Submitting to Literary Magazines 101: Professionalism

I am truly honored to have Vince Gotera as my guest today. Vince writes poems and stories, as well as the occasional creative nonfiction. His books include the three poetry collections Fighting Kite, Ghost Wars, and Dragonfly, as well as the critical study Radical Visions: Poetry by Vietnam Veterans. Vince serves as Editor of the North American Review, originally established in 1815, the longest-lived literary magazine in the US. He has been a Professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa since 1995. He earned an MFA in poetry writing and a PhD in English from Indiana University. Vince’s blog is The Man with the Blue Guitar. Gotera writes:

In a couple of days, I will be starting my tenth year as Editor of the North American Review — a tremendous privilege and honor since the NAR is the longest-lived literary magazine in the US, originally established in 1815.

About a year and a half ago, in a Facebook group titled “MFA in Creative Writing,” as part of an online discussion of editing and publishing, I dashed off an impromptu list of my pet peeves as NAR poetry editor. This list quickly took on a life of its own and was re-run on at least one other writerly blog and perhaps others. (As the movie Dorothy said of the Munchkins in Oz, blogs “come and go so quickly” so I can’t be certain how widespread the list “viraled,” so to speak.)

In any case, here (officially) is the precise text of that offhand list, originally written on 29 August 2007:

Okay … for me, the “turn-off” is different for each poem I ultimately reject. Here are a few immediate turn-offs, in no particular order:

• Botched ending … forced, too explanatory, too “universalized”
• Clumsy use of form … for example, if sonnet or sestina, etc.
• Slow getting going … should rock from first line down
• Too much full rhyme … I prefer slant rhyme
• Uninformed line breaks … be aware of lineation effects
• Abstract or image-less … unless experimental
• Superficial topic or handling
• Obviously unaware of poetic tradition(s)
• Cover letter explains poem … inexperienced submitter
• Poem sent with vita or résumé … very inexperienced submitter
• Says “copyright …” … does writer think I’ll steal the poem?
• Centered lines … unless important for theme
• Badly edited … errors, typos, grammar, etc.
• Font too small … many editors are older and have old eyes
• Monotype font or font too fancy … hard to read quickly
• Pseudonyms … let’s back up our writing with our names, ppl
• Handwritten … usually from prisoners, though I’ve accepted poems by prisoners.

There are other turn-offs but that’s all I can think of at the moment.

I do want to say that I don’t just drop the poem. My eyes touch every word. I read very quickly and wait for the poem to say, “whoa, you’re reading too fast.”

I also want to say that not every poem we take is already “perfect.” if a poem has something good going for it but has errors or whatever, we are willing to work with the poet in the proof stage. Not full workshop of course … that would be inappropriate … but suggestions and queries. In the long run, though, the writer’s in charge, of course.

Well, I’m grateful Pat has offered me a slot here as guest blogger. I would like to use this opportunity to expand on and clarify some of the items in that offhand list above. And maybe, if she’ll allow me, devote some later guest blogging slots to other pet peeves.

Today, I want to address professionalism in submitting to literary magazines. Five items above plus one other are germane. What I will say below about these six items are part of what many people — both writers and editors — refer to as “unwritten rules.” Oh, incidentally, what I’ll say below pertains directly to poetry, but of course writers of other ilk are welcome to adjust my advice for their own genre(s).

(1) The Cover Letter. Many writers don’t include a cover letter at all. The reasoning, I suppose, is that the editor will of course know why the poems are coming to the magazine. That’s okay, but I personally like to get cover letters because I think they’re polite. If they’re handwritten and say something like “Some poems for the magazine,” that would be fine. Our grandmothers told us we should send nice notes, and that’s what the cover letter should be. Sorry if I seem fussy here; I just think the transaction between the writer and the editor should be civil and friendly. A cover letter certainly can dispose me favorably (a little) toward the submission. Especially if a cover letter is fun or entertaining.

But … don’t try to impress me in your cover letter. Don’t tell me you were published here or there. Or that you have published so many books blah blah blah. When I see that in a cover letter, I don’t read it. For me, the poem and only the poem can get itself into the magazine.

Definitely do not explain the poem in your cover letter. As an editor, I’m trying to gauge how readers will understand the poem, and I don’t really care how you read your poem. Or what you meant. Or what poetic form or style you used. If the poem can’t “say” all that for itself, it’s not getting into the NAR.

It’s a good idea to list in the cover letter the titles of the 3 to 6 poems you’re sending. This will make our lives easier should your cover letter get separated from the poems. Not likely to happen but it could.

