The Bell Jar: Jo Bell's blog

"She lives the poetry she cannot write" – Wilde

Submitting to journals: the Jo Bell method

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[This article is now taught as part of the Open University’s Creative Writing MA, and I’ve had many many messages to tell me that people have increased their publication record, sometimes by 200% in a year.]

I’ve spent some time lately with poetry journal editors – and also with the poor beggars who, like me, send off work to them. It’s struck me anew that many people, especially those at the beginning of their writing career, don’t have much idea of how submission works and what time span is realistic for an editor to consider a poem. Also, they’re wondering how to keep tabs on the seventeen different pieces that they’ve sent out, in order to avoid the no-no of simultaneous submission.

What follows is the Jo Bell Method; the method of an immensely, award-winningly disorganised poet who nonetheless has managed to win awards. My vast and lofty experience teaches me that the key part of winning any prize or getting into a journal is this:

SEND THE BUGGERS OFF.

This is the only area of my life where such a streamlined system exists, but it has helped me to keep sending work out. It is Ever So Simple and it works for me. If you want to get into the habit of submitting to journals, it’s not too late to make this a New Year’s Resolution.

This week
Make a table or database with four columns – Available. In Circulation. Published. Date When Available Again. Do it on the computer, because you will be cut-and-pasting from this for years. Put into the first column the titles of all your poems that you think are ready.

By the way, they are NEVER ready. You will NEVER send out a poem that you are wholly and perfectly satisfied with. Nobody does. Nobody does. Abandon that hope. Do your best.

January 30th (for instance)

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Make a habit of setting aside one day a month for submissions. Put it in the diary. On the first occasion, take three ‘available’ poems and send them to Magazine A. Transfer their titles to ‘In Circulation’. Send three DIFFERENT ones to Magazine B, three different again to Magazine C, and two or three to Competition X. Put all their titles in the ‘In Circulation’ column. You’re in business. In the ‘Date When Available Again’ put a date six months from now, or the date when competition results are announced.

February 28th 
Astonishingly, you have not heard a word from Magazine A, B or C. You have been waiting by your inbox like Greyfriars Bobby every morning but still no word. How very odd. Never mind. Send three poems to Magazine D, three to Magazine E, three to Magazine F. Once sent, forget them. They are dead to you until they come back or get accepted.

March 30th
Continue. NEVER send the same poem to two different magazines or competitions at the same time. This does matter. I nearly lost a very substantial prize once, by doing it accidentally. Editors don’t want to slave through a pile of hundreds of poems and accept a handful which they are happy to stand by – only to be told that one of them has just been accepted by a rival magazine. The only reward for editors’ labours is that they get to put into print the work they believe in, for the first time. They want to do so without fear of copyright arguments or simple embarrassment. They may have chosen poems to complement each other – your sonnet sitting alongside someone else’s – so if you withdraw yours, it will have an impact beyond your own poem and create a space which they have to fill.

And don’t ever do that smart-arse thing of sending an email saying ‘oh good heavens, I didn’t realise it was still with magazine Z because those clowns kept me waiting for so long – I do apologise!’ They have heard it before, and are probably about to have dinner with the editor of magazine Z. If your poems are good, they will be accepted eventually, so don’t rush it. If they aren’t, they won’t, so no point in hassling. Either way, don’t submit to two places at once.

April 30th
Etc etc. You are losing the will to live. You are running out of poems to send out. Fear not, you are about to get some back.

Four months is not unusual, six months not unheard of. You might get a response from Magazine A around now if you are lucky. Hurrah, they want one of your poems. It will always be the one you stuck in the envelope last, thinking it was a no-hoper. Send a brief mail saying ‘thanks, I’m delighted.’ Move the title of that poem into the ‘Published’ column, buy yourself a new pair of shoes, put down the deposit on that house. Tell everyone on Facebook.

And then put the poems that they *don’t* want right back into the ‘Available’ column. If they don’t want any of the poems, no need to reply. If you must, just send them a line saying ‘thank you for letting me know, good luck with this issue!’ Honestly. That’s all.

May 30th
Send out some poems, as usual. If you get an acceptance, hurrah. If you get a rejection, hurrah – you now have some poems free for the next journal or competition, just when you were wondering what to send out. Those which come back, put in the Available folder again, and then send them to magazines that haven’t seen them before. Those which are accepted, put in the Published folder. Those which come back over and over again… er, may not be any good. On the balance of probabilities, if nine editors have rejected a poem it is likely not an undiscovered masterpiece, but a poem that needs fixing. Take that as a valuable piece of free feedback. Review, revise, put it back in the Available folder.

