and present) across social media platforms. Other online magazines, such as The Kenyon Review, produce podcasts, in addition to more typical blogs, contributor Q&As, and newsletters.

In the end, what has been called the “print vs. online debate” should probably transition into a “print & online strategy” for creative writers and magazines alike.