(2) Résumés and Vitas. Sometimes writers who know the cover-letter pitfalls listed above will instead send a list of publication credits. From my point of view, that’s equally annoying. Actually, more so, because it’s not as friendly as an actual letter.

What ever you do, never send a résumé or a vita; that really smacks of inexperience. Of not knowing the “unwritten rules.” There may be fields or disciplines in which one sends a vita with a submission, but not in the literary magazine world. Sending a résumé or a vita could possibly dispose me against your work. What I mean is that your poems will have to work that much harder to catch my attention. It could happen … the poems could be so good that they make me overlook the résumé faux pas but that would be a rare occurrence indeed. It’s never happened, actually, in my twenty years of poetry editing.

(3) Copyright. The experienced writer should be aware of how copyright law works: that as soon as you write something, you own its copyright; in other words, you only have to show that you wrote something and when to defend your copyright. Inexperienced writers, on the other hand, will sometimes fear that their poems are leaving their hands and could be stolen by someone at a magazine. So they will include a copyright notice on the poem itself.

This is quite an insult. An arrogant one. First, this practice suggests that you think your work is so good that the editor or some other staff member will, instead of publishing your work, be driven to steal it. Second, this tells us you think we are thieves. Do you think this makes us friendly to your poem?

There are how-to articles and books out there that say put a copyright notice on your piece. That is old advice for an older time and is no longer necessary in today’s copyright environment. So just resist doing it. Your chances of getting published will increase. What I mean is that the poem will have a chance of a better reading without a copyright notice.

(4) Fonts. Something that we see quite often is a poem that has been printed out in 9- or 10-point font. Sometimes even smaller. I’m not really sure why people do this. Perhaps they’re trying to save postage. Or they want to squish their entire poem onto a single sheet. Who knows?

Look at it this way. When you are interviewing for a job, do you make it difficult for the interviewer? Or annoying? Do you dress in garish colors that make it hard for the interviewer to look at you directly? Do you whisper your answers to the interviewer’s questions so that you can almost not be heard?

What you do with fonts can be equally deleterious. Let’s face it, editors are writers who have some mileage on them; and that mileage takes years. So quite often, an editor will be someone with older eyes. How do you think the miniature font you’ve used to get your poem all on one sheet will be received by that editor with the graduated bifocals or trifocals? There is no problem with having continuation pages. In fact, when I send out poems, I use 14-point Times to make sure they are readable by all.

Speaking of Times font: I would dissuade you from using a typewriter font like Courier. Those are harder to read than Times or Palatino or Georgia or some other standard non-typewriter font. Remember that the editor must read quickly. For example, at the NAR, we read 7,000-10,000 poems a year. If the poem is hard to read fast, there’s a possibility it may not be read at all. Ditto with fancy curlicue or script fonts. Hard to read. Bad. Also sans serif fonts like Helvetica. A little easier to read but not as easy to read as Times. You may think Times is boring but it could help you get published.

(5) Pictures. No. Very bad. No pictures with poems. Even if you’re sending an ekphrastic poem — one based on a painting or a sculpture, for example. The enclosed or attached picture is a definite tip-off that the writer is inexperienced. An ekphrastic poem has to be good enough to stand on its own without the visual image next to it. In a blog, including a picture next to a poem is a plus. In a submission, BIG minus. Just say no.

(6) Pen Names. This last one is not the same kind of no-no as those above; it is not patently a bad idea. Nevertheless, it is still a no-no (at least for me). Pseudonyms were important to publish in previous decades for many reasons; one of these is that women or minorities had a harder time getting their work accepted without a “good old boy” name. This situation has changed, however, and people who use pseudonyms often do so now for romantic reasons. Or because they feel their poems are somehow NSFW (“not safe for work,” as we sometimes say in Internet slang).

A pen name some poet might think romantic, like “Valentine Lovesmith” or “Genevieve Queensryche,” is just straight-out silly; the real name of an American 19th-century romance writer, Mrs. E.D.E.N. Southworth (Emma Dorothy Eliza Nevitte), helped to make her a bestselling success story, but taking on a name like that won’t work today. I feel writers should stand by their own names; their poems should carry the weight and significance of their real names. Not all editors will probably agree with me on this, but I suspect a majority of them will.

Okay, that’s it for now. I hope you will see the sense of these “unwritten rules.” Basically, for me, it’s about friendliness and civility, again. Editors are your friends. They want to publish your work. They want to discover the next great poet. So make the submission easy for editors, professional, and your poems will be able to shine on their own as they should. Good luck with your writing and with your submissions.

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33 Responses to “Submitting to Literary Magazines 101: Professionalism”

  1. Margay Says:

    This is a good bit of information. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  2. A. F. Stewart Says:

    Always good to have the don’ts for submission guidelines.

