Dear Literary Editor—and Writer


Open Letters by Steven Lewis and Rob Spillman

A Candid Exchange About Literary Publishing


“Green Machine” © Abbe Mogell; used by permission

Dear (in no particular order or inference) Wendy Lesser, Ladette Randolph, Rob Spillman, Linda Swanson-Davies, Susan Burmeister-Brown, Sigrid Rausing, Lorin Stein, Sy Safransky, Bret Lott, Stacey Swann et al.:

After my family, I love nothing more than writing. And hanging around writers. Drinking with writers. Teaching writers. Going to workshops with writers. Attending writers’ readings and signings. So, it gets my angry father up when I see editors and publishers abusing writers. It’s akin to some jerk slapping around one of my kids or grandkids.

Of course, you may think I’m talking about the bottom-line barbarians from Penguin Random House or the Trident Media Group. But no. The bullies I’m talking about here are the small-press, literary-magazine, Writing Down the Bones, Bird by Bird folks who pride themselves on being advocates for writers. The ones who stake their claims on guarding the literary gates from the onslaught of Corporate America.


Just lift the delicate veil of literary high-mindedness, and it’s easy to see the disdain for writers on most websites. It begins with those submission guidelines. Behind the touchy-feely supportive language about your devotion to words and ideas—and the welcoming invitations to all writers, novice and experienced alike, to submit their work—you state that it will take three or four or five or six months (and sometimes more) to respond to a submission.

Why does it take that long? Have you ever once considered the burden on writers who wait up to half a year for your judgment?

Then there are all those rules about exclusivity. You’re very clear about not considering anything that has been previously published, online or in print, in a blog or a Facebook posting. But what does it matter if any piece of writing—which most of you are getting for free—shows up in five or fifty other publications first? Your little magazine is not that important. It’s not that special or unique. The literary world will not crumble if a terrific poem is distributed widely.

And finally, but not finally, there’s the actual human being who wrote the piece that’s languishing in your slush pile for months at a time. That writer. The well-behaved one, the one among thousands and thousands of hungry well-behaved writers, who has sent in a well-worked piece, who has followed each and every one of the guidelines, and who has taken it out of circulation for those three or four or five or six months—working against his or her self-interest, fearing your wrath.

One day, many months later, that anxious writer will almost certainly open the mailbox—or inbox—only to find a rather corporate-sounding rejection form letter in response to his or her exclusive submission that says nothing. “The piece is not right for us. Good luck in placing it elsewhere.” The note is not signed by a human being.

Shame on you.

Shame on you for taking so long.

Shame on you for not having the decency to write one thoughtful sentence about the submission after keeping it that long.

Shame on you for asking so much of writers—in time, creativity, sweat, angst, patience, loyalty, ink—and then cowering in such effete style behind the arrogant cloak of “The Editors.”

Shame on you for treating writers like indentured slaves.

As Frank Bascombe says in Richard Ford’s novel Let Me Be Frank With You, I am beyond “white people’s shit.” There is simply no reason to have a six-month backlog for any publication. Put in some goddamn time and catch up. Or if that’s too hard, just dispense five months of submissions with your empty-suit rejection letters and start over. Then commit yourself to respond to each submission in a few weeks—a month at most.

And if you’re still so self-important you can’t figure out how to respond to every writer in a reasonable time, don’t be tight-assed about multiple or previously published submissions. Unless you can get back to a writer in four weeks, abandon all self-righteous and self-serving claims to exclusivity.

Your mission is to help spread the words.

To honor the writer.

To honor the writing life.

To support writers.


Yours truly,

Steven Lewis

“Typing in Color” © Abbe Mogell; used by permission

Dear Steven Lewis:

There is no veil. The process is transparent. Like most established literary magazines, Tin House, which I edit, receives over 20,000 submissions a year. We read each submission. Every single one. Most submissions are read by multiple readers. At any one time, we have 25 readers, 6 interns, and 5 editors attempting to read these 20,000 submissions in a timely manner.