Keep sending the buggers off. The editor of Journal F, after all, has very different taste to the editor of Magazine A, and has not seen your poem before. It is fresh as a daisy to her. Remember however, that there is no shortage of daisies in her in-tray. She is eating and drinking poems. She is sick of poems. She wakes up in the night wondering why she does this. Cut her some slack.

Develop a stoical acceptance of the flow – some pieces coming back, some going out, and every now and then a little firework going up to mark a success. Eventually you will be so serene about rejection that you will be quite disappointed when a poem is accepted because this interrupts the endless recycling process.

Continue, ad infinitum. Check the dates in the fourth column of your table every so often. The competition results have been announced and you have inexplicably not won the National Poetry Competition (again)? Hurrah, those three poems are now free. Put them back in the Available column. Everyone you know who wins competitions, loses competitions too.

Do NOT (even, indeed especially, while drunk and discouraged) send journals a slightly tetchy email saying “I haven’t heard from you, and I should have thought that four months is quite long enough”. You *might* perhaps send an email (after six months, not before) saying “You won’t remember my poem On The Digestive System of the Hippopotamus – this is just to let you know that there is an RSPCA competition on Pachyderms at the moment, so I’m withdrawing the poem, in the unlikely event that you wanted to use it. Good luck with all your sifting, I know you have a lot of poems to wade through.”

Because they do. They have a heap of poems as deep as their desk and they mean no offence by hanging on to yours. They very possibly haven’t read it yet. They certainly have a lot of other poems (more than you imagine, and by better poets than you think) to consider. They have poems piled up in the lounge, the bathroom, the bedside table. Their partners already think they spend too much time on this. The work is not only unpaid, but they have to scrabble for funding to keep the magazine afloat at all. It is stressful and almost entirely unrewarding. They have day jobs, often running small poetry presses which make them just enough money to pay the bills if they are lucky. Like you, they have children and social lives and commitments. Like you, they are trying to write their own works of genius and (possibly unlike you) they are also putting something back into the poetry ecosystem. They get ten or twenty notes a week from sensitive souls saying “I sent you my poem last Tuesday and am exceedingly surprised that you have not yet replied to it. You will be sorry when I win the Pulitzer Prize.” They feel bad about this. They dread going to book launches because someone who has a grudge against them, for rejecting a poem which they don’t even remember, will say something snide about the time it takes them to reply. The only reward for all this is that occasionally they get to put into print someone whose work they love. It might be you. It might not. Hey ho.

I’m not putting the editor on a pedestal – but do remember that in this process, you are the supplicant. The editor has more poems than s/he knows what to do with. No matter how great your unrecognised genius, indeed no matter how great your recognised genius, editors are doing you a favour by considering your poem. They will not remember your name as one of the dozens of poems on their bedside table – but believe me, they will remember it (immediately, and for a long time) if you join the ranks of the narky, sarky and unpleasant who bitched about their response times.

So, set up that database or table and get started. Gradually you will start to accumulate titles in the Published column, but there will always be a lot more titles in the Available column.

If you’re disheartened by that, then it may be that you’re looking for an excuse to be disheartened. Really, it is not so hard to put a poem in an envelope or send it by email and then *forget about it*. And it really does get easier, the more you do it. So do it, huh?

 

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42 comments on “Submitting to journals: the Jo Bell method

  1. jaynestanton
    January 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on Jayne Stanton POETRY and commented:
    Here I am, sitting at the dining table for a morning of prevarication over which poems to submit where, and notification of this little gem drops into my email inbox. Sound advice from Jo Bell on submitting to journals:

  2. angelatcarr
    January 8, 2015

    Brilliant advice, Jo, and I love the simplicity of your system! I’m forever scrambling around at some deadline trying to figure out what’s gone where. I’m off to set up me folders. Ta!

  3. mrscarlielee
    January 8, 2015

    Love this post! And am going to run away with your system to use for blog-posts and articles…there’s no stopping me now – editors: brace yourselves.

    (And thank you, Jo)

  4. hilary278
    January 8, 2015

    Just what I needed! I already have a spreadsheet but have not yet cultivated the ‘one day a month’ habit of herding the poems. Really sound, sensible advice. Many thanks.

  5. Brilliant. With your permission I shall keep this, treasure it, and use it to instil some kind of order and discipline into my submission chaos.

