9 Years, 9 Percent: A Look at Toasted Cheese’s Submission, Rejection & Acceptance Rates

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

Inspired by other journals that do monthly, quarterly, or yearly public posts about their submissions, I did some very rough and dirty math about Toasted Cheese submissions over the last 9 years of our 15-year existence. This includes the last three quarters from 2007 and the first quarter of 2016.

Where did you get this information?

In 2007, I began to use Gmail to help me sort and label my TC email. Anything that comes through with “submission” in the subject line is automatically labeled as a TC submission. That’s one of the reasons we ask that you title your submissions that way.

I also use labels to mark a first-read piece to be rejected or considered for second read. After that, I use another set of labels for a final rejection or acceptance.

For my archive, I have labels for the year a submission was sent and a label for the issue for which the piece was submitted. After that issue is published, the submission is re-labeled for the year in which it was intended to be published. For example, a submission received on November 1, 2015 would be for the March 2016 issue and is filed under “All Subs/2015” and “TC Subs/2016.”

How accurate is this?

It’s not scientific by any means. First of all, these are only my picks, not the picks of TC’s editorial collective. Because these are only my picks, they aren’t TC’s official acceptance and rejection rates. I’m one of the more generous editors. I have more “yes” pieces in my final stack than other editors. Therefore, these numbers probably reflect a higher acceptance rate than TC actually has.

Not everything I choose as a “yes” or a “no” is published or rejected. The information I can access reflects only my personal choices. There are times when a first-read “no” for me is eventually published.

Some writers send their submission to the wrong place. Sometimes they send only to me. Sometimes they send a new submission as a reply to a rejection (those are sent by Beaver). When we manage to catch those, we forward them to the editorial collective even though they’re disqualified. So the overall submission rate may be higher simply because we don’t actually get some intended submissions.

Due to the volume of data I worked with, I’d guess these discrepancies might only reflect a percentage point or two of difference. I feel confident in saying that my personal choices are a fairly accurate reflection of TC’s overall rates of acceptance. When I’ve investigated a month’s or a quarter’s acceptance rate over the years, these numbers fall in line with what I found.

ab_16-05_9-years-9-percent

Background Image: Jose Picardo/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Okay, let’s hear it.

We had approximately 4600 regular submissions (not contest entries) in the last nine years. Of all regular Toasted Cheese submissions, 60% are rejected on first read, 13% are disqualified, and 2% are withdrawn before first read. This means 75% of submissions don’t make first cut.

Our shortlist is therefore made of 25% of total submissions. Of those, two-thirds (16% of total submissions) are rejected on second read and one-third (9% of total submissions) are accepted for publication. Of that 9%, some are withdrawn (for example, the piece was simultaneously submitted and accepted elsewhere) while some of the rejected pieces are salvaged by an editor (as an “Editor’s Pick”).

Note: writers can submit up to five poems in a single submission; often we accept only one or two of these. The data here considers any number of poems accepted as an acceptance (e.g. 5/5 poems submitted is an an acceptance, but so is 1/5 poems).

These number run pretty parallel to rates we see month-by-month, quarter-by-quarter, and year-by-year.

Our submission rates have been quite steady: an average of 510 submissions per year (over 40 submissions per month, 10 of which pass through to second read); between 500-620 per year during and before 2011; and 410-496 during and since 2012. We have light months and heavy months. January is traditionally the month we see the most submissions, likely due to New Year’s resolutions. All other months are pretty equal.

As I write this, we have had 174 submissions in 2016. At that rate, Toasted Cheese will receive 525 regular submissions.

So when you hit “send,” you have a 1 in 4 chance of being shortlisted and a 1 in 10 chance of being published in TC. And you’re 100% ahead of all the writers who never click that send button.

If you’d like to see us share more in future about our submission, rejection, and acceptance rates, let us know in the comments.

Track Your Submissions

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. If you haven’t already, set up a way to track your submissions. Duotrope’s submission tracker used to be free but when Duotrope went pay, so did the submission tracker. Membership is $5 per month, less if you sign up for a year. Writer’s Database has a submission tracker and free accounts.
  2. When you set up your submission tracker, go through your email and add everything you’ve ever submitted. It can be inspiring to remember how many times you gave it a shot.
  3. Set a goal for submitting your work over the next three months, like:
    • Send out a story every Thursday for 12 weeks.
    • Clean out your file of unfinished or abandoned work and polish one piece for submission within 90 days.
    • Submitting poetry? Max out your submission. If you only have one poem slated to send but the journal accepts three per submission, add two poems. You never know what will move an editor.
  4. Read the submission guidelines for a handful of random journals. New Pages runs a nice listing, as does Poets & Writers. Compare submission guidelines for similarities and differences. If you’re curious about why a journal has set a specific criterion, click through to read it and you might discover further explanation at the site.

Fifteen Ways to Get Your Submission Into My “No” Folder

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker)

  1. Simultaneously submit. Even once.
  2. Assume that your lack of publication credits will mean automatic rejection.
  3. Assume that your age has any bearing on whether your story is accepted.
  4. Use your cover letter to talk about how little faith you have in your skill/talent.
  5. Mention that you have to submit somewhere because of an assignment and you chose Toasted Cheese just because you liked the name.
  6. Don’t give your story a title.
  7. Describe your character within the first paragraph by using his full name, height in feet and inches, his weight in pounds, his hair color, and his eye color.
Background Image: Brian Wilkins/Flicker (CC-by-nc)

Background Image: Brian Wilkins/Flicker (CC-by-nc)

  1. If it’s a contest entry, don’t use the genre required.
  2. Don’t proofread.
  3. Write inauthentically about a setting I know.
  4. Use double punctuation on your sentence, like a question mark paired with an exclamation point. One exclamation point pushes it enough.
  5. Have female characters who serve no purpose other than set dressing, being a trophy for the male main character, or to have conversations about the male main characters.
  6. Kiss the word count. Then when you get near the end, chop it off and call it finished instead of rewriting.
  7. Throw in a Shyamalan twist ending.
  8. Respond to a rejection by saying that TC sucks anyway, submit again.

Polishing Your Submissions

A Pen In Each Hand

By Baker

  1. Resolve to write good cover letters. You can use a template and personalize it as needed. Be brief. Refrain from writing more than a sentence or two about the piece you’re submitting. Include any publication credits. If this is your first submission, say so! Editors love discovering emerging writers. Read the “about the author” blurbs at journals to get ideas for a 50-word bio you can use in your cover letters. It’s fine to include your age, especially if you’re a teen or a senior, but don’t presume that your story or poem will be rejected due to your age (certainly don’t include that presumption in the content of your cover letter).
  2. Title every story and poem you send out. Include the title above the work. When discussing submissions, some editors refer to them by the name of the piece.
  3. Read a bit of the journal to which you’re submitting. Unless it’s part of your assignment or part of a journal’s guidelines, there’s no need to include your reason for selecting a journal in your cover letter. That said, including the title of a piece you enjoyed in the journal is a nice way to say you think your work is a good fit. It also shows that you’ve read what the journal publishes.
  4. Proofread your piece before you send. If possible, read it on a device other than the one you wrote it on (ex: Wrote on a laptop? Read it out of your cloud on your phone). Fresh eyes reading fresh screens can catch errors.

Tales From the Inbox: Baker & Beaver Discuss First Reading

Absolute BlankBy Stephanie Lenz (Baker) & Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Theryn: Let me start with this. It annoys me when people fail to put “submission” in their subject line and/or submit to the wrong address because these subs end up in my main inbox with all my other mail, rather than being filtered into my submissions folder. Sometimes I wonder if people do that intentionally (especially with the wrong email address) thinking they’ll somehow jump the queue, but really it just increases the chances of the submission being missed or mistaken for spam. So, follow the guidelines, please. (Oh, haha, literally as I’m writing this, a “submission”-less sub showed up in my inbox!).