We are not running a pyramid scheme. We do not charge for submissions. But we do pay our writers. We allow simultaneous submissions, but you're right, we don't publish previously published work. In fact, publishing previously published work would be damaging to the literary world, because it would damage writers, particularly emerging ones. Every time a poem, story, or essay is republished, that's one more poem, story, or essay that remains unpublished.

You presume an adversarial relationship, that the supportive language on our submission guidelines is insincere, that we’re not really interested in reading work or attending to its authors. I’d argue the opposite. The response time can be slow because we are reading all 20,000 submissions with care and attention. If we weren’t hoping to find new voices, new work to love and bring to the world, why would we take on that tremendous workload? Why even have open submissions? Why allow for simultaneous submissions, when we know that work we might want can be taken elsewhere? We do this out of faith in the community of writers and in their work. We are continually surprised and renewed by fresh voices.

If you have a method for carefully considering the 55 submissions that come in every single day of the year, I am all ears.

You ask, “Have you ever once considered the burden on writers who wait up to half a year for your judgment?” I would ask you, “Have you ever considered the burden on a literary magazine of going through 20,000 submissions a year?”

According to your letter, we owe it to each submitter to critique their work. My understanding of our place in the literary ecosystem is to read your work with good will, a keen eye, and an eagerness to be impressed. Our job is not to teach you how to write.


Rob Spillman


Art Information

  • “Green Machine” and “Typing in Color” © Abbe Mogell; used by permission.

Steven LewisSteven Lewis is a contributing writer and columnist at Talking Writing, a former mentor at Empire State College, current member of the Sarah Lawrence College Writing Institute faculty, and longtime freelancer. His work has been published widely, in journals from the notable to obscure, including the New York TimesWashington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Los Angeles Times, Ploughshares, Narratively and Spirituality and Health.

He’s also literary ombudsman for Writers Read. His recent books include Zen and the Art of Fatherhood, The ABCs of Real Family Values, The Anxious Groom, Fear and Loathing of Boca Raton, and A Month on a Barrier Island. His new novel, Take This, was recently published by Codhill Press.

Rob SpillmanVisit him online at Steven Lewis’s website or @LewisWrite4hire on Twitter.

• • •

Rob Spillman is the editor of Tin House.



All thoughtful comments—from

All thoughtful comments—from both sides. However, there is a significant difference between their positions:

The folks on the editorial side work at their jobs regularly, and generally receive regular paychecks, which allow them to pay their bills regularly.

The folks on the writing side work just as regularly, but are paid intermittantly if at all. Lengthy waits, exclusivity, restrictions on writers' promoting their own writing (on a blog or elsewhere) all make the writer's life more difficult. It's insulting to hear that a thoughtful response (as opposed to a form rejection) is "doing a writer's job." Even the briefest personal note is a sign of respect, an indication that one's work has, in fact, been read carefully.

I wonder: how deep into a

I wonder: how deep into a submission before an editor knows the piece is not for his publication? Bet it's within the first 200-300 words. So the 800 submissions per 5-day workweek is perhaps a bit misleading. It's not like each and every submission goes through a multi-reader, vigorous vetting. At least the pieces that clearly don't work deserve a swift if polite death. Sure, before publishing a piece must masticated mentally and thoroughly digested. Perhaps even regurgitated once or twice, like a cow chewing its cud. No easy answers here. How do you spell conundrum?

I'll join the writers' chorus

I'll join the writers' chorus. Mel's point is especially noteworthy, something that had me nodding my head the second I read it. I've made a living as a newspaper reporter. I've edited and taught writing. And I never considered doing it for free.