  6. Carolyn Zukowski
    January 8, 2015

    A great post and well worth a bit more discussion, as some writers are hopeless at admin. Might I suggest using duotrope.com? It’s a paid (I think 50 USD a year) service that helps you record and track your submissions AS WELL as reminds you when it’s time to query, or if your piece is out longer than the average submission. If you get an acceptance, it will also tell you to which other magazines you’ve sent work, so that you can send withdrawals to their editors in a timely manner.There are thousands of literary journals on their search engine, with extra goodies like editor interviews, statistics for the average turn-around time, and even a searchable category for the “shortest turn-around time” or “journals with the most personal feedback.”
    As an editor of a well-established online literary magazine (literarybohemian.com), I don’t think editors will be miffed with simultaneous submissions, especially if they allow them. Again, duotrope.com also knows which journals allow sim subs, and will alert you if you try to submit your work to other mags if you’ve already submitted to a journal that doesn’t allow sim subs.
    Anyhow, I’m not paid by Duotrope.com, but I happily pay for the service. You can try it for free for a week and see if it works for you.
    Here’s to seeing more great writing (yours!) in 2015!

    • Jo Bell
      January 8, 2015

      Duotrope is great and I’m grateful for the reminder – look it up folks, it really is useful. However there are a LOT of editors who are Very Miffed Indeed by simultaneous submissions, and will definitely remember if you’ve had to withdraw a poem they wanted to use. Why risk the discourtesy? Of course if they allow them, then go ahead – but for my simple brain, that’s just another thing to remember and I prefer to keep it simple.

  7. Marilyn
    January 8, 2015

    So glad I read this after putting off my first ‘sending poems out’ of 2015. Good advice, especially about sending out once a month. I have never got to grips with how much time to set aside for this essential but tedious and sometimes dispiriting task. Thanks Jo.

  8. elsiedee72
    January 8, 2015

    Good Advice

  9. Keith Welch
    January 8, 2015

    This is good advice, although I have already sent the same 5 poems to 5 different journals, expecting them all to be rejected, anyway. Oops.

  10. Robin Houghton
    January 8, 2015

    Interesting to read this post (and the comments)! I like your straightforward system, and it makes good sense to just keep sending. Although the reality for many of us who are only clutching at the second-hand coat-tails of success (as opposed to wearing the real thing) is that the temptation to set aside a rejected poem for possible revision is very strong, particularly after the 5th or 10th or 15th rejection. Although of course there’s that great example of one of Kim Moore’s poems winning something after about 20 rejections (sorry I can’t recall the details right now).

    To be fair, not everyone who enquires about their poems is tetchy or snarky. On the few occasions I’ve enquired, I’ve made sure it was polite and brief. Sometimes the poems have been lost. More than once, my enquiry has resulted in a poem being found and subsequently published. It seems a shame to label every poet-enquirer as rude, inconsiderate or psychotic. Some magazines even say they welcome a brief query after a certain period of time, if you haven’t heard anything.

    Magazines have the opportunity to manage expectations in what they say on their submissions page, and by keeping the information up to date. If the editors have moved to reading windows, if the magazine is taking a year-long hiatus to catch up, if the magazine has a policy of not responding to poets at all if their poems have been rejected, if the usual wait is 4 months but it can take 8 – no-one can reasonably complain about any of this, if it’s clearly set out – but quite often it’s not. In fact, I would point anyone and everyone to The Rialto’s Submissions page for a lesson on how to manage expectations and communicate the magazine’s criteria clearly, politely and elegantly. And The Rialto is fine about simultaneous submissions.

    • Jo Bell
      January 8, 2015

      Absolutely, Robin. And of course, ‘don’t send a tetchy note’ does not mean that all notes are tetchy! But also – bear in mind that you can send a poem out even if you think it needs more revision. Too many people are waiting for a gong to ring when their poem is FINISHED. Oh, if only!

  11. opsimathpoet
    January 8, 2015

    Thanks Jo. It’s hard to get the routine going but essential for time saving, My biggest hurdle is the ‘it’s too short/ long, not their sort of thing’ indecision that means much too long spent on havering instead of getting on with something new.

    • msjinnifer
      January 8, 2015

      I recognise that — the curse of the obsessional personality! I don’t mean OCD btw…

  12. msjinnifer
    January 8, 2015

    Super-helpful. Thanks!

  13. quillfyre
    January 8, 2015

    Love this. I will print it out and make a resolution. My difficulty comes when I go to select the poems to send, and suddenly they no longer seem as good as they were just yesterday…

  14. carolynoconnell
    January 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on Carolyn O' Connell and commented:
    Good practice

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  16. sarahparkinsonpoet
    January 8, 2015

    I was musing only earlier today on how I could improve my submissions so-called ‘system’ and then this gift popped up in my Twitter feed! Thanks so much Jo, this is all really useful stuff. And somehow there’s comfort in knowing you’re not the only one trying to create administrative order out of submissions chaos.