Stephanie: I just got that one too. I use a flagging system (and have for years) so when something has “submission” in the title, it gets the big, bold “TC SUB” tag and gets my attention. I also have a filter so that anything with “submission” in the title never goes to spam. So all it really does when a writer doesn’t follow that guideline is increase the chance I won’t see it. It will either be deleted with the flotsam and jetsam or it’ll languish in the spam folder for a month and then die alone and unread.

T: Ditto. When you bypass the guidelines, you bypass my “never send to spam” rules.

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

Background Image: Michael Dolan/Flickr (CC-by)

T: Oh, yes. Part two to this. Sometimes when people re-submit / submit again they just hit reply on the response I sent them. Which sends their new sub to me only, and leaves my lovely colleague Stephanie out of the loop. If I don’t notice you sent it just to me, and she doesn’t see it, your chances of making it past the first round just went down (oops!). Also, not as important, but still annoying, with threaded conversations, the new sub gets tied to the previous sub and that gets kind of messy. Again, I’m not sure if this is a jumping the queue thing or if people just aren’t thinking, but it would behoove you to submit to the correct address.

S: I am lovely. Since I’m on there as “managing editor,” I also get subs sent directly to me. I have no problem—nor does anyone else, to my knowledge—with a cover letter that mentions me in its salutation. The problem is when it comes to my email address. I usually don’t notice until my ravishing colleague Theryn says, “What is this submission you want in?” Then it goes from shortlist to DQ.

T: Ravishing? lol, ok.

S: I have a thesaurus and I’m only slightly afraid to use it.

T: Your lack of fear makes me afraid 😉

T: I also shake my head when I glance at my submissions folder and see a bunch of attachment symbols. What about “NO ATTACHMENTS” is hard to understand? Ok, maybe people don’t get why attachments are problematic. The main thing for me is they really slow down the reading process. All the opening and closing is annoying, when you could just be moving smoothly from one sub to the next. I often read/shortlist subs on my phone where attachments are a pain. I just want to read your sub and move onto the next without impediments. So just paste it into your email, ok?

S: Sometimes I give people the benefit of the doubt that they may have an email program that sticks some kind of an attachment onto everything. Sometimes it’s a signature that’s technically an attachment. But it is a huge red flag. I read those submissions right away and usually the attachment is the submission. So it actually saves me time in that I can say, “Oh a sub with an attachment? Can I get this out of my inbox? Why yes I can.” Click.

T: Oh, for sure. Same.

T: What do these things have in common? Oh, yes. WASTING MY TIME.

S: NEXT!

T: So it makes me sad when I head into the subs folder to shortlist and I glance down the names and notice that 75% or more of the subs are from men. What’s up with this, seriously? I brought it up in the class I’m teaching because it’s just so striking to me. I mean, we’re a publication that was founded by women and has had a majority female staff since the beginning, and this info is not a secret! Also, if you look at our archives, we have a good balance of m/f writers. What I’m saying is it’s kind of obvious that we’re a female-friendly publication and yet, women still seem hesitant to submit to us. (And if they’re that hesitant to submit to us, how hesitant are they to submit to a publication with an all-male staff / that publishes mostly men?)

S: Are men more confident about submitting? That’s the only thing I can think of. I don’t think there are more male writers. I don’t think it’s fear of rejection.

T: These are the key differences I note between men/women writers (generalizing, of course). Men a) seem to be more willing to submit early drafts of pieces and b) almost always submit again after a rejection. Women a) seem to polish/edit work more before submitting and b) almost never submit again after a rejection. My guess as to why? Men are taught to take risks (submit anything! why not? what’s the worst that could happen?) and to pick themselves up and try again if they fail (rejection = challenge). Women are taught to be cautious, to not expose themselves unnecessarily (therefore: “I should work on this a bit more; it’s not ready yet; I don’t want to look stupid”) and that if they fail once, well, they’re really not good at that thing and maybe they should try something else, something “easier” (rejection = you suck at writing, maybe you should take up knitting, not that there’s anything wrong with that).

S: Sadly, this could be the case. I don’t think it’s a confidence problem. I think it’s more “Well I’ll just go elsewhere then.” We’re not rejecting the author. We’re rejecting this piece. It’s like holding out a bag of Hershey Miniatures and telling me I can only have a Mr. Goodbar. Maybe I want a Special Dark. But you don’t offer the bag again so I’ll just have this fun-sized Crunch from over here.

T: lol now I want Halloween candy.

S: Hey, I don’t pull my metaphors out of nowhere. I have a bag of Kit Kats here.

T: So I really do think women writers do need more encouragement to get their work out there than men do. With that in mind we have been putting out occasional calls for more submissions specifically from women writers.

S: We put out a call for minority voices and I think we’re enjoying a really great response. Hopefully asking for work from female writers will have the same result.

T: I’m not sure what else would be helpful. Women writers: you tell us, what would encourage you to submit more?

S: That’s the best way to figure it out: ask.

T: Ok, going to do some reading. Starting with the flash. I liked the first one I read; voice and setting were interesting/unusual. Putting on consider list. Next!

S: I usually start with the flash, then poetry, then CNF, then fiction. Not just because it’s longer but because I have a more black-and-white reaction to the other submissions. Fiction sometimes needs to sit with me for a while before I label it “no” or “consider.” I have rescued submissions from the “no” pile after I’ll be baking cupcakes or something and a character or setting I read creeps in there while I’m leveling flour or something.

T: I love subs that stick with you. And ones that grow on you the more times you read them.

S: So what do you think of the flash submissions, in general?

T: Hmm. A lot of the time, I think the flash is well-written, but insubstantial. Like, more of a beginning or an anecdote or a sketch. I think, so what? When I read flash I need to be able to picture the whole story even though there are only a few words. It’s the Hemingway/iceberg thing. What’s on the page is the one-eighth of the iceberg that’s above the water, but from that, as a reader I need to be able to extrapolate what’s underwater. If the piece doesn’t imply anything beyond what’s explicitly laid out then it’s a no for me.

S: I think there’s some weird idea that flash is about word count and nothing else. Recently—maybe this reading period?—we had a flash submission that was too long for our parameters and wasn’t flash anyway, which was doubly frustrating. Then we had a fiction submission that fell under the flash word count limit but was rightly submitted as fiction because it wasn’t flash. I wanted to kiss that writer.

T: I also think humor is really hard to pull off, and that’s something a lot of people try in flash pieces. I’m not saying don’t try it, just that it’s a lot harder to do well than being serious. I think it’s because humor is such a personal thing—what one person loves another will hate. Example: I hate punchline endings. If you want to write jokes, do stand-up. But at the same time I’m sure other editors love them.

S: I don’t like anything that sets up to a punchline. I’m in the Monty Python Club. We used to get more humor pieces and I think it’s because we have some levity on the site and we have a fun title. But we’re not a humor magazine. Maybe people are reading us and discovering we don’t have a satire section.

T: I love writers who read through the archives before they submit. Three cheers for you!

T: Then there are the (long) stories masquerading as flash. You know, a story that clearly needs to be longer, but the writer has tried to cram it into 500 words. Reminds me of when I was a kid and all my stories “had” to end when I reached the bottom of the page. This type of story is recognizable by an abundance of detail (e.g. all the characters are introduced by their full names) that’s unnecessary unless it’s actually meant to be a longer story.