But writing -- especially writing that's off the beaten paths of journalism, teaching and freelance editing -- is in many ways a sucker's game. Writers are willing to put up with countless indignities in the name of getting published in any of the big-deal, if not big-name literary journals. Steve very colorfully and accurately describes those indignities. The requirement that a writer limit his submissions to a single publication (not at Tin House, but most everywhere else) and this absurd requirement for virginal copy that's never been seen outside the writer's cave is innately disrespectful. It reminds me of the attitude long common to newspapers, where a concern for writing has rarely been paramount: they'll pay as little as possible because they know a newspaper reporter will do almost anything to get that job. Getting into newspapering, especially today, is an open admission that you're not in it for the money, because everyone knows the money's not there. Newspapers offer reporters the glory of seeing their name in print, of being part of a grand tradition, in lieu of a livable wage. It's the same, it seems to me, with today's - you should excuse the expression-- content managers. They're swamped with free stories, apparently. As Mel says, how long does it take for a (salaried) editor to eliminate a story that's "not for us."? It's not as if you have to offer comments or suggestions or DO anything, unlike a writing teacher or coach who can spend hours trying to shed light on a student's efforts.

Never having submitted anything to Tin House, I can't say with certainty that accepted stories don't get a thorough and useful treatment. Maybe they do. But something tells me Steve's experience is vastly more justifiable, not to mention common, than is the "burden" of having a paid staff on hand to scrutinize and issue form letters to the 19,000-plus writer who don make the cut at Tin House and outfits like it.

Well, I have to weigh in on

Well, I have to weigh in on the editor's side, at least at literary magazines, although as a writer I've certainly experienced all the indignities Jeremiah is talking about in the realm of journalistic outlets. First off, editors at most small lit magazines aren't paid, unless the magazine is affiliated with a college or university. I'm not paid to edit Talking Writing, and neither are most TW staff editors who are reviewing submissions. We're not dealing with an onslaught of thousands, as Tin House is, but it still requires a lot of effort with no compensation. Second, most magazines now accept simultaneous submissions, which is part of the reason for why editorial staffs often feel they're drowning when they look at their submissions queues. (In fact, this is the main reason TW charges a token submission fee--to cut down on the number of submissions.) That said, Steve knows I believe in treating writers with respect, and I'd say there's certainly room for improvement over the traditional snitty form letters. What I'd really like to see—and I've said and written about this before—is everyone in the literary publishing community fighting together against the current Powers That Be in media. Writers and editors arguing with each other has begun to feel like a couple of hungry dogs snapping over a meatless bone. 

Martha: I may have taken

Martha: I may have taken something for granted or thought it went without saying in my first comment, so I'll say it: Talking Writing is an exceptional place to be for writers and readers. Speaking as one who has been lucky enough to see his stuff published here, your keen editorial attention is, as you know, always more than welcome. And that's been the case with other folks who have dealt with my copy. Best watch out, or I'll risk further accusations of sycophancy and write a tell-all about what it's like to be edited and published at such a responsive, thoughtful and useful literary website.

Rob Spillman: First, please

Rob Spillman: First, please know that I appreciate your response to my rant--it's a menschy thing to have done--and that, having served in an editorial capacity in many literary enterprises over the past 50 years (though admittedly none as impressive as Tin House), I have long considered the burdens that almost all literary magazines face. Also, I do think that you make several convincing arguments about the challenge of co-existing with those burdens. Touche!

That said, at the personally appalling risk of seeming like the Donald Trump voice for the vast number of disenchanted and disenfranchised writers out in the literary world, I am dismayed that you never once in your response acknowledged or sympathized with the burdens faced by the thousands (could it be millions?) of writers who submit their work in good faith to magazines like yours--and end up six months later with nothing more to show for it than a corporate sounding note signed by no one. And sometimes not even that. That's a problem--and it speaks to the disdain for writers I have observed as virtually endemic in the literary magazine field.

