There is no greater thrill for a poet than seeing her name in print for the first time. Becoming a published writer can be the psychological boost necessary to survive in the very competitive world of freelance poetry. It's relatively easy enough to find the contact information of a print poetry magazine or the email address of a web-based poetry editor, but actually preparing your manuscript for the journey can be challenging. Craft, luck and psychology all enter into the picture, and the sheer number of poetry submissions received by poetry magazines is mind-numbing.
Whether you are a seasoned professional writer or a first-timer, submitting a batch of poetry is still going to be a numbers game. What you want to do is provide material that rises above the other 10,000 envelopes (called a slush pile in the writing business) sitting on an overworked and underpaid editor's desk. While it would be nice to believe true poetic art should magically float to the top like cream, the reality is that a well-prepared manuscript will often receive more notice than one thrown together at the last minute. Here are some tips for preparing a poetry manuscript for a magazine editor's consideration.
- A publishable manuscript begins with painful self-editing. Not everything you've written over the past few years is gold, sorry to say. A typical batch of poetry submissions rarely contains more than four or five poems. Editors really don't have time to sort through any more than that, anyway, and they want to see the best of the best. Before arranging a manuscript for submission, reread all of your poems and weed out anything that seems dated or less-than-spectacular. Invite friends, teachers and family to read your finalists and offer their own opinions or rankings. Keep going with this culling process until you have perhaps 10 poems which represent your best work.
- Purchase or borrow the latest copy of a reference book such as Poet's Market. This book will list the complete contact information of almost every active poetry magazine in the United States and beyond. You should also pay strict attention to the submission procedures, types of poetry sought, recent poets published, and average response time. Postage can become very expensive, so you want to target your manuscript submissions to only those magazines which seem receptive to your level of poetry and your particular style. Everyone wants to break into the major markets like Poetry Magazine or Ploughshares, but these magazines routinely receive thousands of submissions and accept less than 1 percent of them.
- Once you have selected a suitable destination, you are now ready to assemble your poetry manuscript. Some beginning writers make the mistake of investing in large manila envelopes, believing that the editor prefers to see clean, unfolded pages. In reality, you can use standard #10 envelopes for most correspondence with editors. Purchase enough postage stamps to cover delivery of 5 pages of poetry and a folded #10 envelope to be used as a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). Include the same amount of postage on the SASE as needed for the original send-out.
- Select 4 or 5 poems for each submission batch. Make sure to include your name, title of the poem and full contact information somewhere on each page. Submissions may become separated during the evaluation process, so it helps to provide this information. It is not necessary to include the word "Copyright" or a specific date of creation. If the editor accepts your work, he or she will be acquiring some publication rights anyway.
- Psychology can play a role in poetry manuscript submission. If you are sending out 5 poems, for example, try placing your two strongest pieces on top. Tuck the two weakest pieces behind them and have a fairly strong piece on the bottom. If you were an editor in charge of rifling through hundreds of submissions, you'd probably skim the first two poems in each batch to make a snap evaluation. Having your strongest poems as the top two will catch an editor's initial attention faster than burying your best work at the bottom.
- Once you've worked out the most effective presentation order, then you're ready to prepare the manuscript for submission. Some poets want to include a cover letter which serves as a personal introduction or a confirmation of the poems submitted. It never hurts to include such a letter, as long as it's short and professional, but current trends in poetry suggest that a cover letter is not strictly required. This is a straightforward arrangement between writer and editor--the editor knows he is receiving a batch of poems for consideration. If he is truly interested in publishing the writer's work, all of the information usually found in a cover letter can be obtained later. Unless the editor specifically requests one, it might be better to omit the cover letter entirely.
- Fold all of the poems into thirds and stuff them into the #10 envelope, along with a SASE. Make sure the address on the envelope is still appropriate and legible. Using an older reference book for editor addresses can lead to miscommunications and wasted postage. Many professional writers make a notation as to where each batch has been sent and the approximate date of a response. This can be a helpful habit to acquire if you start sending out more than one batch of poetry at a time. Be careful not to duplicate submissions, because two editors may accept the same poem(s) at the same time and you'll have to decide between them. The practice of simultaneous submissions (the same batch of poems sent to two or more editors at the same time) is still very controversial, so fight the temptation to do it. Response times can be notoriously slow, especially with the more mainstream publications, but only send out non-duplicated batches to avoid any future complications.
- In recent years, online poetry magazines have been increasingly popular. Submitting a manuscript to an online publication requires a slightly different approach. If you wish to contribute material to an online literary magazine, be sure to have all of your poems properly formatted in a conventional .doc file. Many online poetry magazines discourage attachments, so you may have to cut and paste each poem into the body of an email. A brief paragraph introducing yourself and your publishing credits should suffice as a cover letter, followed immediately by your poems. Again, using a little psychology may prove advantageous. List your strongest pieces first to hold the editor's attention. Do the same with attachments, whenever they are permitted. Some web-based magazines may streamline the submission process by offering an online submission box. Be aware that these submission boxes may not support the stylized line breaks many modern poets use for effect. If you send poems through an online submission form, be sure to read the magazine's rules on formatting and HTML tags. Online publications may take just as long as print publications to respond, but you may also receive a very prompt response. Remember that online publication is still considered publication by many in the print world. Simultaneous submissions between print and online magazines should be avoided, and any poem published online may have to be taken out of consideration at a print magazine.