  17. roddywilliams59
    January 8, 2015

    Reblogged this on My Life in The Bush of Shepherds and commented:
    Excellent piece on submitting poetry from Jo Bell

  18. roddywilliams59
    January 8, 2015

    Thanks. I have reblogged on ‘My Life in the Bush of Shepherds’. Sound advice. I use an Access database, but then, I am a geek.

  19. juneviannepalmer
    January 9, 2015

    Very good advice. I was trying to be organised but this system is better, also it has helped to take the sting out of rejections and downright being ignored!

  20. J V Birch
    January 9, 2015

    Reblogged this on J V Birch and commented:
    A very timely post, and some really good advice.

  21. Michael Peverett
    January 9, 2015

    Always send the same poem to multiple editors. If more than one of them wants it, let them all print it. No-one will ever notice.

  22. Nell Nelson
    January 9, 2015

    Actually, people do notice . . . 😉

  23. msjinnifer
    January 9, 2015

    I wouldn’t submit to more than one magazine at a time. Nor would I submit to a magazine and a competition at the same time; even if that’s OK with the comp, it’s not OK with the editor. But many comps say it is OK to do sim subs. Is it really? I guess it actually can make the judge’s job easier if someone withdraws a poem after it has won a prize elsewhere…? (It seems a grandiose fantasy to imagine it would be a problem, practically speaking.)

  24. Jane Dards
    January 9, 2015

    Sounds good. But what about keeping track of what you’ve sent where, so you don’t send a poem to a magazine you’ve already submitted it to in the past?

    • Jo Bell
      January 17, 2015

      Ah, you’ll have to find your own system for that Jane. I generally don’t submit to a magazine again for a year or so, by which time the poem has usually found its way into something else – or into the Big Round Filing Cabinet called the bin!

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  26. excelsizeus
    January 11, 2015

    I’ll bear this in mind for 2015. Thank you for a great post.

  27. Jan Morrison
    January 20, 2015

    Totally useful. I will implement today! My systems over the years have been sketchier though usually with some of the same details – I have a hard time putting it in the computer because I sort of want to see it on the wall BUT I know if I choose one day a month as suggested that problem will be taken care of. Again and again I am reminded that discipline is the antidote to depression. Thank you! Came by you through Niamh Boyce’s Words a Day blog.

  28. Martin Shone
    January 27, 2015

    I’m really really idle at sending stuff out, I used to keep a book with what sent where etc., but that soon vanished. However I have only yesterday sent a poem to a Shropshire magazine’s poetry section.

    I like your system of keeping tabs on things etc., so thanks, Jo, I’ll give it a go!

  29. katecompston12
    January 30, 2015

    Excellent advice – and funny too! Thanks for sharing your great system. It beats thinking that editors are going to know telepathically that you’re is writing this brilliant stuff, and that tomorrow they’ll come knocking.on your door begging for twenty five more poems. (Downside: Or not ….)

  30. Julia Webb
    May 5, 2015

    Any advice on what to do if you inadvertently submit a poem to a journal and a competition (I was ill)?

    • Jo Bell
      May 5, 2015

      Well at this stage, neither the comp nor the journal will thank you for making them trawl through their entries when it may not be necessary. I’d say if one of them takes it/ gives it a prize, THEN drop a line to the other one to withdraw.

  31. yvonnemarjot
    July 14, 2015

    Reblogged this on The Knitted Curiosity Cabinet and commented:
    Really good cogent advice for poets who are thinking about submitting. Really good advice. One of these days I must take it.

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  34. John White
    December 23, 2015

    Excellent advice! I’ve kept a spreadsheet of all of my poems each assigned its own number. Each time one is submitted, it’s highlighted green with a note in the comments “submitted to ___ magazine on __date__.” Each time I receive a rejection (often), I highlight it gray and update the comments to add “rejected on __date__.”. My little color-coding system has worked wonders except for getting published as often as I would like.

  35. madeleineleech
    June 14, 2016

    Thanks for sharing your wisdom and humour. The comments elicited are also helpful/useful. Now to make the spreadsheet and start filling it in.

  36. Susannah Branson
    June 14, 2016

    Reblogged this on Susannah Branson and commented:
    This is what I am doing wrong. In a nutshell. I am too precious about my short stories. I stand over them like the anxious mother at the school gate, fussing and petting over them. I need to let go. I need to submit. Great post here from Bell jar blog.

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