A few smaller points:
1. The submission/selection process is not, as you assert, transparent. While writers might be aware that there is a complicated selection procedure that editors must go through to choose the right pieces for each issue, no writer is--or should be--privy to the mechanism of that process. That is not one of my concerns.
2. I was not accusing Tin House--or any other of the fine magazines included in the salutation--of running a pyramid scheme. (We all know the scoundrels in the field who do that, but that is decidedly not an issue with the vast number of well-intentioned literary publications I have known--and published with--over the decades.)
3. I was also not pointing a finger specifically at Tin House. In fact, I regard your publication as one of the few in the field which at least tries to be a better partner to writers. The address--and the problem--is far more generic than the practices at Tin House ... and include Tin House.
4. I simply do not agree that printing previously published work would be damaging to the literary world. Seems like overreach, a weak rationale for proprietary rights. However, I do understand that many well-intentioned people in the field disagree with me--and this might be an interesting topic of conversation over a beer sometime.
5. I do not think--nor did I say--that you owe each submitter a critique of the work. I also do not think--nor did I imply--that it is any editor's job to teach someone how to write. What I did say is that you--and all editors--owe every submitting writer the respect of signing your name to the form letters you send out. What I did say is that you--and all editors--could do a much much better job of returning submissions in a much much shorter and respectful amount of time. As Mel and Jeremiah suggested in their comments, the reality is that in the vast majority of submissions, the decision that the piece is not "right" for any given publication is made within the first few sentences or stanzas--and can be dealt with quickly and respectfully with a form note and an editors name at the bottom.

Hey, Martha,

Hey, Martha,
Just read my comment. Is there any way for me to edit my typos?
Either way, this is fun (or almost fun).
Thanks, S

Just FYI, Mr. Lewis, it felt

Just FYI, Mr. Lewis, it felt a little bit weird to be namechecked here when I haven't been an editor since 2009. I'm on the masthead of ASF and help out unofficially, but I don't read submissions and I don't weigh in on the stories that appear in the journal.

Such a wonderful exchange. I

Such a wonderful exchange. I'd like to see something similar directed at literary agencies. Also, small and indie book publishers. Not because of any specific beef I have, but because every business environment we writers have to interface with presents such a bizarre set of hurdles ... and for the most part we don't get paid even if we make it through the obstacle course! (God bless Tin House for the money at least).

All that said, it seems to me this whole computer world is changing publishing for the better in at least a few ways. Remember the good old days when we had to post our stories along with the all-hallowed SASE? These days, not only is there email but most houses, even many agencies, use Submittable (or something similar). Not gonna talk here about the really old days when we had to type up a manuscript poyfectly and send it in on heavy-duty bond paper.

Of course, in those days writers sometimes actually got paid (I remember $600 for a 1200 word piece was easy pickin's). Remuneration really is quite an important point here. Of course, again, back then there probably weren't so many fools trying to get stuff in through the literary gates as there are now.

One thing I think Steven and others are onto, though, is the question of publishing stuff that may have seen the light of the world already. It's one thing to have a policy of not publishing already published material. But it's quite a different thing to carry that policy into the realm of blog posts and/or self-published manuscripts. So many of us these days NEED to publish our own work without hindrance. There's a timing element sometimes. There's also creative zeal. And you also have sheer frustration (five years ago I self-pubbed my first novel written in the 1990s).

And yet, as many who read TW know, practically no one reads our web posts, and we might sell 5 copies of an indie published book in a year through Amazon. It's sad, really. I had a piece turned down by a prominent online lit pub because I'd posted a draft of it on my blog two days before. It was a eulogy for Galway Kinnell. As far as I know, they never posted anything about Kinnell's death. They could have had mine (for free!), which I eventually published at I would much rather have posted it with them.

I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining here. What's important to note is that the industry is always changing in the mechanics of how it does business. But sometimes writers feel like publishers and editors aren't able to hear what we're telling them. Sometimes it feels like they have their issues and we just need to shut up and be happy someone wants to use our work for something. But it really does suck down here a lot of the time now that there's very little money in this game. We really do feel like we're beyond "white people's shit." It would be nice, maybe, if we just didn't have to feel that quite so much when we're sending stuff in with our fingers and our toes crossed, knowing that we have to stay in that pose for six months ... or maybe longer.

Steve, I think this

Steve, I think this discussion is a little bit fun—or at least necessary (and don't worry about typos).

