I started Printed Words in January 2019, and eighteen months later, I’ve just published the last issue. As a writer who sends out a lot of work, it was a big learning curve for me to be on the other side of submissions. Here are some of the main things I’ve learned.
The guidelines are there for a reason (usually)
As a writer, I’ve come across some guidelines that are more challenging than others. To date, the one I hate is the strange layout asking writers to have their address on one side of the page, the editor’s or publication’s details on the other and the work itself in a format I can’t seem to get my head around. It seems pointless when I know my address wouldn’t get published if my work was accepted. I’m sure there’s a reason for it though. I just don’t know what it is.
When I was setting my guidelines, I tried to keep them simple. Still, I didn’t want to spend hours going through twenty pieces of work from the same person, so I asked for a maximum of three pieces per submission window and set a maximum word count/line limit. I also asked for submissions to be sent in a word document because that made it easier for me to copy and paste into a document along with all the other submissions, before sending them to my submission readers, to be read blindly. For that reason, I asked that writers didn’t put their names in the document, but include a bio in the body of the email instead.
There will always be someone who ignores the guidelines
I lost count of how many times people sent more than three pieces of work, or went over the word count or line limit. Other writers would send me work in a PDF, one sent me a bio as a jpeg and others were in formats I had to spend a lot of time converting before I could open them. All of this made my job harder. Some work that went over the limits was good, so I extended the guidelines to considering it, only if the writer queried us first. I thought it would be obvious, this meant on a case-by-case basis, but quite a few writers seemed to take permission to send one piece of longer work as a lifetime invitation to send as many pieces as they wanted regardless of length.
When I had to step in and be part of the submission reading team, those were the ones that stuck in my mind. While I tried to read each piece from a fresh starting point, I’m only human. People who wouldn’t read and stick to the guidelines made a negative first impression on me.
There will always be someone who complains about writers not being paid
Another thing I noticed was how some people seemed to enjoy pointing out there was no payment for writers. I agree, writers should be paid, I like being paid as a writer. We never tried to hide the fact we couldn’t pay though, and would have loved to pay everyone, but couldn’t afford it. What we did offer was a quarterly £20 prize and we accepted reprints. This meant that anyone who had a published novel, short story collection or poetry collection could and something from it to be eligible for the quarterly prize and in a later issue we gave away a runners-up prize of free advertising.
As a writer, I’ve seen a lot of other publications who didn’t pay any of their writers and were asking for unpublished work. As far as I can tell, there doesn’t seem to be anything in it for the writer. I have sent new work into non-paying publications before, but only if there is a good reason, like a big readership or a cause I strongly support.
You can learn a lot from the people on your team
I realised I couldn’t judge the submissions by myself. The magazine wouldn’t be as varied as I wanted it to be if I only choose work that I personally liked.
When I began getting people involved to be part of a team of readers. I never expected to learn so much from them. I asked them to provide a line or two of feedback in case the work was rejected. This helped me to see some of the work in a new light, when the comments came back on certain aspects I hadn’t noticed about the poems or stories. It changed my mind on several occasions, because I hadn’t thought of the piece of writing in that way.
There is a lot of extra work involved if someone lets you down
Most of the people I chose to work with were reliable and returned their ratings and feedback, or let me know when they couldn’t. However, a few people made my job more difficult by not letting me know. When you’re looking for unpaid volunteers, there’s not much you can do when that happens, but with lots of writers waiting for a response, it meant I had my workload increased as I tried to get back to them in a timely fashion. It’s a lot more fun (not) when this happens near the end of the submission window and you’ve already let people know when they can expect their work to be published, so have to work flat to not let them down.
Not everyone appreciates the value of constructive feedback
When I studied Creative Writing, I learned how to accept constructive feedback and how valuable it can be. When sending out submissions “it’s not quite right for us” is a standard rejection, which doesn’t help any writer to improve his or her writing. With this in mind, I wanted to ensure that even if we couldn’t publish someone’s work, we would give them feedback to help them improve, or at least to understand our reasons for rejection. I’m sure some of our writers sent in work purely for the feedback. Others didn’t quite appreciate it. One writer said he didn’t expect it and from what he said, thought the combined feedback of three people was wrong, because he had been published in several places before.
You can learn additional skills
When I created Printed Words and became the editor, I quickly realised I would have to be a submission reader at least some of the time, work on my limited graphic design skills (to create the images to go with the poems and stories), and would also have to find ways to bring in submissions. I even secured a one hour long show at The Festival of Manchester, for Printed Words. So, I added event organising to the list of skills I needed to learn.
You meet new people
I met some talented writers from my time as an editor, some online and others I later met in person. If it wasn’t for the magazine, I would never have known about them. It also let me support other writers by giving them a platform to share their work.
There is a lot of work involved in being the editor of a literary magazine, but I would recommend it to writers who are willing to put in the time, or at least to get involved in an already established literary magazine or e-zine. It can help you become better at writing and submitting work in the correct way, if you get an experience of what it’s like to be on the other side of the submission process.