Submitting to Poetry Journals & Competitions: A Beginner’s Guide

Chatting to writers during the recent #JanuaryWriteOff 30 Day Challenge, it became clear many people find the process of submitting to poetry journals and competitions quite daunting. From formatting to bios to fees, there can be a lot of hoops to jump through and I thought it might be useful to walk you through the process.

What Goes into a Submission?

When you’re preparing work to send out into the world, you will need to prepare a package of information comprising some, or all, of the following:

  • Your work, presented in accordance with the competition or journal’s Submission Guidelines;
  • A short writer’s bio;
  • A cover letter and/or a completed application form;
  • An author’s photo;
  • Competition or Submission fees (if applicable).

Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.

Submission Guidelines

I’ve attended lots of workshops given by editors and publishers, and they all go something like this:

(Introductory smiles)

‘Item 1: Please read and follow the submission guidelines.’

10 minutes later (nervous laughter):

‘And did we mention you need to read the submission guidelines?’

Another 10 minutes (visibly twitching):

‘Don’t forget to read the submission guidelines!’

Carried out on a stretcher at the end (borderline hysterical and foaming at the mouth):

‘Please, please – for the love of God and my rapidly disintegrating sanity – will you just read the f**king Submission Guidelines!!’

The Submission Guidelines are your bible – ignore at your peril! 

Journals and competitions (and publishers!) put together Submission Guidelines to let writers know exactly what information they want and how it should be presented. It might seem like you’re jumping through a lot of silly hoops but guidelines make processing the mass influx of submissions simpler and more manageable.

If you don’t present your work correctly, it:

  1. Shows a lack of respect for the organisation, their time and resources;
  2. Shows a lack of attention to detail – this does not bode well for the quality of your writing;
  3. Shows a cavalier attitude and lack of professionalism. If you don’t take your work seriously, why should anyone else?

Different journals or competitions will want different things based on how their organisation works, how they process information, what software they use etc. Always check and present your work correctly.

Ignoring the Submission Guidelines is the easiest way to have your work rejected or disqualified.

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The Difference Between Competitions & Journals

Fame, glory and prize-money aside, the main difference is usually one of anonymity. Competitions require that you remove identifying marks (name, bio etc.) from your work so that it can be read blind by the judge(s). The poems are then allocated numbers to ensure the judge has no idea who has written the work and the adjudication process can be as fair as possible.

Some journals also do blind-reading – check the Submission Guidelines each and every time to make sure you don’t accidentally rule yourself out of  consideration.

I’ve previously written about competitions here, so for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus primarily on journals. Most of this advice will also apply to competition submissions.

Typical Criteria in Submission Guidelines

Type of Work

  • Only send the type of work asked for. A poetry journal will not publish your memoir/essay/fiction piece – no matter how brilliant – if it’s not what they do.
  • If the journal or competition has a set a theme, stick to it. Don’t send work that doesn’t fit their brief.
  • Do not send out previously published work unless the guidelines specifically state it is acceptable. Most journals and competitions want exclusive first publication rights to new work.
  • Do not send your work to places that do not invite you to do so, eg. if the guidelines say they only accept commissioned work, they are not open to general submissions.

Type/Name of Document

  • Save your work in their stated preferred format, eg. doc, pdf etc. Many standard open source programmes can open .doc but not .docx. I dealt with this a lot as an editor – it’s a pain in the ass to go through submissions only to discover half the documents can’t be downloaded or read.
  • It’s time consuming for an editor to convert documents from one format to another OR to email people to tell them their docs are in the wrong format and can’t be read, assuming they’re feeling generous. Don’t waste their time.
  • Don’t assume they will extend you the above courtesy. If they ask for information in a particular way and you don’t provide it, it’s not their job to fix that mistake.
  • If the guidelines specify a naming protocol for your submission, eg. [Title of Poem_Name of Poet_Issue Number], follow it. These protocols may be used to search for submissions during the editorial process – if you don’t name your document correctly, your work may be missed.

Layout of Work on Page

  • Generally, poems should be Aligned to the left side of the page, unless there is a reason that is fundamental to reading and understanding the work.
  • If your work has an unusual layout – indents, spacing between words or lines etc. – is probably wise to send it in a format that will preserve its layout, eg. PDF.
  • If the journal asks specifically for Word or another format, either ask about their policy on unusual layouts beforehand or send in requested format and include a PDF version for reference.