David, great observations here, I just want to point out that at TW, it's not quite as depressing as "practically no one reads our web posts." Compared with BuzzFeed, sure, or anything that involves a Kardashian. But one of the great ironies of literary publishing in the digital era is that a magazine like TW draws more traffic over time than a single issue of a print lit magazine. Pieces on our site have a "long tail," meaning that many continue to attract readers years after they were first published. Print still has the feeling of being something real, and there's a much larger discussion to be had about different venues for publishing, but I still remain fairly optimistic about drawing a bigger and more diverse audience online for literary work. If I didn't, I wouldn't continue to edit Talking Writing.

Yes, I am sure TW gets plenty

Yes, I am sure TW gets plenty of traffic. I was really talking about writer's blogs, especially literary writers and those, like me, who do social commentary. And I didn't really mean to sound depressing, so much as to just state the reality of how it all feels. Funny thing is that those feelings all go away every time you post something -- whether to your own blog or to e-zines and other organized forms of media online. Like these days, I look forward to my next piece coming out in TW. That will get me through a good three to four days.

And I totally agree with you Martha about the long-tail business model for literary mags online. I'm proud to have written for TW almost since its inception.

Thanks, David, and I'm

Thanks, David, and I'm thinking that a look at how (and why) individual writers use their websites and blogs could make a terrific feature article . You point to the satisfaction of publishing one's work in a public venue of any kind, even if you know the audience is very small. On the other hand, many writers are now wrestling with whether it's worth maintaining individual blogs, especially given the shift of so much traffic to mobile platforms. And there's always the question of who's reading any of this and how to reach interested potential readers in the midst of so much digital noise.

Might be an interesting piece

Might be an interesting piece, Martha. I'd be more than willing to entertain such an endeavor if I could interview ten or so writers of such repute. I'd also like to see evidence that folks are questioning the worth of maintaining blogs. I suppose a lot of folks are migrating to Medium and other amalgamated settings, but I haven't seen anything direct covering this issue. I don't know, it might be a depressing piece. I'll come clean and say that my own blog gets an average of about 12 page views a day by about 5 people. But no day goes by where I ain't got no hits.

David and Martha: I'm loving

David and Martha: I'm loving all the disparate elements of this extended conversation. Your exchanges reminded me of the years (10? 15?) that I wrote a regular column for the local weekly in our small town. I certainly didn't do it for the money--$35 for 1000 words--but simply because I was free to write what inspired me and because I loved how people would stop me on Main Street or the town dump or the little league field ... to argue, yell, fawn, snarl, hug, etc. ... many times for some sentence I had forgotten I wrote. It really didn't matter what they said (up to a point), but the sense of connection to the community was that satisfying. In contrast, I was also doing a lot of writing in those days for slick magazines, ones that paid quite well and sometimes led to nice speaking engagements and book contracts but ultimately left me feeling empty, alienated by time and space from an intimate audience. So as soon as all seven kids were grown and on their own--and the economic imperative had shifted--I abandoned the slick venues and began to write only for "small" magazines and literary events (with big hearts). And in the process returned to the satisfactions--and much more--I knew while writing for the Huguenot Herald.
Today my two greatest writing pleasures, beyond the writing itself, are contributing to Talking Writing (I'm not pandering) and participating in readings around the New York metropolitan area for "650: Where Writers Read." The intimacy and connectedness I find through both--even online--is so heartening.

A bit of historical

A bit of historical perspective that rang some bells for me, from Garrison Keillor:

Dr. Johnson said: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” His house (below) is a twist and turn off what once was Grub Street where scriveners of low repute such as Daniel DeFoe and Jonathan Swift grappled for their next shilling, writing whatever might pay, available for rent by politicians and scalawags, a ragtag army of hacks in their grimy garrets, not so different from the painted ladies lurking in the doorways of lowdown dives in the byways and alleys. Not so different from website hacks and online publishing today.

In my day, there was a period of literary social-climbing, when a young writer aspired to The New Yorker and Alfred A. Knopf, and now that world seems to be crumbling, and we are back to the alleyways, scratching out screeds and broadsides, dashing off verse, TV scripts, memoir, satire, kiddie books, and taking pride in our prolixity and profligacy.