  3. knightofswords Says:

    Very good advice. Some of this is simply good manners, the manners we were taught years ago but which have slipped with Twitter and e-mail and phone text messaging.


  4. Martina Newberry Says:

    Good info. Thank you.

  5. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Thank you. It’s so much easier to remember what to do when someone explains the rules so they make sense, so this was really great.

  6. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, Margay, A.F., Malcolm, and Sheila!

    Thanks so much for your good comments. I’m sharing these tips to help writers, of course. But in the long run the tips also will help editors get through submissions faster and more efficiently. And that’s good for everyone all around … both writers and editors, that is.

    Malcolm, it hadn’t occurred to me that twitter and texting make for less politeness. That’s a fascinating topic for a blog post. How about that, Pat? Wanna tackle that one?

    Sheila, I remember being puzzled as a young writer first submitting about the so-called “unwritten rules.” And there may be other rules that I (as an editor) don’t know about.

    The good thing you’re pointing out, Sheila, is that ultimately these “rules” just plain make sense. Common sense. Too often writers who may think about their audience with regard to what they’re writing don’t think about editors as an audience for their submission. If they can only think about editors as humans (rather than a faceless institution), they can go a long way toward helping their submissions fare better.

    Thanks, friends! If you’re interested, check out my poetry blog at

  7. Christine Husom Says:

    You you have a lot of experience–that is an amazing number of submissions!

    I used to write poetry, but somehow moved away from it. I agree with the “too much full rhyme”. It can seem stilted–and sometimes just plain irritating–to me. On the other hand, I have appreciated well-done full rhyme.

    Thanks for all the great advice!

  8. Dianne Borsenik Says:

    Thanks for such an informative and clearly-stated explanation of what can “turn off ” poetry editors! I’ve been submitting poems (and having them accepted for publication) for about 15 years, but guessed at or intuitively felt what I should or shouldn’t do with those submissions. It’s nice to know that I’m on the right track. I’ll post a link to this blog for my writer friends on Facebook. Thanks again, Pat and Vince, for a wonderful article!

  9. Jeremy Schraffenberger Says:

    Don’t forget sparkly paper, Vince–or any kind of specialty stationary for that matter.

  10. Julietwaldron Says:

    Everything a writer needs to know to make a successful submission–except how to write a breathtaking poem. Thank-you so much, Vince, for sharing your thoughts on how best to bring a poem to “the interview.”

  11. Robert Lee Brewer Says:

    These are all great practical tips on how to avoid irking the editor, Vince. As an editor, you already know that. I’m not a big fan of submissions (in my case nonfiction, you know) on colored or scented paper.

  12. Scott Wiggerman Says:

    Another pet peeve that I’ve experienced–people who submit their poems on the back side of USED paper. I’m all for saving paper, but I don’t want to read something that looks like it came out of the trash or that bleeds through to the side they want me to read!

  13. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hello, Martina! Sorry I missed your comment earlier. It didn’t show up on my screen until just now. Thanks!

    And hi, Christine, Dianne, Jeremy, and Juliet. Christine, since this is National Poetry Month, you should come back to poetry. We miss you! ;-D

    Dianne, keep submitting your poems. That’s the only way to get published! Best of luck.

    Jeremy, thanks! I forgot about sparkly paper and specialty stationery. Yes, that can also hurt your chances of getting published. Best advice: black serif font on white paper.

    Yup, Juliet. Thanks for your comment. Now go and write that breathtaking poem.

  14. David Steffen Says:

    Hello all!
    I’m an author of speculative fiction, so I thought I’d add in a different perspective. I hadn’t realized that submissions guidelines varied much between speculative and literary publications. The major differences I noticed:

    1. Cover letter:
    The advice I’ve heard from editors of speculative fiction magazines recommend keeping the cover letter as short as possible. List credentials if you have any, otherwise just give the title and cover letter.
    The reason I’ve heard for this is just efficiency. The editor has a lot of submissions to read and wants to learn what he wants to learn as quickly as possible.

    2. Font:
    Standard submission guidelines for speculative fiction magazines require Courier. The reason I’ve heard for this is that it’s easier to judge word count and required printing space with a monospaced font like Courier. Also that it’s easier to catch typos.

    3. Pen names:
    I don’t understand the argument for not using these. A few reasons somebody might want to use them:
    –If your name is so common as to be unmemorable. If my name were John Smith I would probably submit under a pen name.
    –Alternatively, if your name correlates with someone else who’s famous for something else and you don’t want to be confused with them. Such as if your name were Michael Bolton or Bill Cosby.
    –If you are well known in another genre and you want to publish under multiple names to help differentiate the two.
    –no reason at all. If I decide I want to be Drake Steffen instead of David Steffen, why does it matter?

