Don’ts for Journals, Editors, and Agents

No doubt due to the creeping horrors of the slush pile—agrammatical erotica, all-caps conspiracy theories, and suchlike—every journal, editor, and agent in the literary land has published a list of don’ts for writers who want to submit their work. However “we’re-all-in-this-together” such lists are meant to sound, they generally have a scolding school-like tone, either in officious (“this is for your own good”) or smarmy (“I’m your badass best friend”) modes. Again, perfectly understandable, if occasionally annoying.

Because of the political imbalances involved in the concept of “literary citizenship”—publishers are the government and writers are the people (and readers, perhaps, are the chimerical foreign menace justifying the government’s policies)—few writers have ventured a list of submission don’ts for journals, editors, and agents. I think it is a risk worth taking, though, in the name of fair play. The absence of such a list is one I am qualified to fill, since I have been submitting endlessly for the last four years and have in that time mentally compiled a list of petty grievances. So here is that petty little list—take heed, my literary lords and masters!


1. DON’T charge submission fees. If you can’t afford to run a literary journal or a small press, then do not start one.

2. DON’T request all sorts of particular submission requirements or make writers fill out forms on your website. Be realistic: we are all submitting to a lot of places and therefore have our cover letters and manuscripts ready to go. We don’t need to waste  time distributing our cover letters over some weird survey-style form on your site. Just use email or Submittable like everybody else.

3. DON’T get so hung up on formatting at the submission stage. As long as writers have adopted a reasonable approximation of the traditional MS. format and haven’t typed their stuff in wingdings, you should be able to read it. If you accept the work, then you can be picky—and writers, grateful to be published, will almost certainly oblige.

4. DON’T demand that writers read your journal, the titles you publish, or the authors you represent, and don’t guilt-trip writers for their inevitable failure to do so. The literary landscape is far too expansive (and expensive) for this even to be possible. I would need another lifetime to read the work published by journals or publishers I have submitted to in the last half-decade, though I always read the publications of those who have actually accepted my material. Just be clear about the genres you want in your submission guidelines and trust that writers will take an interest in your “brand” after you offer them the opportunity to become a part of it—not before.

5. DON’T get too creative in your “what we would like to see” paragraph. Submission guidelines should not be a blank canvas for your lyrical or extreme language: “We want stories that will tear out our beating hearts and hold them, steaming and dripping, before our fascinated, appalled eyes” etc. If you list authors you like, try to make the list thematically or stylistically or generically coherent and not just an assemblage of figures everybody knows to be important. Finally, for God’s sake, remember that you are involved in literature: don’t be like the one agent I came across who said she was seeking “The Wire or Breaking Bad, only as a book.”

6. DON’T require exclusivity. Just accept simultaneous submissions. You can make demands on writers’ time when you are compensating them for the fulfillment of said demands.

7. DON’T spam writers’ email or social networks for the rest of time just because they submitted to you once. At best, your messages will end up going straight to the spam folder (or being ignored on Facebook); at worst, you will enrage or demoralize writers you rejected three years ago by sending them announcement after announcement about readings that take place in repurposed warehouses in cities they do not live in.

8. DON’T forget to conduct the editorial part of the transaction reasonably. I have had journals not edit my work at all nor even invite me to give it a last look before publication; I have had journals make changes without consulting me first. Both of these practices are bad. Good practice: read the work you intend to publish, make a list of proposed changes, send them to the writer, and be prepared for a cordial correspondence that may involve substantive discussion over aesthetic choices. (And, if you truly want to publish literature, you might be flexible about your house style: for serious writers, the presence or absence of a comma may be an artistic or even a philosophical matter rather than a simple question to address to the style guide.)

9. DON’T neglect the most important part of the writer/publisher bargain: promotion. If you accept my work, you should be plastering my name all over the Internet, to the best of your ability. If you don’t do so, then I might begin to wonder why I didn’t just put my piece on my blog or self-publish it on Amazon.

10. DON’T blow smoke about “literary community” and the like. We all long ago accepted that most of you can’t or won’t pay us and that all you can offer is a promotional apparatus or a CV line, but please don’t cloak this sad fact in some vacuous rhetoric out of the salutatorian’s graduation speech.

Well, that’s my list. Feel free to add to it in the comments; also, if this gets me expelled permanently from the literary community, please announce that in the comments too!