Number of Lines/Word Count

  • Often journals and competitions restrict either the number of lines (40 is common for poetry) or word count (mostly for prose pieces, sometimes for poetry). This might be because of the physical restrictions of the printed page and to increase the number of poems they can accept OR to keep the reading process manageable OR, in competitions, to compare like-with-like (broadly speaking).
  • Word count / line count generally doesn’t include the title, stanza or paragraph breaks. If you work contains an epigraph (a short quote at the beginning of the work) and it puts you over the maximum limit, it’s probably worth checking whether they would include this in the formal line count.
  • Only send work that meets the criteria. Don’t assume you’re the brilliant exception.
  • Don’t fib and don’t assume the editor can’t count. Even if they can’t, their word processing software can.

Line Spacing

  • Line spacing requirements are for ease of reading and/or editing.
  • Typically, poetry should be presented with single line spacing and prose, double line spacing.

Typeface/Font

  • Sometimes, this will be specified but, if not, stick to the classics – Arial, Calibri, Times New Roman.
  • Always use basic black.
  • If you use a fancy font, it might not be readable on the editor’s computer. If they have a thousand poems to read, they’re not going to go find and load a new font just to read your work.
  • Never ever ever use Comic Sans. Is your work a joke?
  • If the font size is not specified, then 11 or 12 point is standard. Make it easy for the editor to read the work without going blind.
  • Titles are usually in bold, maybe a point or two larger than the standard text.

Simultaneous Submissions

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  • A simultaneous submission is where a poem is under consideration in more than one place at the same time. Many journals, and almost all competitions, have a strict policy about exclusive access to the work.
  • Journals can take many months to read all the work received. The larger and more prestigious the journal, the longer the reading process tends to be.
  • Typically, poems will be read several times, often by a number of people, before a decision is made. The last thing an editor wants to hear when they accept a piece of work is that it’s no longer available, as this can throw out the whole sequence of work in that issue.
  • Generally, competitions take a harder line on this – if you’re sending a poem to a competition, don’t send it out anywhere else or you risk being disqualified.
  • If a journal is happy to accept simultaneous submissions, only send that work to other journals with a similar policy. If the piece is accepted, notify the other journals immediately. Again, don’t waste their time.
  • Keep track of what work you send out and where. Don’t submit a batch of poems again until they’ve been released from consideration. Don’t send the same poem back to a journal that has already passed on it, unless the poem has been revised. These are measures of your professionalism as a writer.
  • We all make mistakes. If you do send the work to more than one place accidentally and it is accepted in both, take responsibility for the mistake and apologise sincerely to the editor you’ve let down. You may want to submit to them again, so keep the lines of communication open and friendly.

Gimmicks

  • You might be tempted to do something gimmicky to stand out from the crowd – funny fonts, colours, illustrations etc. DON’T. These are more likely to annoy than impress. The only way you want your submission to stand out is in the quality of your work.

Writer’s Bio

  • Most journals (and some competitions) ask for a writer’s bio at the time of submission.
  • Typically, bio lengths are in the 50/75/100 word range. It is a good idea to write a bio of each length and keep them updated.
  • A bio should give a balanced picture of where you are as a writer. A good formula is Name – Location – Education – Publication – Achievements/Awards.
  • Always use your most recent and best information, ie. most up-to-date achievements, most prestigious journals.
  • Make sure you name and spell publications/awards etc. correctly. I once received a bio which misspelled one journal and got the name of another completely wrong. If an editor sees carelessness in a bio, it suggests carelessness in the work.
  • If you’re just starting out (and don’t have anything to boast about yet) use the bio to demonstrate your dedication to writing instead, eg. how long you’ve been writing, membership of writing groups, courses or workshops you’ve completed.
  • Keep it professional. Don’t be a smart-arse. Charming can easily come across as smug. And, even if you are hilarious, a joke is really only funny once. An editor has to read, review and proof the work over and over before publication. Don’t give them a reason to rethink their decision.