S: As a sidenote, if I see a full name in line 1, the story is on notice. I’m looking for reason #2 to slush it by that point.

T: Oh, me too! I’m not saying characters shouldn’t have full names, but a line 1 mention is definitely a red flag for me.

T: I am never enthused by work submitted by a third party (i.e. someone a writer has hired to submit for them). Just saying.

S: I don’t get that. Half the rush is clicking “send” and then sitting there waiting for a response, having your nerves tingle every time you open your inbox. I only get it if it’s a case of “I think this is brilliant and he never submits his work so I’m trying to prove a point.”

T: *ponders stealing Steph’s novels and subbing them for her*

S: *leaves them to be stolen*

T: Let’s look at some poetry. A common reason for saying no is poems that are strings of pretty words with no substance behind them (why are you telling me this? what’s the point? where’s the meaning?). A poem is more than than just description. Also a poem is not just a chunk of prose chopped up with (random) line breaks. Speaking of line breaks, sometimes I really like the content of a poem but the line breaks baffle me. If you’re not sure where to end a line, the best advice I’ve heard is to end on a strong word (not “of” or some other meaningless word).

S: Yes: end on a strong word. That’s one of the criteria I use on first read. Line breaks that end with “of” or “the” don’t say much to me. Rhyming poetry turns me off too. Sometimes a rhyme will slip by if it’s well done but usually the lines are forced to fit a rhyme and/or meter. That said, when we get a great poetry submission, it’s usually my favorite submission. Of all the things we’ve published, the poetry is what stays with me over years.

T: Like humor, I think rhyming poems are a genre that’s really hard to do well. More often they end up being cheesy.

S: Or sentimental to the point of saccharine.

T: The number one piece of writing advice I give students (with respect to essays) is to start by writing about concrete things not abstractions. Anchor your ideas to an object and your writing will immediately be better than if your ideas are just floating around unattached to anything. I feel like the same advice could be applied to many poems. Writing is interesting in its specificity. A poem that consists entirely of vagueness isn’t.

S: Specificity is the key across the board. A moment. An object. A character. Most of the submissions I put through to second read have elements of softness or vulnerability but they all have a hard edge.

T: Oh, crap. I just read a story I really liked and then noticed it’s a simsub. Blargh.

S: You had to go and like it, didn’t you?

T: 😛

T: Too much telling.

S: That’s still a huge problem in the writing world. I see it a lot in stories published elsewhere and I wonder if those editors aren’t getting good submissions or what’s going on that that’s what they choose to publish. Maybe I’m old school.

T: And then… there are the stories that almost have me until they abruptly careen into the ridiculous. I think this is a variation on “I’ve reached the end of the page; must end this story.” It’s like the writer gets scared of where the story could go, so they back off and go for melodrama instead. Disappointing.

S: I have a specific groan for when I read a story that falls apart at the end.

T: It’s the worst. Seriously, I hate it when that happens.

T: Some things are just not a good fit.

S: That’s especially frustrating. I want to include a note that says, “This is good. I can’t wait to see it published elsewhere.”

T: All dialogue. This is almost always going to be a no. A story is not a script.

S: I admit, not only have I done an all-dialogue stories but many moons ago, I submitted one. I was the “wtf?” of that month’s slush pile, I’m sure. But it wasn’t doing me any good sitting in my “finished” folder.

T: Ahhh, it’s a dead person story. At least he seems to know he’s dead (twist!). I hate stories with dead protagonists, to be honest. We get so many of these, so it’s a cliche, and it’s just not an interesting premise to me in the first place.

S: I had to specifically put it into Dead of Winter’s rules. We still get them. And The Sixth Sense is, what, 15 years old now?

T: I know, right?

S: Tell me/us something that will get a story marked “consider” on first read.

T: I like stories where I can’t immediately tell where they’re going.

S: I have a specific gasp for stories that surprise me in a good way.

T: The best.

T: So, I’ve reached the end of this month’s subs, and I literally have more subs in my DQ folder (mostly for attachments) than I do on my consider list. Just saying.

S: And the frustrating thing, if I may presume to speak for both of us and probably most lit journal editors out there, we want a huge consider list. We don’t like DQs and we don’t like to say “no” on first read. Very often, I start to say to myself, “Self, let’s reconsider this submission” and then a new submission comes in that’s exactly what I wanted and it reminds me not to change where I’ve set the bar.

T: Ideal number of DQs: 0. I mean, I’d much rather spend our time arguing about how to cut down a long shortlist than grumbling about people not following the guidelines. Ya know?

S: Too much of a good thing would be wonderful.


“You Shortlisted My Submission… Why Didn’t it Make the Final Cut?”

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

I want to begin this article with a word of encouragement. Please don’t give up on Toasted Cheese as a venue because your work is rejected once (twice, three times…). Be persistent! Many people submit to us only once and we never hear from them again. I obviously don’t know their reasons, but I hope it’s not because they think a single ‘no’ means ‘no’ forever. The ‘no’ applies to the submitted piece only and not to anything you might write in the future. Keep trying.

There is a much smaller group of writers who submit to us again and again, even when they repeatedly hear ‘no.’ If you fall into the former group—the writers who meekly retreat—you might think such writers are gluttons for punishment. But here’s the thing: eventually many of these persistent writers hear ‘yes.’

If we shortlisted your submission, we saw something in it—we think you’re on the right track—and when we say we’d like to see more work from you, we mean it. Keep writing, keep revising, and keep submitting.

Background Image: CC-by Patrick Slattery/Flickr

Background Image: CC-by Patrick Slattery/Flickr

Type A: Eager Beavers

Incomplete

The piece is well-written, and it’s the quality of your writing that caught our attention. What you have submitted is a polished piece of work. Yet, it’s incomplete. If nonfiction, it’s more of an anecdote than a story. If fiction, it’s a beginning without a middle or end. It’s the short-story version of polishing the first chapter of your novel to perfection, while failing to write the rest of the book.

Bellman says, “For me, it’s often that something feels like it’s missing—it doesn’t quite hold together, or something doesn’t make sense, or, in some cases, the writing is good, but it doesn’t seem to tell a story.”

Unfinished

The piece is complete, i.e. the whole story is present, but you’re not done with it yet. This is a first or maybe second draft that hasn’t been polished yet. Were you so excited to share—or so afraid you’d chicken out—you submitted the minute you typed ‘The End’? Did you spot a typo or realize you wanted to make a change immediately after you hit ‘Send’ and dash off a breathless addendum to the editor? If so, your piece is likely unfinished.

  • What these two issues have in common is writers who are impatient to get their work out there. We love that you’re excited about your work. But remember, part of writing is giving your work time to breathe. When you think it’s done, set it aside for a while. Work on something else. When you give it time, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and look at it more objectively. Alternatively (or in addition), take the time to run it past your writing buddy or group for feedback before submitting.

Type B: It’s Not You, It’s Us

Theme

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘fit’ from job interviews. While we don’t have preset themes for our issues, themes often arise organically during the selection process. If all of the pieces save one fit the theme(s), then that oddball piece might not make the cut. This isn’t something that’s set in stone—obviously if the piece is exceptional, it’s going in regardless of how well it fits with the other pieces—but if it’s something we’re waffling over, fit is definitely a factor taken into consideration.

Quality

Each month, we shortlist about ten submissions. Think of this like heats in track events. During each reading period, we read three months of shortlisted submissions. Think of this like the finals. When all the shortlisted pieces are read together and compared, inevitably some are going to rise to the top and others are going to fall to the bottom. The ‘bottom’ in this case is still good (you made it to the finals), but on this day, others were better. In addition, there’s an intersection between quality and subject matter. If two people have written pieces on the same subject (this happens more often than you think), we’ll likely choose only one of the two.

