After a few conversations recently between myself and other writers and editors, I’ve come to realise that there is some information missing for young writers. I’m not talking about writing advice like ‘write everyday’ or ‘start with a free writing exercise’. No, what I’m thinking about is more along the lines of how to submit, and what to expect from the publishing process. I am a young and emerging writer myself, but I’ve had a few pieces published, and have experience in editing at publishing houses and literary magazines. With experience on both sides, I think I can present what you need to know.
So you’ve written something you want to publish. But you don’t know what comes next, or maybe you don’t feel confident about it. Here’s my (long!) list of things to think about as you take those next steps.
The submitting process
- Research publications/publishers that suit what you want to publish. Don’t send literary fiction to an academic publisher. There will be a publisher that is right for your piece, but you need a list of which ones actually publish whatever you’re trying to publish.
- When submitting, follow the submission instructions. This may seem picky, but follow every single instruction that is there. They are there for a reason. If the instructions ask you to remove your name from everywhere on the document, it’s probably because they are reading blind; your name could form a bias. If they ask for double spacing, it’s probably because they want the space to write comments, or so it’s easier to read. If there is a word limit or line limit for poetry, they probably don’t have the space to print longer than that, or the time to read longer submissions.
- Proofread your submission before you send it! Make sure there are no typos. This doesn’t mean the piece must be perfect, just that it should look professional and that it has been approached with care. This sends a good vibe to the editor. Whilst typos can of course be fixed, it may show that you didn’t take the time to make the piece presentable, and don’t care for mistakes.
- Also check the publisher’s policy on simultaneous submissions. It can take a while to hear back from a publisher, and you might be sick of waiting, and so you send the same piece out to other publishers. But this can create tricky situations with two publishers wanting the same piece! It’s generally a good idea to wait to hear back before submitting elsewhere. Some publishers may allow simultaneous submissions, as long as you inform them if the piece has been accepted elsewhere.
- Some publications will ask for a cover letter. This is a bit different to a job application. There are some good guides for this specific letter around the web, but generally you need to state what you’re submitting and its genre and word count, why you’re the person to write it, and your previous publications, if you have any.
- If you’ve just submitted something, refrain from posting it on your social media or blog. If your piece is published, (depending on the publication), readers may be paying to read it, and you’ve just put it up for free! Not only would this be defeating the purpose of the publication you’ve submitted to, you’ve also implied that your work isn’t worth paying for. Submitting can be an exciting moment, though, so go ahead and say that you’ve submitted (and perhaps a small excerpt is alright), but don’t give away the whole thing! You can usually put it back up after a while.
- Lots of publications are now using Submittable to track submissions. Get familiar with how it works. It’s a great way for you as a creator to keep track of your submissions, and you can view their progress. Having said that, not every publication will use it, and sometimes you may be submitting by email.
- As with every sort of application, you should have a professional sounding email. It should probably have your full name, and it’s often a good idea to avoid your birth year. Consider an email signature.
- It can take editors/publishers/readers a long time to get through every that’s been submitted. Don’t be concerned if you haven’t heard back in a week or a month. Sometimes it could even be 3-6 months. Carefully consider following up if you haven’t heard back; it may be considered impatient. Other times it may be helpful. Some publishers may have their expected response times on their websites.
The editing process
- Before you submit, consider whether this is a piece you really want other people to read. This is particularly important with pieces about really personal things (like abuse, mental health, etc.). This doesn’t mean people will discriminate against you based on this information, however. It’s more a concern for your wellbeing; do you want people to know this personal thing? Furthermore, how will you respond to an editor working on your piece. For an example of how this can go wrong, think of Jenny Schecter in The L Word. Her editor had a different view of how to portray a story about childhood abuse, and it was completely against Jenny’s experiences.
- An editor may ask you to describe your intentions. This doesn’t mean that the editor doesn’t understand. It’s so that you’re both editing with the same intentions.
- Typically, a piece of writing will go through three stages of editing before completion. These stages used to be done by different people, but now are often the one person. First, a structural edit, which looks at the ideas and the construction of the piece. Once that’s done, a copy edit. This makes sure the grammar and spelling are correct. Finally, proofreading, which is usually close to the print deadline, and checks that no other errors have crept in. As a writer, you probably won’t be involved with the proofreading, but can expect communication regarding the other stages of editing.
