Is something holding you back from sending your writing to editors? Maybe you’ve been writing for a while, and you’d like to get some of your work published. You’ve developed some confidence in your skills, but yet, when you think about sending your writing to editors, you still can’t bring yourself to do it.
Submitting your work for the first time might seem
scary, but when you understand the whole process the right way, you’ll see that
there’s really nothing to be afraid of.
When you think about your writing, you may think of personal expression, a longing to have your talent recognized, a desire to generate income doing something you love. Those are your personal, emotional definitions of writing, and in your personal world, they’ve very true.
In the outer world, though, writing is defined differently. To a publisher, writing is a commodity; it’s the raw material of their business. Publishers, and the editors who work for them, need to think about writing like a carpenter thinks about wood. Yes, a carpenter loves wood of all kinds. She loves the sturdiness of a good oak, the smell of pine, the color of mahogany. She does have an emotional connection to wood, of course.
But she also knows, in a factual way, that she needs a certain amount of wood to make a table. And she can look at a pile of wood, turn it over, examine the size, the grain, and so on, and know for a fact that this wood will or won’t make a good table. No matter how much she loves wood in general, the carpenter is not going to buy this particular wood unless she can use it for the project she has in mind.
This is how publishers look at writing. Yes,
they love writing generally. Any well written story warms their heart. But they’re
only going to buy raw materials they can use. If an editor wants their magazine
issue to have a certain tone or focus, they’re going to buy pieces to fit that.
If a publisher wants to supply readers with a certain topic that’s in demand,
that’s the kind of writing they’re going to look for.
In light of this understanding of writing, you can see then what writers are. Writers are the people who create and deliver the raw materials that publishers need for their projects. If an editor had the time and talent to write all the articles for their own magazine, they might choose to do that. Many do write some of them, at least occasionally. But that doesn’t really fill the need. It takes new perspectives, different ideas, to make a magazine or publishing house vibrant. Having one person, or even a small group, do all the writing would create a dull experience for readers.
So, what do editors look to writers for? They want you to bring your view of the world to meet theirs. You know people and places and things that they don’t. They want to hear about them. You have a take on topics, maybe as an insider, whether it’s because of your job, your family background, or where you live. You can supply them with material they couldn’t get anywhere else, material that suits their purpose but is just a little different from what they’ve already got. That’s one value you bring to publishers.
Another is your writing style. Not everybody can put words together in a way that does more than just get the point across. Writers are valued not just for what we say but for how we say it. Sentences that sound nice, paragraphs that are concise, descriptions that are vivid and moving – the ability to turn out this kind of writing again and again, on demand, is what publishers come to writers for. That’s our stock in trade.
If you’ve ever been reminded to “hone your craft” as a writer, you can see why. When we go out into the marketplace, we have to be selling the best goods we can offer. Second-best isn’t good enough if our competitors can do better. This is why writers need to read so much and so widely. We need to see the quality of other people’s work so we can be competitive, or get more education and practice till we are.
From the perspective of a writer, it can be hard to keep in mind the bigger picture of what the publishing industry is and how it operates. There’s a general demand in the world for reading material. We can talk more about who wants to read, what, and why, but suffice it to say that a significant portion of the population desires to be supplied with reading material of one kind or another.
Publishers are people and companies whose goal is to meet that demand. Obviously, they can’t just publish any old thing they choose. The goal of each publisher is to provide the particular readers they serve with just the type of material those readers will value enough to pay for it, sustaining the publisher’s business.
How does this relate to you? As a writer, there you are at one end of the supply chain. You write the material, the editor publishes it, the reader buys it. The reader pays the publisher, the publisher pays you. Both sides of this chain depend on the editors in the middle. Readers can’t read the work unless editors publish it, and editors can’t publish the work unless you write and submit it.
It’s important to remember that everybody in this chain wants the same thing: we all want to give readers material they will enjoy and pay for. That means there are limits to how much any of us can impose our personal preferences on what gets published. Writers can’t publish just to please themselves any more than editors can. You want to reach readers who will appreciate your work. Publishers want the same thing. If they don’t think their readers will enjoy and pay for what you’re offering, they have to pass.
The landscape of modern publishing is pretty complex. You have hundreds of magazines and book publishers turning out a wide variety of content in various media. And here you are as a writer, trying to figure out which out of all these media outlets is the best way for you to reach readers who will appreciate your work.
It sounds like a huge undertaking, and it can be. Just one thing makes it easier or possible at all: open manuscript submissions.