  • What these two issues have in common is that there’s an element here that’s beyond your control. You have no idea (nor do we) what other people are going to submit. If you’re going to write, you will have to accept that there’s an element of luck or serendipity to successful submissions. But there are some things you can do to improve your odds. Read back issues to familiarize yourself with what the editors are looking for. And always, continue working on your craft, making your writing the best it can be.

Type C: Houston, We Have a Problem

Error!

Sometimes a piece we might have accepted doesn’t make the cut because there are simply too many technical errors. Our staff is all-volunteer and we don’t have the time to do a line-by-line edit of your piece. While typos and minor usage errors are not cause for rejection, problems that occur throughout, and would require an intensive edit/extensive rewrite of the piece, are. Common problems that fall under this rubric are tense shifts (shifting back and forth between past, present, and future tenses) and point-of-view shifts, which can mean either head-hopping (jumping from one character’s point-of-view to another when you’re not using third-person omniscient) or shifting randomly between first- and third-person or first- and second-person.

Cobwebs

We’ll call this one cobwebs, after a poem I wrote in eighth grade that included the phrase ‘cobwebs of mist.’ Superficially, this poem was ok. It had some nice imagery. But that’s all it had. It lacked depth. It wasn’t about anything. There was nothing for the reader to make a connection with. This is perhaps the most common problem with poetry. Poems will contain imagery that makes them appealing at first glance, but on closer look there’s no substance—much like how when you try to grasp a spider web, your hand goes right through it. A good poem is more than just a description. What are you trying to say? What do you want to convey to the reader? Make sure there’s a there there.

WTF?

With longer fiction, and sometimes nonfiction, often we’ll be intrigued by the opening of the story, the premise. But somewhere along the line, things break down. The story becomes convoluted or impenetrable, bogged down by the writer trying too hard to be clever, mysterious, or deep—or goes off the rails completely (scary clown deus ex machina!). Remember: We’re readers, not mind-readers. We have no idea what’s in the eight-ninths of Hemingway’s proverbial iceberg that’s still in your head. All we have to go on is what is on the page. When you ask for feedback on your work, do you find yourself jumping in and explaining what you meant when readers say they didn’t understand where that clown came from or that the whole ‘clown thing’ didn’t make sense? Stop. Instead of explaining, listen to your readers. Then read your story again and ask yourself: is it really possible to figure out what the deal with the clown is knowing just what is on the page? Make sure readers can understand your story without an author’s note.

Bellman says, “I go for strong characters and a compelling tale that hangs together. If you are going to send me on a treasure hunt of meaning, at least give me a map.”

Ocean ChartNot this one.

  • What these issues have in common is they are all problems that can be solved by working on your craft. You have something to say and/or way with words, but writing is a process; as long as you are writing there will always be more to learn. Books on the craft of writing abound—make use of them. Pro-tip: your public library will have most of the popular writing craft books. Check out a wide variety for free first, then purchase the ones you find most useful to keep next to your desk. If you prefer more interactive lessons, sign up for a writing class, workshop, or conference. Classes and conferences are a chance to get a fresh perspective on your work, some feedback, and best of all, meet other writers, i.e. potential writing buddies or groupmates.

So there you have it: some common reasons why submissions don’t make it past the final cut. We hope you find this information helpful and look forward to seeing another submission from you soon!

Final Poll Results

A Guide to Designing Assignments that Require Students to Submit their Work for Publication

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Because Toasted Cheese is open to new and unpublished writers, we often receive submissions from students at all levels (graduate, undergraduate, high school, and occasionally even middle school). Some are writing students, but others are not. Some submit work of their own accord, while others have been required to do so as part of an assignment for a class. For those who submit on their own, their student status is usually incidental. They are writers first and foremost; they have something to say and their goal is the publication of their work—just like any other writer.

In contrast, those who submit because it’s required of them may not self-identify as writers, and in these cases, a desire to fulfill the requirements of the assignment is frequently their primary—and sometimes only—motivation for submitting. Oftentimes, a student’s reluctance to share their work and discomfort with the process can be painfully obvious.

On its own, “because it’s required” isn’t a great reason to submit. Students may end up frustrated and discouraged by a process that can leave them feeling embarrassed and rejected. The publications to which they are submitting may be annoyed by, or perplexed with how to deal with, a glut of inappropriate submissions. Teachers may be disheartened that a great idea in theory didn’t turn out as expected in practice. With that in mind, in this article, I walk through how to design a submit-for-publication assignment that is satisfying for all involved—teachers, students, and editors.

The Big Idea

Let’s imagine I’ve decided to assign my students the task of writing a story, poem, personal essay, opinion piece, or the like. Since I want students to see that this assignment as something that has a real-world application, I think it might be a good idea to require the students to submit their final work for publication. As I design the assignment, I want to keep in mind the answers to the following questions:

  1. What’s the education level of the students? Are we talking creative writing MFA students or ninth grade English students?
  2. What are my goals for the students? What do I want them to learn from submitting their work for publication?
  3. How much time will be devoted to this assignment? Is it going to be a semester-long process or is it something that needs to fit in a one-week window?

Overview

Like any assignment, a submit-for-publication assignment needs to be tailored to the abilities of the students. While MFA students are presumably capable of submitting a piece of work on their own without guidance, ninth grade English students are not. The less experienced the students, the more time I’ll need to put into guiding the submission portion of the assignment, to deciding what the ultimate objective of the assignment will be, and to following up after the submission process. I don’t want to make the mistake of spending the majority of the allotted time on the writing portion of the assignment and neglecting the submission portion. If there’s not enough time available to do anything more than have students submit their work for publication at the same time as they turn in the first draft of the assignment to be graded, I should rethink the assignment.

A submit-for-publication assignment should include at least one round (preferably more) of critique and revision prior to submitting. From a submissions perspective, this is important for a couple key reasons. First, submitting to real publications involves third parties: the editors of those publications (who, keep in mind, are often volunteers). It would be thoughtless of me to require students to submit without first assuring myself that they are sending their very best work. Second, I want my students to feel confident about the work they are sending out. After all, the reason many students, including writing majors, don’t submit on their own is because they feel insecure about their work. Asking them to submit before they’ve received any feedback on a piece is likely to make them feel even more uncomfortable about submitting. A few rounds of feedback before the actual submission will go a long way to polishing their work and instilling them with confidence.

I will also need to consider how to direct the submission portion of the assignment so that students target publications that would look forward to receiving their work. For students, submitting their work isn’t going to be satisfying unless their submissions have a real possibility of being published. Similarly, if editors are to look upon student submissions favorably, they must receive submissions that are appropriate in style, genre, and quality for their publication.

Finally, I should ensure there is sufficient time remaining after the students submit for a debriefing stage where students reflect on what they’ve learned from the process and how they might put that to use in the future. Depending on class size and the time available, the debriefing stage might include class discussion, teacher-student conferences, and/or a journaling exercise. Topics for discussion could include similarities and differences in submission requirements, common errors made by the students, reasons for choosing particular markets (and whether those were the right choices), which publications were student-friendly, etc.

Goal: To Familiarize Students with the Submission Process

I now need to decide what specific goals I want to accomplish with this assignment. One common goal is to get students comfortable with the submission process. Accomplishing this goal breaks down into two key components: researching and finding a suitable market to submit to, and learning to write a cover letter and follow submission guidelines. Depending on the students’ level and abilities, I might focus more on one or the other aspect. For example, with younger students, the main goal of the assignment might be to have them learn how to follow guidelines and write a formal business email. With graduate writing students, it would make sense to focus more on market research.