Cover Letter/Email and Application Forms

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Cover Letter

  • Not all journals require a cover letter or email – many now use submission portals like Submittable (see below). If a cover letter is required, keep it simple and to the point.
  • The cover letter should reference the submission call you are responding to, confirm the number of poems you’re submitting and their names, confirm payment of the required fee (if applicable) and include a bio/author pic, if requested.
  • Don’t forget to thank the editor(s)/judge(s) for considering your work.
  • A cover letter is not an opportunity to tell your life story OR attempt to curry favour by namedropping OR sympathy by referencing your terminally ill granny who always wanted to see your work in print – this is not the X Factor.
  • Do your homework – address it to the editor by name. Don’t use generic titles unless you know them to be appropriate, eg. Don’t send address an all-female editorial panel as ‘Dear Sirs’.
  • Often, journals will ask that cover emails use a specific Subject Line – this will be used to search for submissions. If you don’t use the correct subject line, you risk missing out entirely.
  • If they don’t specify a Subject Line, a good rule of thumb is [Name of Journal/Competition_Issue No. or Submission Title_Your Name_Number of Poems_Paypal Ref. (if applicable – see below)].
  • Don’t forget to include your contact details – name, address, email, telephone number (as required).

Submission Form / Submittable

  • Submission forms are usually straightforward, requesting all the information described above.
  • They can be paper forms that you download and print, custom-built forms in an organisation’s website or via Submittable – an online portal that manages submissions for journals and competitions.
  • The criteria above regarding submission guidelines still applies.
  • If you’re sending work out on a regular basis, it’s a good idea to set up a profile on Submittable.
  • Submittable will store your contact details and author’s bio and send them out with each submission – be sure to keep these up-to-date in your account settings.
  • On the plus side, Submittable allows you to see that your work has been received and gives updates on where it is in the submission process – being read, accepted or rejected. The down side is publications often forget to update where they are in the submission process!

Author Photograph

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  • As with the Author Bio, keep it simple and professional. A head-shot (or head plus shoulders) straight to camera is best.
  • For print journals, the file size will need to be a min. 1 MB and high resolution (usually 300 dpi).
  • Bear in mind that while large files can be converted to smaller formats, small files cannot be made large, without loss of resolution and quality. It’s best to take the photo in as as large a format and as high a resolution as you can.
  • For online use, smaller file sizes are preferred and resolution is less of an issue. If the journal does not provide exact dimensions or file sizes, aim for under 500KB.
  • A good free online photo editor for cropping and/or resizing digital images is Befunky.

Competition/Submission Fees

I’m not going to talk about the ethics of fees here, as I’ve already touched on it in a previous post, just the practicalities.

  • Most competitions (and some journals) charge a fee for submitting work. The payment process is usually no more difficult that buying anything else online – there will be a purchase button and a checkout process. Just follow the instructions.
  • Paypal is probably the most common payment method. You can either set up a Paypal account, with a credit card and/or bank account linked to it, OR simply follow the instructions for paying by credit card.
  • You will usually be asked to quote the Paypal Transaction ID, as part of your submission – typically in the cover letter or the application form. Here’s a recent submission of mine with the Transaction ID outlined in red. Simply copy the number on your transaction into your email/form.

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  • The reason they ask for the Transaction ID is to cross-reference your entry with your fee and ensure that your submission has followed the rules and qualifies for inclusion in the competition/journal.
  • If you have a Paypal account, another way to make this cross-referencing process easier for the editors/organisers is to use the same email address with your entry as is associated with your account.

Summing Up

Yes, there are a lot of hoops to jump through but the good news is once you’ve done it a couple of times, the submission process becomes a lot easier.

  • Generally, the poems you send out will be different each time.
  • A cover letter can be fairly standard with just the key info like the name(s) of journal/editor/poems changed for each application.
  • Your Author Bio and Photo can be updated as necessary, but generally you’ll use these over and over.

And, when in doubt:

Follow the submission guidelines!

Good luck!

Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments box below.

11 thoughts on “Submitting to Poetry Journals & Competitions: A Beginner’s Guide

  1. I would just like to thank you, Angela, for a very thorough, informative guide to the submission of poetry to both competitions and journals. I am new to all this and found it very helpful. What a considerate lady you are to offer your time and detailed advice to perfect strangers….well, okay, I am not perfect but am very grateful to you for this selfless offering. Tony Ryan

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