When I was in college, writers were still under the spell of the romance of self-destruction, the long shadows of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Wolfe, the Alcoholics Unanimous of American Lit. Fitzgerald died at the age of 44 in Hollywood and to us his death seemed inevitable. A great writer would not join A.A., it would compromise his talent. The suicidal life was seen as the natural fate of genius, and young writers felt an obligation (unspoken, but still) to learn how to drink wild amounts of Scotch and gin and chain-smoke cigarettes.
In those years, I knew many writers who only wrote poetry and would not stoop to put their hand to fiction or essays. It seemed to be a religious decision, a vow of poetry, and along with it came an impossible high standard which was a matter of pride. The less poetry you produced, the better. Months, years, of silent grinding frustration was a good sign of true genius. They almost competed to see who could write less. Also to be incomprehensible, but that went without saying. Nobody wrote light verse. Sometimes they wrote lavish reviews of each other’s work, and they struggled for years to write the theses that would earn them the degrees they’d need to become academics and teach creative writing and if possible pass on the romance of self-destruction and non-writing to the young. Prolific poets such as Robert Bly, William Stafford, and W.S. Merwin were odd birds in this cosmology. Stafford made a practice of writing a poem a day and what was one to think of that? That time seems so weird to me now. My old anguished poet friends. I chose comedy. It feels like the best road to take. Dr. Johnson feels like a colleague. Of COURSE you write for money. Good luck.

I stopped submitting to

I stopped submitting to literary magazines twenty years ago after the following incident... An editor at a fairly well known literary magazine asked me to help him edit a special issue about the prose, poetry and art of the country where I live (not the USA). I worked for months to invite writers and artists to contribute, choose the best of the work, and translate some of their poetry and prose into English. I also coordinated work with all the other translators, of course. I was paid nothing. I lost quite a bit of money because of the correspondence with writers and editors (no Internet back then), and especially because I mailed one copy of the final product to each of the authors who contributed work (about 25 people). But I thought that the final product was worth it. I'm still proud of it. About six months after the special issue was published, I finished a short story that I thought might work for the editor of the literary magazine, so I sent it to him, along with a personal letter of course. About six weeks later, I got back a photocopied form letter "signed" by one of the editor's assistants, rejecting my work. Please note, that I wasn't asking for special treatment, and I did not count on my work being accepted, but after six months of work co-editing his special issue, I did expect a brief note or some other sign of interest. After that, I realized that trying to get my short stories published wasn't worth the hassle. I concentrated instead on my novels. I've never regretted that decision, and although I've started writing stories again, I do not send them out for publication.

Dar en el clavo, Richard. The

Dar en el clavo, Richard. The highhanded disrespect implicit in the unsigned form rejection note is far worse than the ordinary disappointment of the rejection itself. (Unrelated: I, too, grew up in Roslyn Heights ... 10 years before you.)

On the other hand, while the

On the other hand, while the norm is the painful form letter/email (and those so truly suck!), every once in a while you do get a personal note. That should tell you something (although it's often not clear what). I have followed up said notes with something hopeful or engaging and been surprised at the support or direct communication that comes back. None of that has yet turned into a contract, but in a small way that kind of thing makes me feel like I've gone farther down the trail than I thought I'd gone.

A sad story, Richard. Were

A sad story, Richard. Were you at least given associate editor recognition? Not that that matters, but still...

It is quite odd all the forces at work to hold writers underwater. It takes a lot of effort to learn to breathe under such circumstances. Each of us has to make our own set of gills and learn to swim alone in the dark. I am thankful for swear words and modern laptop computers, both of which seem to be waterproof.

Thank you, Steve and David,

Thank you, Steve and David, for your kind replies. I was given co-editor recognition in the special issue. I was thrilled, of course. Yes, David, I've learned to keep swimming underwater as best I can. But the book industry has gotten ever more crass and commercial over the past 20 years, so it ain't easy. Anyway, I try not to think about that and just write the best books I can.

Well then at least there's

Well then at least there's the light taste of sunshine there with a co-editor moniker.