When it comes to the mechanics of submitting, I know younger students need more guidance than just “follow the guidelines” or “submit via email.” Most will have never written a business email and as this is a transferable skill that all of them can use regardless of whether they go on to become writers, it’s worth it to spend some time on this step. Some points I should cover include: using a professional-sounding email address, filling in your name on your email account so it appears in the “From:” line, locating submission guidelines, filling in the subject line as per the guidelines (never leaving it blank), sending submissions to the correct email address, and addressing submissions to the correct person.

If I’m focusing on this aspect of the assignment, I’ll have the students practice submitting by sending their complete submission to me, along with a copy of the submission guidelines they are following. This will give me the opportunity to give them feedback on their cover letter, as well as to ensure that they have followed the guidelines, before they submit. If I ask students to provide me with proof of their submission by sending me a copy of their email, I will instruct them to BCC (not CC) me, so that my email address does not appear on the email. While the receiving editor being aware that the submission is for a class assignment may have no effect on the outcome, there is no reason to unnecessarily put the students at a disadvantage.

Market research involves students finding and reading various journals and magazines in order to find suitable publications for their work. At this stage of the assignment, I might have students write reviews of their top three or five choices, explaining why they would like to see their work appear in these publications, why they think certain pieces were selected for publication, and why these venues are the best fit for their work. To accommodate a shorter time-frame or less-advanced students, I might modify the assignment by providing the students with a list of potential journals to start from. Regardless, before the students submit, I will ensure that the submissions are spread out over a number of journals, perhaps by having students declare their intended market on a first-come, first-served basis. I will not make the mistake of allowing fifteen students submit to the same journal, as this serves neither the students nor the targeted journal.

Finally, if I don’t think the students’ work is ready to submit yet, I will not have them submit to an external publication. Instead, I will consider an alternative such as having them put together their own anthology. Depending on the time available, this could be as simple as compiling all of the pieces into a PDF ebook or as complex as having the students themselves design and edit the anthology, and have it printed. With the many print-on-demand options available, this would be quite doable.

Goal: To Have the Submitted Pieces Accepted

Another common goal is to get the submitted pieces accepted. To accomplish this goal, I will of course require one or more rounds of revisions during the writing phase of the assignment. Ideally, students will receive feedback from their peers as well as from me.

Preferably, students will complete more than one writing assignment before attempting to submit anything. In a course with several writing assignments, I won’t require the students to submit every piece. Rather, I will have the students to choose one or two of their best pieces to submit. Every writer knows that there are projects that are best left as practice efforts, ones that don’t turn out as planned making them unsuitable for the intended market, and ones that need to be set aside to rest before being revised once again. Building in room for failure, experiments, and mistakes will improve students’ chances at success, both because the writing process will be less tense and because they’ll have confidence in the pieces they choose, an empowerment which will show in their cover letter.

I also need to keep in mind the students’ level and abilities. While a ninth grader’s C-grade story is definitely not ready for submission to The New Yorker, an MFA student’s A-level story is not necessarily either. There can be a difference between an excellent job, given the time constraints and guidelines of the assignment, and publishable quality. More importantly, there’s a distinction between work that’s so exceptional that it’s publishable anywhere and work that’s publishable, given the right market. Unless I have Alice Munro or one of the 20-under-40 in my class, it’s unlikely my students will have success submitting to The New Yorker. My role at this stage is to judge each student’s work honestly and to guide them toward publications where they will have the greatest chance of success. This will mean different goals for different students even within the same class. Maybe I do have an exceptional student who should try submitting to The New Yorker. Great. But for most students, it makes sense to have a more modest goal, particularly if this is their first submission.

Young students will improve their chances at success by aiming for markets that are only open to or that openly solicit work from young writers. Some ideas:

  • School-affiliated publications. Some school magazines/newspapers accept work only from students at the sponsoring school, others from similar-age students regardless of the school they attend.
  • Other publications that only publish young writers.
  • General-interest publications with calls for work from young writers (for a young writer issue, for example).
  • Writing contests that are only open to writers up to a certain age or enrolled at a certain level of education.
  • Community publications, particularly if the student has written a non-fiction piece on an issue of local interest.

There is no denying that facilitating a submit-for-publication assignment is labor-intensive, but done well, it will be a rewarding and positive experience for all.

Markets and Other Resources for Young Writers

Literary Journals that only publish Young Writers:

Contests:

Online Communities for Young Writers:

Workshops:

Additional Resources:


My thanks to Liz Baudler for sharing her insights as a creative writing student and editor.

Final Poll Results

Please and Thank You: The Purpose of a Cover Letter

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Recently, Toasted Cheese received a submission in which the writer asked in her cover letter whether such a letter was really necessary. After all, she reasoned, shouldn’t the work speak for itself? Indeed it should. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t include a cover letter with your submission. Here’s why.

The purpose of a cover letter isn’t to sell your story. It’s not a query, i.e. “May I please send you my work?” A cover letter is a letter included with a submission. Since you’ve already sent your work, the editors don’t need a synopsis or a pitch. They have your work. They’ll read it. You also don’t need to bombard the editors with pages of credits, credentials, and accolades (though, of course, a few are fine). Again, they already have your work. It’ll either stand up on its own merits or it won’t.

A cover letter is, first and foremost, a friendly way to introduce your submission. It’s like saying please and thank you rather than making a demand. Editors read many submissions at a time, and frankly, it’s just more pleasant to open one with a brief introductory note than one with the work and nothing else. It’s not so much what you say. It’s that you said something.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr.

Background Image: Ben Rimes/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa).

No, a cover letter won’t convince editors to select your work if it’s not what they’re looking for. But a concise, courteous letter will put the persons reading your work in the best possible frame of mind to read it. It may even make them more inclined to encourage you to submit again. And, after all, short of the coveted acceptance letter, that’s what you want.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some real cover letters Toasted Cheese has received in the past year to see what they got right—and wrong. We’ll start with the letter that inspired this article:

To Whom It May Concern:1

This isn’t the first time I’ve submitted to Toasted Cheese. This is, however, the first time that I’ve included more than just my work in the submission email. I never bothered2 with a cover letter before because I felt that it was unnecessary. I thought that if you (the editors of Toasted Cheese) liked my work, then you would accept it and publish it without needing to know anything more of me. In other words, I wanted my work to speak for itself.3 Please let me know if I have been mistaken.

If you do want to know more about me, then please read on. I am, perhaps like many of your contributors, a writer in my spare time only. I do wish that I could claim writing as my profession; only the reality of my abilities has hindered me, but I believe that practice makes perfect. And perhaps by the time I retire I would have mastered my craft.4

What follows are two poems inspired by a couple of Toasted Cheese writing prompts. The first is an interpretation of _____, and the second is on the theme _____.5

Sincerely,
Name6
A Would-be Writer7

P.S. Please let me know if a cover letter is required for all subsequent submissions.8

Here are my thoughts on this letter:

  1. “To Whom It May Concern” implies the writer doesn’t know whom she is addressing. It seems out of place here because (as shown in the first paragraph) she does indeed know. “Dear Editors of Toasted Cheese” would have been a better greeting.
  2. Using a phrase like “I never bothered” is a red flag. If you can’t be “bothered” to write a couple lines introducing yourself and your work and thanking the editors for their time, why should they be “bothered” to read your work?
  3. As noted above, a cover letter isn’t a pitch; it’s a courtesy.
  4. A little self-deprecating humor is fine, but don’t over-do. This essentially says, “my writing isn’t ready for publication yet.” If that’s the case, why are you submitting it? If it’s not the case, say something more positive about yourself/your work. Most creative writers have day jobs that pay the bills. What’s important is that you’re a doer rather than a dreamer.
  5. This brief introduction to the submitted pieces is more than sufficient. One tweak: including the title(s) of the piece(s) you’ve submitted in your cover letter is always appreciated.
  6. This is perfect.
  7. This is not. If there’s an outright don’t for cover letters, this would be it. If you can’t take yourself seriously, why should we?
  8. This is a valid question and I’m glad the writer asked it, but I’d have preferred to see it asked at our forums or on Twitter. By asking at the end of her letter, the writer has reminded the editors what a “bother” it was for her to write it, thus distracting them from her submission.