A large number of publishers, and most magazines, still accept unsolicited submissions from writers. If you think about it, this is actually kind of remarkable. In what other business can you, a random stranger, send your product idea to hundreds of companies, expecting one of them to manufacture it for you? Yet this is still possible in publishing. And when we understand publishing correctly, it’s clear why. Publishers do need your ideas; they need your work.
However, not every publisher needs the work of every writer. So, how can you possibly be expected to know which publisher is right for your work? You find out by taking your best guess and submitting.
If you were making dinner for a friend, and you didn’t know whether she prefers broccoli or asparagus, what would you do? It’s not likely you would refuse to make dinner because you don’t know which vegetable to make. You would ask her. And if she said: neither, but I do like corn on the cob, you would have the information you need.
Submitting your work for publication is just like asking an editor, “Do you prefer this piece? Or this one?” The answer could be both or neither, but you won’t know until you ask.
Given this whole perspective on writing and publishing then, what should we understand rejection to mean?
Rejection is one step closer to publication.
When you have an idea or a finished piece of writing that you believe is right for a particular audience, it’s your job to try to reach that audience, to get that piece of writing to them. We’ve seen that in most cases, you’ll want to partner with a publisher to do that. But which publisher is best for your work and you for them? That’s what submission is for. You learn about potential publishers, and send out your work to what seem the most promising options.
And that’s where rejection comes in. If you couldn’t send your work to a wide variety of editors or publishers, you would have no chance of rejection. But you would also have little chance of publication. Rejection is just the negotiating process you engage in to find the right place for your work. You send your work to a variety of places at various times. The ones that are right stick; the others don’t. That’s how you find a publisher.
Understood correctly, rejection isn’t a barrier;
it’s a steppingstone. It’s part of the pathway to publication, with the right
publisher at the right time.
If that’s all there is to it - publishing is a supply-and-demand business like any other, and publishers just want to work with writers to reach readers – why is it so hard for many writers to submit their work?
When you ask your friend whether she prefers broccoli or asparagus, at least you know that both of those are reasonable alternatives to offer. You know the parameters of the question.
With your writing, it may not be that clear cut. Maybe you’ve written a first-person narrative from the point of view of a child in what is not a children’s story. Is that a legitimate choice? Did you pull it off sufficiently? Is the story a failure?
These are the kind of questions that can hold writers back from submitting their work. Questions like “Am I good at this?” “Does this piece make sense?” “Would anybody want to read this?” can plague us, undermining our determination to submit our work.
The best remedy for these doubts is a writers’ group or class. Get your work in front of people who know writing and publishing, and get their opinions. Revise a number of times based on their feedback. Be as confident as you can that the work you’re sending out does have merit. If people who should know have said that it does, then it does – end of question.
As human beings, we have a built-in need to feel competent at whatever we’re doing. Looking like a clod in front of other people is a real fear that can hold us back from trying anything new, including submitting our work.
Try to remember: you’re not alone in this. Every new writer feels uncertain at first about submitting their work. It feels strange because it’s new, but because it’s wrong. Sending out your work is absolutely the right thing to do. It’s what you’re supposed to do as a writer; it’s your job description. And like any new task, it will feel more comfortable the more you do it.
So, don’t worry what anyone will think of you. It’s hardly likely you’ll ever interact with these editors person-to-person. There’s no embarrassing moment coming, when someone is going to realize your work has been rejected and laugh at you. Maybe you fear editors laughing at you behind your back. While this is hardly likely either, even if it did happen, you would never know about it to suffer any harm. The only harm you can suffer is the self-inflicted harm of not submitting your work.
Really, a writer who doesn’t submit their work is more foolish than one who does.
Somewhere right now, a new writer is submitting their work for the first time. They’re nervous too, just like you would be. They have the same fears of failure and rejection as you do. They’re very much like you in every way but one: their work has a greater chance of getting published. Why? Because they’re sending theirs out, and you aren’t.
You need to submit your work because they’re submitting theirs. Don’t let the game of publishing go on with you watching from the sidelines. If you want to see your work published someday, you need to get in the game.
If you’ve worked just as hard as the writers whose work is being published, why should it be them and not you? Publishers need new voices. They want to hear from promising new writers they can build relationships with. They can’t do that with you unless you’re willing to send them your work.
No, the first editor or publisher you submit to may not be the right one. Or maybe it will. There’s no other way to know but to send the work. Ask if they’re interested. It isn’t a crazy question – it’s the question you’re supposed to ask. It’s your part of the deal.
If you’ve written something you believe your audience will want to read, revised it with help from others, and found a publisher your research suggests is a good choice, you need to take the next step and send out your work.