For what it's worth, I think most good writing is going to go the way of indie publishing and small presses. It's already happening of course. But that option can grow immensely given the right circumstances. One of those circumstances has to be that authors stop using their entrepreneurial intensity on the Big Five and get more focused on looking for quality relationships with like-minded independent publishers (or form their own collectives).

Tin House held my submission

Tin House held my submission for nearly a year with nothing but radio silence. I inquired politely after six months, and again after eight. Still nothing. Then I did receive a rejection a few months later with a sheepish apology for taking so long. Needless to say I'm not sending work there anymore.

Writers can vote with their feet. If you don't respect the publication don't send them your work.

I edited an online journal for three years and took pride in providing timely responses, never more than a month past closing. I hung it up only when I felt I could no longer give contributors and readers what they deserved, quick turnaround and a high quality publication.

Good luck finding the right publications for your work. They're out there.

Dear Steve,

Dear Steve,
Just read this, and it got up my editor/writer’s ire. I’m the Fiction Editor at Bellevue Literary Review.
I’ve been buried reading ms. submissions for our fiction contest, non-stop these holiday week-end nights and many recent nights – reading for no pay except occasional small stipends or encouraging human exchange either with the writers, and little with the other two editors who are in the same boat – and that doesn’t count those submitted not for the contest. I am continually reading submissions; this just happens to be the bi-annual time of the deadline crush. Next will be the time-consuming bi-annual editing exchange with four or five writers over their stories, while continuing to read. And I am a writer too, like everyone laboring in the literary journal and small press world.

Our editor-in-chief, Danielle Ofri, is not only an editor and a writer, but a working doctor and a mother of three.

Especially because I’ve been a teacher of fiction all my life, I often give comments back to a promising story that
needs some revision or that we simply couldn’t include because we only have so much space. It’s heart-
breaking to reject good work, and even work that just needs another revision - my teacher’s heart has a lot of
trouble doing that. I agree, a comment, a signature, is immensely helpful and encouraging. We at the BLR
receive a lot of feedback from writers who appreciate how often we do that.

But it takes time, precious time. And we are not teachers. We are editors.

As a writer, though, I know how rare and how important it has been to me to get a word from an editor, especially helpful, critical, feedback. It can mean the world. I agree that editors should effort to extend themselves to offer whatever personal feed back they can. Writers need all the encouragement they can get, God knows.

On the other hand, part of me wants to say, "toughen up." I’m writing a book on Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to writers, and have gone to the library in Indiana housing his work. He got lots of rejection. It goes with the territory. It goes with the territory of being an artist of any kind. It’s not necessarily bad; forging your will and your way hones both.

I totally disagree about publishing previously published work. People have the internet and websites. They
can expand and continue their audience on those sites. Spillman is right: every published piece is
there in lieu of hundreds rejected. To take up space by republishing someone’s work would be criminal
to writers, in my view, especially new writers. Not only that, I can imagine severe ethical breaches in which
a pet story or writer, or well-known writers, are published over and over. Then there would be reason for real
complaint, with a 1% kind of writer’s small press/journal world.

Now I've just used 45 minutes! Hope it contributes to the conversation.

All Best,

Suzanne, I appreciate the

Suzanne, I appreciate the time you put in to tell the editor's side of the story, and I do think that precious 45 minutes contributes to this conversation. (I'm sure Steve would say the same, although at the moment I believe he's in North Carolina dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane.) As TW's editor, I'm sympathetic to the feeling of being inundated with submissions. I also feel the push-pull between wanting to provide a line of encouragement or suggestions to rejected writers, and I do that as much as I can. But it simply isn't possible all the time at a small, understaffed literary review.  

For me, it's not so much about telling writers to toughen up--although that is practical advice for anyone who wants to stick with writing for the long haul--but it's about writers and editors respecting the role each plays in maintaining literary piublishing during very tenuous media times. I have enormous respect for the Bellevue Literary Review, Tin House, and a host of other journals, small and large. I also respect the work so many individual writers and indie publishers are doing on blogs, websites, apps, and in e-books. The good news is that there are lots of ways to get published these days. The bad news is that few people get paid for writing (or editing), and that far too much media time goes to celebrities, punditry, and outtakes from "Access Hollywood." 