Here’s an example of a short cover letter that leaves the editors with a favorable impression of the writer:

Editorial Staff
Toasted Cheese
Date

Dear Editors:1

Pasted below is a short story titled _____. It is approximately _____ words in length.2 In the past few years I have published freelance articles in magazines relating to _____ and have an essay entitled “_____” to be published in the book ____ in spring or fall of 20__. I have not yet published a work of fiction.3 I would appreciate your time and consideration of this manuscript for publication.4

Best,
First M. Last

  1. As far as TC is concerned, this opening is ideal. Since we have several editors, a joint greeting such as “Dear Editors” is appropriate. For a publication with a single editor or one that has divided responsibilities (e.g. fiction editor, poetry editor), it would be better to use the editor’s name.
  2. This writer begins by telling us two things we want to know: the submission’s title and word count. By adding that the story is pasted in the email (the format we request), she indicates that she has read our submission guidelines.
  3. Including a few details about your writing credits, relevant degrees, or writing-related work or volunteer experience is one way to show editors that you’re serious about writing.
  4. Letting the editors know you appreciate the time they’re taking to read your work is arguably the most important part of your cover letter.

This is a good letter that hits all the major points. Two suggestions:

  • Toasted Cheese publishes a short bio with each piece, so it’s helpful if writers include a paragraph that is easily convertible into a bio, or a separate third-person bio that can be used as-is.
  • Make sure there is no ambiguity with respect to your byline by clearly stating how you would like your name to appear if your work is published.

Here’s another letter that does both those things:

Dear Flash Fiction Editor:1

Toasted Cheese first came to my attention through the Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market; after more research I determined that some of my writing might be a good fit for your publication.2 I am submitting a ____-word flash fiction story entitled “_____.”3 If accepted this would be my first published work.4

Brief Biography:
First Middle Last is a writer and _____ living in _____. She watches films and writes poetry, fiction and screenplays. She is happily married and learning about parenting through experience.5

Thank you for taking the time to consider my writing and I look forward to hearing from you.6

Sincerely,
First Middle Last7
Email
Phone Number8

  1. This isn’t a perfect opening for TC; we edit as a collective and as such we don’t have a “flash fiction editor” per se.
  2. Letting the editors know you’re familiar with their publication and/or have done your research is never a bad idea.
  3. Like the letter above, this writer clearly states the submission’s word count and title.
  4. If you’d like to share that you’re unpublished or haven’t published before in the genre you’re submitting, this is a good way to do it—it comes off as optimistic. Don’t be an Eeyore by bemoaning that you’ve never been published (or “only” been published in a venue you clearly don’t value) .
  5. This format is nice because it leaves no ambiguity as to a) what information you want included in your published bio, and b) how you would like your name to appear.
  6. A thank you is always appreciated.
  7. This writer is consistent with the version of her name used in the letter, which we appreciate. When your name appears several different ways in your letter—e.g. Elizabeth Smith, Lizzie Smith, E. Zillah Smith—it can be unclear which version you want to be published under (or even be addressed as).
  8. By including her contact information, the writer appears confident and professional. One tip: writers often include their email, phone number, and/or mailing address. Not so often included, but perhaps more relevant to an online publication: a link to your website/blog and/or the social networking site you’re most active at. We are happy to include a link in your published bio, so please include this information.

Keep in mind these are just examples; there are of course countless other ways you could include the pertinent information in your letter. When in doubt, err on the side of brevity. Here is a very short letter that is perfectly acceptable:

Dear Editor,

Here are my bio and short story, ______ (approximately _____ words). Thank you for considering my work.

Sincerely,
First Middle Last

First Middle Last is a writer and _____living in ______. Most recently, she has been published in _____, the literary journal of ______ University. You can read more of her work at firstmiddlelast.com.

As I hope these examples have shown, your letter needn’t be flawless to fulfill its purpose. Writing a cover letter shouldn’t be an onerous task. Save the multiple drafts for your creative work; a utilitarian cover letter works just as well as a clever one. And once you’ve written a letter you like, you can use it as a template for future submissions.

To summarize, in a cover letter you want to:

  • Greet the person(s) you’re writing to.
  • Introduce the work you are submitting.
  • Tell the editors a little about yourself.
  • Thank the editors for reading your work.
  • Close the letter with your name and contact information.

A few tips:

  • Rejection and re-submitting is part of being a writer. By all means, keep sending out your work until it finds a home. But please, freshen up your submission before submitting to a new publication! No editor wants to be able to count how many times your email has been forwarded.
  • Avoid generic openings. If there is a single editor, use the editor’s name. If there are multiple editors as at Toasted Cheese, you can address your letter to the editors as group (e.g. Dear Editors; Dear Toasted Cheese Editors). Alternatively, if you have a rationale for doing so, you can address it to one of the editors. For example, if you particularly like my Editor’s Picks, you could address your letter to me. This would signal to us that you’ve gone above and beyond in researching the journal and its editors.
  • Make sure to “sign” your letter. A good rule of thumb with email is to start formal. First contact should always include a greeting and closing/signature. You can drop the formalities as the conversation progresses.
  • Save the area below your signature for your contact information. Other personal information can be included in your bio, if you wish. “Jane E. Jones is a 38-year-old arctic researcher who lives with her husband and children in Iqaluit, Nunavut” sounds personable, whereas the same information in a list after your signature comes off a bit psychotic.
  • Before sending, read the submission guidelines one more time to ensure that nothing in your letter conflicts with them. In particular, make sure a publication accepts simultaneous submissions before sending a piece to more than one journal.

Ideally, the person reading your cover letter should come away with the impression that you’re polite, professional, and would be easy to work with. Do we toss submissions without cover letters? No, of course not. They’re a nicety, not a necessity. But the goodwill you generate by including one makes the few minutes it takes to write one more than worthwhile.

Final Poll Results

What Do We Look For
In Submissions? Q&A
with the Toasted Cheese Editors

Absolute Blank

By Theryn Fleming (Beaver)

Q: Of the four genres that Toasted Cheese accepts (poetry, flash fiction, fiction, and creative nonfiction), which do you most look forward to reading? Is there a genre you dread (or skip)?

Ana George: I usually start with the less populated genres (flash, poetry, CNF), and try to read the longer fiction a few pieces at a time, so I’m not too overwhelmed, and not too likely to get the various stories confused with each other.

Stephanie Lenz (Baker): When we get a poem that’s exactly what I like, it’s my favorite find. For me, there’s no middle of the road with poetry submissions. I love it or I hate it on first read.

For first cut, I go through submissions very quickly. If I fall in love with something, which is rare, I give it a “yes” on first cut. Sometimes my mood can tip the scales; I try not to read if I’m giving almost all “yes” or “no” votes. I read everything that’s submitted (except for Three Cheers and Midsummer Tale entries). I save fiction for last because it takes longest to read and sometimes I don’t have the fortitude.

