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Criticism, Publishing, The Writer's Life, Writing and Depression, Writings

Who’s Really Reading Your Submissions?

I received three rejections in the mail today. Make that three more rejections. It’s not so much being rejected that disappointments, it’s being rejected so soon after submitting.

Usually, the longer a literary journal holds a submission before responding, the better the writer’s chances of it being published, the theory being that the story is making it past the first rounds of readers and is in the very small pile under final consideration by the editors. A story that is declined quickly, as were these three that I sent out a couple of weeks ago, likely means it was canned on first reading.

I often wonder, who are these first readers? It’s something literary journals never discuss. In their pages, and in seminars, the editors of lit journals talk about their preferences and literary philosophies. But the truth is, your story is not subjected to those parameters unless it gets past that first round or two of readers. And if those people don’t hold the same philosophy, or have the same level of literary sophistication, it’s quite possible it didn’t receive a fair reading.

I need to point out here that my writing ego is not so large as to think my rejections were unwarranted. And I fully understand that journals receive so many submissions that some kind of reading process is necessary for their operation. But I’d feel much better about my submissions if I knew what (or who) I was actually submitting to. Are the first readers freshman creative writing students? Grad students? People who responded to an advertisement? Someone’s grandmother? Do they have any prior experience working for a lit journal? Are they qualified or are they just helping out? Have they been published themselves?

That fact that today’s rejections all came from student-run publications was not lost on me. And I can’t help imagining my work being snubbed by some giggly nineteen-year-old who reads People magazine, watches Hanna Montana and just really, really, really wanted to be on the staff of the college journal, and took a glance at my story and decided she just didn’t “get it.”

Tell me it isn’t possible and I’ll shut up. Or maybe tell me the truth about how lit journals are run and whose standards are truly deciding what stories make it.


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


5 thoughts on “Who’s Really Reading Your Submissions?

  1. aww, Joe!

    To start with, I enjoy reading your blog!

    And I want to gently say… imagine if the “students” at Whidbey were first readers. I know in my heart-of-hearts that they would be consciencious and take the responsibility very seriously. I cannot imagine that a student working/earning credit for the Literary Journal class would give it anything but their full attention, except of course, if they…..were human!

    I too, have been “rejected” by students, and one of my first thoughts was, “WHAT???” I would like a peek into their internal guide-lines as well!

    What would we say to our friends/students/writers? Keep up the good work!
    Keep going! Yeeee-ah!

    PS: my camera needed a new lens, and now it is still malfunctioning! And I miss Whidbey!


    Posted by lauracarr232 | October 14, 2009, 3:48 PM
  2. Yeah, I admit that was written out of a bit of frustration (and late at night too). But I think the question of who these first readers are is still valid.

    Thanks for your response and thanks for reading!

    Posted by jpon | October 14, 2009, 4:00 PM
  3. Most probably you’re both right. I believe the first readers may well be freshmen…or freshmens’ significant others. But as long as they are good readers, their thoughts are valid, at least as far as their demographic is concerned. My concern, like yours, Joe, is that the demographic, the frame of reference through which they read, is skewed. Now I do understand that everybody sees through their own eyes. I just worry that their eyes haven’t seen enough to “get it” as I/we see things. But we can’t just write for each other…damnit!

    Posted by jonzech | October 15, 2009, 12:49 AM
  4. Joe, keep this in mind…you’re submitting! And you have work TO submit beyond a full novel. Perhaps the take-away is the selection of where to submit might be more than matching your work to what’s been published in the past. I remember Kate Gale of Red Hen Press saying that it was both a benefit and a bane of university presses that the editorial staff changes yearly. Some great posts here, Joe. I very much enjoyed reading your musings.

    Posted by Sharon M | October 23, 2009, 1:58 AM
  5. Yes, I’m submitting . . . and I’m reading. I’m an assistant editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal and I read 6-15 submissions a week. And I know how difficult it is to clear one’s head of the issues of the day and give each writer a fair hearing. Many times I’ll reconsider a rejection and give a story another read, and sometimes I’ll change my verdict after I’ve read something in a different state of mind. I only hope other readers are as judicious.

    Posted by jpon | October 23, 2009, 2:09 AM

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