  15. David Steffen Says:

    On a more general note, I’m looking to widen my reading base by trying genres I haven’t read much before. I’ve tried reading a couple literary magazines and I’m afraid I had trouble really getting into the stories. I’m not sure if this was only the magazines I happened to pick up or if my reading preferences are just not well-suited to the literary genre.

    Since I’ve already jumped into the discussion with you literary-genre folks, could anyone recommend what their favorite literary publications are? 🙂

  16. Pamela Villars Says:

    Thanks to you and Pat. I’m just beginning the poetry submission process and have been wondering if the “rules” are different.

    I’ll be ignoring copyright 🙂 as I cut and past this article.

  17. Jason Mashak Says:

    Thanks for mentioning the unfortunately all but forgotten E.D.E.N. Southworth, whose book The Hidden Hand was, I believe, the first million-seller in the USA (much to the chagrin of Nathaniel Hawthorne and co.).

  18. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, David! Hello, Pamela! Thanks for your comments. Always good to have feedback.

    David, I don’t think what you and I are saying about cover letters differs that much. Remember that I’m talking about poetry submissions here. As a poetry editor, I’m just not that interested in people’s publication history … just the poems.

    On fonts, remember again that I’m focusing on poetry. The number of lines tells me what I need to know with regard to the space a poem will take up printed. Poetry editors usually don’t need to copyfit. Obviously a different game with prose. As far as proofreading and copyediting go, fonts make no difference, as far as I’m concerned.

    With pen names, your position is well taken. It’s a personal thing with THIS editor. And maybe with poetry publishing in general. Inexperienced poets do sometimes choose pen names for impractical reasons, I find. The reasons you cite are all practical ones. So again, what I’m saying may be connected directly to “po-biz.”

    As far as literary magazines go, I’d say try the North American Review. We try to publish stories with heart. By authors who treat their characters with dignity.

    Pamela … I’m not saying “ignore copyright”; I’m saying don’t rub it in an editor’s face. Just not prudent if your eventual aim is to get published. Thanks again.

  19. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, Jason. You’re welcome. I liked The Hidden Hand by E.D.E.N. Southworth when I read it years ago. The success garnered by Southworth and her bestselling women-writer colleagues elicited a nasty comment from Hawthorne, who called them “that damned mob of scribbling women.” Talk about sour grapes!

  20. Aileen Says:

    Thanks, Vince. Of all the submitting-how-tos, this is the clearest and most helpful. It’s about basic good manners and common sense, as suggested above — but sometimes, we forget those when trying to impress an editor 😉

  21. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, Aileen. Thanks!

    You know, people forget that editors are people. I did that too when I was a submitting writer, before I became an editor. There’s a tendency among many writers to think of editors as being some kind of corporate machine. Well, editors are actually themselves writers who want to help out other writers.

    Unfortunately, because there is never enough space to publish all writers who submit, editors must reject a large fraction of writers submitting. And that’s what many writers end up focusing on, rather than working hard on making their writing stronger so they can be part of the fraction accepted.

    I have even heard well-published authors (well, at least one) saying “editors are your enemy.” I think that’s just silly and juvenile, but unfortunately because the person saying this is well-published, writers can believe it.

    Thanks again for your comment, Aileen.

  22. David Steffen Says:

    It IS sometimes easy to forget that editors are people too. The best remedy? Things like this blog topic right here that show that the editor can be civil, personable, and can even be capable of something more than form letters. 🙂

    The same goes for slush readers. I’m friends with a few and they’re hard-working writers just like the rest of us too, and a lot of them are volunteering their time!

    So thanks for opening the communication lines, Vince. Anything to make it seem less like we’re firing manuscripts into the void of space.

    And I also think it’s cool that you responded to an admitted speculative writer as you did the literary writers–not everybody does. 🙂

    So, Thanks!

  23. David Steffen Says:

    I’m hoping to pick up a copy of NAR some time soon. I like that the submission guidelines specify a “strong narrative arc”, as that was what was lacking in the other literary mags I’ve sampled. It also doesn’t hurt that a single copy costs half of what I payed for each of the others. It looked like I can order a single issue,which is great. That way I can test drive it before going for a full year.

    I even have a story or two that might fit your guidelines for submission. 🙂

  24. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, David. To me, writers are writers. I don’t differentiate between speculative or literary or hip-hop or doo-wah-diddy. To me, the piece just has to work. Now of course that also means that it’s relative and what I like someone else may hate. And not everything that works for me will work for anyone for else. Who knows? But I try to be eclectic and wide-ranging. Best I can do. Thanks, David. Best of luck.