Lisa Olson (Boots): I look forward to reading the strange and unusual stories. It could be fantasy and science fiction or romance and horror. What appeals to me is something that isn’t ordinary, or that is ordinary but in an unusual way. My most favorite is any kind of genre fiction. Guess I like to be pigeonholed.

I don’t really ‘skip’ reading much, but I usually bow out of poetry. I’m not schooled in what’s good or bad when it comes to poetry. I’m most familiar with free-form and kind of think of all it as ‘free’. I do like it, but I’m not confident in my opinion so I usually opt out.

Theryn Fleming (Beaver): I can’t choose a favorite. I also find it hard to skip anything, which is why I volunteered to be one of the shortlist readers. Like Baker, I read all the regular submissions we receive. I generally read the poetry, flash, and cnf together, and then read the fiction separately. Because we get more submissions in this category than the others, more pieces fall into the “good” range than in the other genres (which tend be more polarized). So decisions are more difficult and take more time.

Q: What are you looking for in poetry? …flash? …fiction? …CNF? What do you not like to see?

AG: In poetry, I like a single unifying metaphor, something striking and original, or at least an original twist on something I’ve seen before. Flash needs to be very concise, but hint at a larger world; it needs echoes of a larger space than you actually see on the page.

For fiction, and perhaps for CNF, I don’t really have criteria. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said (of pornography), “I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.” Thrill me.

SL: Poetry and prose need a good structure and strong, active word choice. I want a moment (or moments) with specificity, not broad brushstrokes. I don’t like moral judgments or preachy-religious overtones (although morality and religion are very welcome themes).

For poetry, I like free verse, concrete, grounded, and detailed as well as active. Think Mark Strand, Marge Piercy, Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Rita Dove, Billy Collins, William Carlos Williams, Gwendolyn Brooks, Carl Sandburg, etc.

Flash should be flash fiction, which has a certain style and feel. It’s not 500 words of fiction. Flash is tightly written with deliberate word choice and a density that short fiction doesn’t have (and shouldn’t have).

In fiction, characters should be flawed, interesting people who change over the course of the story. I’m easy to please in fiction. Write well and give me someone interesting to follow. Setting also holds weight with me. Show me a familiar place in a way I recognize or an unfamiliar place I can practically smell from what you present. I tend to like 20th century or contemporary stories set in the US but I’m not prejudiced against other settings.

For CNF I like a strong sense of place and I like a believable story but I don’t mind when a writer bends the truth to make the story compelling. For example, if you went to the market six times before the Interesting Event, I don’t mind if you let me assume it happened on your first visit.

LO: As I mentioned, I look for something new. I don’t like to see thirty stories on the same topic that all say the same thing. Take your story a little farther than where you thought it could go. You can always back up if you go too far, but see where ‘too far’ might be before you back off.

I find I favor character-driven stories rather than story-driven characters. If the ending doesn’t match the character or negates all the character’s work and strife, I usually don’t like the story. I follow characters that take stories into places I’ve never gone.

Amanda Marlowe (Bellman): I look forward to reading the fiction submissions the most. While I enjoy the other genres as well, I find the poetry and flash tend to feel less complete and more confusing than the fiction pieces. This, however, makes it all the more exciting when I find one of the shorter pieces that I really like. I like things that hang together as a coherent whole. Flash and poetry need to be connected to a larger whole, like glimpses through a window. I tend to struggle with ones that feel more like fragments of a broken window, or that are symbolic simply for the sake of being symbolic.

TF: With poetry, the most important thing for me initially is how it sounds; I’m not keen on prose masquerading as poetry. Sometimes you can win me over with one strong image or phrase. Similarly, I’m looking for flash that captures a moment or a scene that lingers and from which a story can be extrapolated. Think of something partway between poetry and prose.

For fiction, I value character and setting over plot. I love stories that can make me see/smell/taste/hear/touch places I’ve never been or that evoke familiar places in a way that makes me nod in recognition. That said, there has to be a reason for telling the story. I am most disappointed by stories that are otherwise well-written but that don’t seem to have a point.

Voice is especially important in creative nonfiction; it’s not what happened that matters so much as how you write about it. I’m looking for a nonfiction story, not an essay or a rant. Think fiction or flash, only with real people and real events.

Q: For fiction, what genres do you prefer? Are there any genres you aren’t interested in?

AG: I tend to be less interested in supernatural phenomena, though a good creepy ghost story will make my hair stand on end. Stories of things I’ve experienced, whether endless team meetings leading to something cool (or not quite…); or just dinner and a movie with some interesting twist… these things are interesting to me.

SL: I absolutely adore gothic, which in my opinion we don’t get nearly enough of for Dead of Winter. I’m pretty sure that gothic (horror with romance elements) would appeal to Erin as well as to me so that would be a big plus for future DOW entrants.

I also like literary (character-driven) fiction: the story could only happen to this character.

I’m not a big spec fic reader. I don’t seek it but if a well-written piece lands in my inbox, I’m happy to read it.

While TC doesn’t accept it, I’m a big fan of literary erotica. So don’t fear that your piece will be too sexually explicit for me (although TC might not be able to accept it). Just please don’t use euphemisms like “manhood” or “throbbing member.” TC has “members” and I believe that very few of them actually throb.

LO: There are no fiction genres I’m not interested in. I’ll read just about anything that doesn’t get out of the way. In movies, I don’t like horror but that’s not the case with fiction. If it’s a good story, I’ll read it.

AM: I like most genres. I tend to prefer SF/F and mystery for casual reading, which I why I like to judge our Spring Three Cheers mystery contest. But I enjoy the variety of submissions we get here at Toasted Cheese. It’s funny how some sort of theme tends to take over each reading period.

TF: While I’ll read anything, my preference is for literary or mainstream fiction. I also enjoy mysteries, and I’m open to experimental fiction. I’m not big on science fiction or fantasy, but I’m okay with some SF/F elements in story mostly grounded in the real world.

Q: Is there anything (e.g. topic, style, grammar peeve) that will earn a piece an automatic no from you?

AG: So-called ‘smart quotes’ look really dumb on the page if they’re resolved into question marks or some other glyph. Spelling errors: a few are forgivable, but wrong-word “but it passed my spell checker!” usages turn me right off.

SL: Flash submissions that are not flash style (these are usually excerpts or stories that happen to be under 500 words). Characters referred to by their first and last name followed by a police blotter description. All-caps. Multiple exclamation points. “Alright” “alot” and similar popularly-accepted words that grate on me, even in dialogue. Caricatures in lieu of characters. Telling instead of showing. A religious or moral message (i.e.: the “aren’t we all better people now?” ending). The “he doesn’t know he’s dead” twist. Gore for gore’s sake. Stilted dialogue. Poems that spell something down the first letters/words. Poems that make a shape just for the sake of making a shape. Rhyming poetry. Song lyrics the poet insists are also a poem. Contest entries that don’t follow the genre and/or theme.

LO: A lack of dialog will send the piece to the pile for me. I think any story is better and stronger when there are characters and action and dialog brings it forward better than long stretches of dissertation.

I also tend to avoid the without-purpose swearing. If swearing and cursing are not serving the character or the story, I’m out. Writers are all about words and choosing shock value over quality doesn’t work for me.

I suppose my biggest pet peeve is the non-ending ending. Not all stories need an end, but there should be a sense of closure. If a story just stops without resolving an issue or reaching a conclusion on some level I’m usually passing it by.