- Editing is often about suggestions. These are not personal attacks; a suggestion does not mean you are not a good writer. It is simply trying to achieve what you wanted in a clearer way. Editors are there to help you communicate as clearer as you can, but that doesn’t mean you were a bad writer before being edited! Suggestions can feel like an attack, especially when it’s about something you really liked in your piece. It can take a long time to work out how to navigate a professional and an emotional attachment to your piece.
- Continuing from above, editing works best when approached with respect and professionalism. Your editor is not attacking you, so it’s not a great idea to send an overly assertive email back (unless they really did say something that offended you!).
- There are some things that won’t change across publishers, like grammar. You should know the difference between it’s and its, but if you don’t, it won’t change in each publication you do. However, there are some things that will. Some publishers prefer em dashes, whilst others use en dashes. Some will write numbers up to ten as words, others will go to one hundred. These are more nebulous parts of writing, so don’t be alarmed if you have one piece published with en dashes and another with em dashes! These are rules that publishers decide on so that they are consistent.
- Your editor will probably want to use track changes (MS Word). This is a super helpful way of keeping track of who made what changes and when. You can then accept or reject the changes, and you can also add comments. It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with how this works, and use it if it’s asked for. Other word processors have similar ways of doing this, but Word is the industry standard. If you’re a student, your university likely offers an MS Office subscription for free.
- Adhering to deadlines is extremely important. Missing a deadline can push everything else out, such as when to go to print or on shelves. Let your editor know if there’s a crucial reason you can’t make that deadline. Otherwise, follow it!
- It’s totally normal (especially with today’s technology) to never meet your editor face-to-face. Communication is mainly by email, or phone if necessary, and it’s not usually necessary to meet in person.
- All editors are different, and whilst aspects of editing are usually the same, they can be completed in a number of ways. Some editors may like to print everything and use red pens, others may work entirely on screen. Some may reply to emails as soon as they see them, others may only reply at set times.
- If you know an editor (or you contact one through a director listing or social media), don’t bombard them with your writing. Respect their time. They are likely getting through many other submissions, and sending something repeatedly can be frustrating.
- If you think you’ll be making money (usually not much!) from your writing, you need an ABN (Australian Business Number). This is so that you keep records of the money. Having an ABN means that you will have to submit a tax return (not necessarily paying tax), even if you do not reach the threshold, or earn anything at all! Many writers’ centres have great information or workshops about this aspect of writing. There are also, if needed, some accountants who specialise in helping arts workers and creators, because it can get really complicated!
- The Young Australian Writers group on Facebook has a spreadsheet (and many other resources) detailing pay rates for many publications. This may be standard for everyone who writes for that publication, or it may vary based on experience. You may need to send invoices. This is something you can usually ask the editor if it’s not clear.
- Think about whether you’re okay with writing for free. This is a personal choice, but can impact the industry standards and expectations. Many of my publications have not paid, simply because they don’t have the money, but might in the future. Some will say it’s all for the exposure you’ll get. Again, personal choice, but something you need to be aware of and consider your stance, and how you may respond if you’re asked to write without pay.
Other general things
- Reading up on media law can be super handy, especially for nonfiction writing. You need to know the difference between discussing a person’s actions and defaming them. You cannot publish anything that instructs how to commit a crime or act of violence. A basic understanding of how copyright works will help you out.
- It’s a good idea to be familiar with the MEAA (Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance) Code of Ethics, although these may be more for journalists.
- There are so many Facebook groups for writers. Young Australian Writers and Binder Full of Australian Women Writers (for women, and is trans and nonbinary inclusive) are two great ones to start with. There are many other ‘binder’ groups for diverse groups of people.
- Meetup has loads of writing groups you can join. Look at your local library, or make your own group for other ways of sharing writing with other people. There are websites dedicated to connecting writers, such as Figment.
- Critical friends are the best! Find (or develop a friendship) someone you trust to give you honest feedback on your work. This can be so helpful. There should be an understanding in this relationship that suggestions are not hurtful or personal, but are to improve the writing. I love my critical friends (who are honestly also my best friends), and they’ve helped my change my writing for the better. It’s nice to be reciprocal in this situation; if you ask for a critique, you should be prepared to read and comment on that person’s work. These friendships can be really hard to come by or develop, and it won’t happen immediately. Start with people at uni (if you’re studying writing) or in your writing groups. If you’re more introverted, this can be done entirely online, or it must just be too daunting!
Well that was a long list! All of this has come out of my experience as both a writer and an editor. Some things on the list may not be relevant to everyone, or may differ across publishers, but are typically standard across publications. I hope this is helpful to explaining some of the mysteries of the publishing process. Good luck!