  25. David Steffen Says:

    I like your view. If only everybody were so open-minded.

    I didn’t see a forum on the NAR site. Have you thought about getting one? It could be a place for readers to discuss the stories/poems. Just an idle thought (and a place I could pop in once I’ve read an issue).

    It’s been a pleasure, and maybe I’ll see you around.

  26. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hello, everyone! There’s been some discussion of this article on my own blog, The Man with the Blue Guitar, also. Thought I’d copy it over here.

    Barb said…
    Vince, thank you so much for writing that article! I’ll pass it on to friends. I hope you write one that addresses what to put in your bio (if including one is part of the submission guidelines) and another about how to figure out which are the best journals for your work. Please don’t think I’m telling you what to write!
    Thursday, April 30, 2009

    Vince Gotera said…
    Hi, Barb! Great suggestions. Thank you. I’ll do what you ask. And let me know if there are other topics you would like to hear about from the point of view of an editor.
    Thursday, April 30, 2009

    Barb said…
    Heehee. Well…since you asked…how about the deal with multiple submissions. I mean, basically I know that it depends on what you’re submitting to, but I’m sure you have more than just a basic perspective of that. Like, does it really piss of editors, you know, stuff like that. And thanks for taking my comments to heart!
    Friday, May 01, 2009

    Vince Gotera said…
    Hi again, Barb. Yes, I’ve been thinking about an article on multiple submissions. Thanks for the suggestion!
    Monday, May 04, 2009

    Barb and I also talked about the show Lost, but I edited that out. If you’re interested, you’ll have to visit that post. All for now!

  27. Vince Gotera Says:

    David … thanks for the forum suggestion. At present, we’re just too busy simply getting the print mag out (in fact, we’re behind schedule). So a forum would have to wait until we’re caught up again. But it’s a great suggestion and I’ll keep it in mind for the future. Thanks again.

  28. » How to be Professional PANK Says:

    […] our own thoughts on cover letters, Vince Gotera, editor of the North American Review also has some thoughts on submissions, all of them good. ▶ Comment /* 0) { jQuery(‘#comments’).show(”, […]

  29. everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask « physiognomy in letters – blog Says:

    […] everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask By physiognomyinletters is not on this blog.  however, i found a really lovely article that seems to address most of the issues that i as an editor see with many submissions.  you may read the article here. […]

  30. physiognomyinletters Says:


    i linked to this article on the blog for my poetry litmag. it answers a lot of questions that most of the writers submitting to it have.

  31. Rudy Says:

    These are great points. A rare thing.

    But I do have a question.

    Above, you said “But … don’t try to impress me in your cover letter. Don’t tell me you were published here or there. Or that you have published so many books blah blah blah.”

    At Harvard Review, they include this in their paper submission guidelines: “…please include a cover letter citing recent publications, relevant degrees, and awards…”

    In the context of the North American Review, it seems your view on cover letters make Harvard Review’s guidelines…a bit unprofessional?

    Any thoughts on this…perhaps? Thank you.

  32. Vince Gotera Says:

    Hi, Rudy. Thanks for your question.

    You said “a bit unprofessional” in your comment. Not at all, Rudy. It very well may be that the editors of Harvard Review factor previous publications, degrees, and awards into their editorial decisions … that’s their prerogative, right?

    At the North American Review, we rely on the submitted work to decide. In other words, no matter what publications, degrees, and awards a writer has, it’s the quality of the writing that’s going to matter in our decision to publish or not publish.

    I’m sure it’s the same way with Harvard Review and that they will publish a good piece of writing no matter who the writer is and what the writer has achieved professionally.

    My advice to someone submitting to Harvard Review is to follow their guidelines and provide that info. And if you don’t have previous publications, awards, etc., say so. Many magazines are glad to publish unpublished writers, to discover the next big name.

    Does that answer your question, Rudy? Thanks again.



  33. Rudy Says:

    Thank you, Vince.

    In the article you mentioned, “Today, I want to address professionalism in submitting to literary magazines.” Since the North American Review is one of the oldest lit-mags around, it makes sense to me that a statement like that sounds like a blanket statement about submission preferences in ALL other lit-mags these days.

    In my view, there’s tremendous authority in what you’ve written here, precisely because of your position in the NAR organization and NAR’s (historical) position in the lit-mags community, both in the US and globally.

    I asked the question about the Harvard Review, just to get your view on the matter. I expected the kind of response you gave to my question.

    I may have other questions soon. Thanks, again.

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