AM: It’s often not so much one specific thing than it is a combination of things. One thing, however, that makes me put down a piece really fast is eye fatigue. Long paragraphs of text make my eyes water, especially when I am reading on the screen. We get some paragraphs that would easily be two pages in a printed book. Often these are the opening paragraphs, too. While there are exceptions, people who use long paragraphs usually do it give us a very “tell-y” section of exposition, so that’s kind of a double strike. Show me, make me feel it, don’t tell me about it. Grab my attention in the first paragraph, and don’t let it go. If I read the first paragraph, then skip to the end to see “if things improve” before reading further, well, that’s not a good sign.

TF: First to go are pieces that are clearly inappropriate for TC: stories aimed at children, morality tales, men’s sexual fantasies. A multitude of grammar/spelling errors will also send work to my No folder. Everyone makes the occasional typo, but not bothering to proofread at all is sloppy and disrespectful. Next would be work submitted in the wrong genre: fiction submitted as nonfiction, prose submitted as poetry. Stories with scenarios that are overly familiar also go. I won’t generally reject just for bad formatting, but by now (2010) writers should have a grasp on how to copy & paste and format an email.

Q: Please share something from Toasted Cheese‘s archives that is a good illustration of what you like.

AG: I used my Editor’s Pick on Chris Yodice’s “One Last Storm” in part because of the wealth of small detail, which made the actual reading a pleasure, and the larger story: the ambiguity of intentions between the characters, amplified by adversity (in this case, the weather).

SL: For poetry, “Pause” and “4 Short Poems about Sex” (favorite published selection… so far) by C.L. Bledsoe, and for fiction, Kate Gibalerio’s “Malicious Acts.”

LO: Richard Wolkomir’s “Do Not Go Gentle.”

AM:Foolish Creatures” by Frank O’Connor is a good example of the sort of flash I like. There’s a whole story there, and and even larger one beyond what is there. The imagery works well, and the piece is grounded in details instead of generalities.

TF: Fatima M. Noronha’s “Abbey Road and Mister Maniappa” has a lot of things I’d like to see more of: a tangible setting that’s new to me, distinctive characters, and strong dialogue that drives the story forward.

Final Poll Results

Submit to Me!
A quick guide to help you
avoid annoying the editors

Absolute Blank

By Erin Nappe (Billiard)

In addition to my editing here at Toasted Cheese, I also recently took on a freelance editing job for an e-book publisher. As a result, I read many query letters, cover letters, and synopses (as well as stories and novels) from first-time writers.

When trying to get published, it’s best to be sure that you don’t do things that annoy, vex, or otherwise irritate the editors you’re hoping will publish your work. I surveyed my fellow editors for their favorite pet peeves, and we came up with these eight things you can do to make sure your story or novel doesn’t get tossed to the bottom of the slush pile:

  1. Make sure your submission follows the guidelines

The surest way to make sure your submission doesn’t get read is not to follow the submission guidelines. Most publications have their guidelines readily available, if not online, then in books such as the Writer’s Market. If you don’t want to buy your own copy, make a trip to the nearest bookstore or library and take notes. (Please note—guidelines on a publication’s website supercede information found in a print publication. They’re usually more up-to-date!) Submission guidelines are written for a reason; they’re not just arbitrary rules. We disqualify dozens of submissions each submission period for not adhering to our guidelines.

Read and follow guidelines carefully. And do be sure to actually read the publications to which you’re submitting. Many times, you will find stories and articles available online. If not, head back to that bookstore or library, or order sample copies of the publication.

  1. Adhere to deadlines

If you’re given a deadline, stick to it. Being late will not endear you to any editor. Here at TC, stories submitted to the e-zine after the submission period ends get bumped to the next submission period. We publish quarterly, which means you’ll be waiting a long time for a response. Know the deadlines and plan accordingly.

Other deadlines are a bigger deal. A late contest entry will be disqualified, for example. Missing deadlines for magazines or corporate jobs will likely cost you the job and damage your reputation.

If you’re working with an editor on a novel, missed deadlines will make your editor cranky. No one wants a cranky editor. If you say you’ll have a manuscript to your editor by a certain date, well, it only stands to reason that the manuscript actually reach your editor on or near that date! Quite simply, you need to maintain positive working relationships with the people who want to publish your writing.

  1. Take as much care with your cover letter/query/synopsis as you do with your story

Nothing turns an editor off more than a sloppy, poorly-written cover letter or synopsis. This is the surest way to make sure that your submission doesn’t get read.

Write carefully. Proofread. Edit. Proofread again. Have a friend/spouse/significant other proofread it for you. Don’t be careless with this step; often, it’s the first impression we’ll have of you. Make sure it’s a good one!

It’s also important to note that you shouldn’t skip this step. We want to know who you are, and we want to know why you think our publication is the very best place for your work.

  1. Keep it positive

Theryn Fleming (Beaver) says, “My #1 cover letter peeve is when people say something negative about themselves and/or the publication being submitted to.”

Most of the TC editors agree on this one. Statements such as, “If you don’t like it enough to respond, it won’t be the first time”, “I’ve never been published”, or “You probably won’t like this” tell us you don’t really have faith in your work. “If [the writer] doesn’t believe in her ability, why should I?” says Baker. “Let your story do the talking for you. Better a ho-hum cover with a great submission than a ‘losing already attitude’ and the same submission.”

In most cases, it is not at all necessary to say you haven’t been published before or that this submission is your first. If you don’t have any relevant publishing credits, simply leave this section out of your letter.

(For more, see The short, sweet guide to writing query letters by Baker)

  1. KISS your queries and cover letters

The best advice for queries and cover letters is to keep them simple, only providing the necessary information. You don’t need to tell us your age, occupation, hobbies, or shoe size. We don’t need to know where you went to college, where you grew up, or how long you’ve been writing.

And as for previous publications? We think it’s best to list a few of your most recent or relevant publications. Many editors find long lists of publications tedious and unnecessary.

  1. Write your query/cover letter naturally

I’ve seen a number of queries that follow submission guidelines point by point. I find this tedious and distracting. For example, the publisher I’m working for asks that the query letter include a “marketing hook.” I got this in one of my queries:

“Since I’ve never submitted to an e-publisher before, I’m not sure what you mean by marketing hook. I certainly understand what marketing is but would ask you to clarify that requirement.”

Statements like this will only mark you as an amateur, and a lazy one at that. If you’re not sure about something in the guidelines, do some research or ask for clarification. (P.S.—the place to ask for clarification is not in your query.)

  1. Make it personal

Generally, editors do like to be called by their names. Do a little bit of research to find out who you’re submitting to, instead of using the generic “To Whom it May Concern” or “Dear Editor”.

There is an exception, though. If the publication has an editorial board, like Toasted Cheese does, don’t address your cover letter to a single editor. This will just make you seem rude. “While you may have done your homework, you didn’t understand it,” adds Beaver.

And finally, please, please, please don’t send us a letter addressed to an editor at a different publication. Don’t send out letters that are obviously mass carbon-copies to dozens of editors. You will forever be branded as amateurish and unprofessional. While it’s fine to use the same basic template for your cover letter, be sure to personalize it for each publication.

  1. Show, don’t tell

I saved my own personal biggest pet peeve for last—authors who tell me in their cover letter or query how wonderful/funny/touching their story or novel is, as in this example:

“How they resolve these issues is at times funny and at others poignant.”

Also, please don’t tell us how much your mother/spouse/next-door-neighbor/dog loved your manuscript. While this may be true, it is entirely irrelevant.

Don’t tell me how good your story is. Show me. A good cover letter should give me enough information to make me want to read on and discover all the things you love about your manuscript.

Some final words of advice

We know how scary submitting your work can be. Don’t let yourself get rejected simply for making these easy-to-fix mistakes. Approach all submissions professionally, be yourself, and above all, make sure your writing sparkles!

Final Poll Results