BTW, I've enjoyed reading the other comments here, too, and have been moved by all those bad experiences for writers. Richard, I'm appalled by your story, given the quality of your writing and thought. I say we need to stick together when it comes to promoting effective literary writing and journalism, supporting everybody who's really trying to do more than comment on Lady Gaga's latest outfit.

Hi, Martha,

Hi, Martha,

Back safely from hurricane-torn Hatteras and yes, you're right, I do very much appreciate the 45 minutes Suzanne put in to respond to my screed ... and yes, again, I think her note is a valuable contribution to the conversation. (For the record, I also appreciate The Bellevue Literary Review.)
That said, while I do understand the burdens that small press editors experience (I have been a teacher for 45 years and have served on no less than a dozen--albeit obscure--literary magazines during that time), I'd like to take a few minutes to speak to Suzanne's exasperation:

As I wrote to Rob Spillman, I do not think--nor did I say--that an editor owes each submitter a critique of the work. I also do not think--nor did I imply--that it is any editor's job to teach someone how to write. What I did say is that all editors owe every submitting writer the respect of standing behind every rejection by signing their names to the form letters they send back. What I also did say is that all editors could and should do a much much better job of returning submissions in a much shorter and respectful amount of time. I know, for example, that the Beloit Poetry Journal returns clearly "unacceptable" submissions (as well all know, the vast vast majority of submissions) in a few weeks; and then hold on to the remaining contenders for as long as it takes (months) to assemble each issue. I also know that interns can dispense with--or pass along--slush pile submissions very quickly so that the editors do not have to read every submission. And if the concern is that the slush pile interns might miss a great submission, my response is frankly, so what? The history of publishing is replete with great editors of passing over great works. I also have faith that if it's a great work, someone else will find it.

And finally--though, of course, not finally--I want to counter the notion that writers need to "toughen up." In my experience writers are among the toughest people I know precisely because, as Suzanne says, rejection goes with the territory of being an artist of any kind. Lots of rejection. So I'd like to bounce some counter advice back to the editors who have been offended by my rant: Soften up. Since editors are in the business of sending out dozens/hundreds/thousands of rejections for every acceptance, they would do well to show a little more compassion for the ache everyone--every one--feels upon receiving that soulless form letter. Editors need to find creative ways to return those many many obvious rejections in a much more timely and respectful manner--and then sign their names in compassionate solidarity with a struggle of the hundreds and thousands of writers who support and advance their magazines.


Great thread and a

Great thread and a fascinating exchanges of views. I was taken with Steve's early remark to these literary presses and websites: "Shame on you." It won't surprise you to hear, Steve, that I've been thinking about the shame in rejection and what is so devastating about that impersonal form letter we've all received. We work for hours and days, pouring our heart into an essay or short story then send it forth, hoping that someone will find it beautiful ... only to be met by that blank gaze of indifference which Kitty finds on Vronsky's face. However it may be justified by the people who send those letters, form rejection is a shaming experience and rocks our sense of self-worth; it tells us we're not worthy of a thoughtful response. Shaming the shamers is one way to cope with that devastation. Thanks, Steve.

Just a follow up ... five

Just a follow up ... five months later: Today I received a rejection from the Vestal Review regarding a microfiction piece (268 words) that I submitted two years and one month ago. The note (not signed by a human being): "Though your manuscript does not suit our current needs, we wish you the best of luck placing it elsewhere. Sorry for holding it so long." That's what I'm talking about.

Yup. That's a killer Steve.

Yup. That's a killer Steve. Although, it's more insane to send you that card than to just remain a zero in your endeavors.

I was thinking about all of this when I found the following earlier this week: "Fifteen Literary Journals that Respond within a Month"

Some ask for exclusives, some don't. But at least these 15 get least on paper.

Good to hear from you, David-

Good to hear from you, David--and many thanks for that excellent list! Two years is about one year and eleven months too long to respond to any piece of writing, but I would have pretty much shrugged it off had the editors just had enough character to sign their names.

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