Submissions — Notes for Beginners

Much of this is directed at writers in Britain, as I am not in a position to guide anyone from other countries to sources of good advice. Some of the general comments hold good for all new writers, however.

The Poetry Society of Great Britain has good advice for people new to the rituals of submitting their work at this address; the HappenStance press blog explains why you should submit to magazines here; a further source of information is Bloodaxe Books' submissions guide, most of which echoes the message expressed on this page. Poetry Ireland's website has this useful page of advice from Maurice Harmon, which applies just as well in Britain. Finally, Shearsman author Peter Hughes, who runs an excellent chapbook press, lists his useful guidelines here. British residents should note that the Poetry Society of Great Britain now offers a formal critical service, which costs £50 for up to 100 lines of verse (£40 for Society members). Your work will be examined by a professional poet, and you will also receive further advice as to reading material, plus an information pack, advice on presentation of your work, plus details of competitions, festivals, and writers' groups in your area.

While I do try to be as helpful as I can to new writers seeking an outlet, it would be good if anyone submitting work would bear the following in mind:

1) If you have never published in any magazines at all, there is no point in sending me (or indeed any other publisher) a book manuscript.

2) If your writing is radically different from the kind that appears in Shearsman magazine, or in books published by the press, then it is unlikely that you will be accepted for publication here. This makes sense, doesn't it?

3) If you don't read contemporary poetry, then it is also unlikely that your work is going to be of interest to this editor—it shows, believe me. If you think verse is what is on the inside of Hallmark cards, then you're definitely approaching the wrong outlet. If the last poem you read was by Wordsworth in an EngLit class at the age of 14, it is quite possible that you are still trying to recreate Wordsworth in your own work. Don't do it, please: he was wonderful, and positively radical in his day, but he did not try to copy Spenser, from the 1500s. He was in tune with his time, and in fact somewhat ahead of his time. Finally, we don't publish poetry for children, or religious verse; in both cases there are dedicated publishers out there who know how to deal with this kind of work far better than we.

4) Please remember that sincerity of expression does not necessarily make for good poetry. It's how you say it, not necessarily what you say, that gets the poem across, although it obviously helps if you have something interesting to say as well.

5) Think about why you are writing in the first place. If it is for purely personal therapeutic reasons, this is unlikely to constitute meaningful communication with the other inhabitants of the planet, and is equally unlikely to be of interest to this editor. Emotions need to be distilled and filtered through the power of language in order to gain impact in artistic terms. All art forms should be about communication, even if many readers are not going to understand, or care for, the end-product. It succeeds if even one reader gets something out of it. Likewise, if your reason for writing is simply to be published (&/or to see your name on a page), as a kind of validation of your sense of self-worth, I would suggest that the motivation behind it is ill-placed.

6) We don't have the time to give detailed analyses and critical assessments. If you need this kind of feedback and are in the UK, try London's Poetry School, or the Poetry Society of Great Britain (see information at the beginning of this page), which are set up to give the right kind of advice.

7) If you are preparing your typescripts on a computer, do try to use the spell-checker before printing it out. I don't mind the odd typing error here and there—it's only human, and I'm guilty of it myself more often than I would like—but demonstrating that you have absolutely no idea how to spell tends also to demonstrate that you have no command of the basic tools at your disposal. Send the typescripts with a covering letter that explains your publishing history, and try to make sure that every sheet of paper that you send bears your name and address. Given the amount of paper that arrives here, some sheets always get detached, and it's a great help for us to be able to put everything back together when that does happen.

8) Writing in complete isolation can be a problem, as there is no feedback from potential readers, so do try to make contact with local writers' groups in your area. The local branch of Arts Council England (or Creative Scotland, or the Welsh and Irish equivalents) will help you to find them. Your local library will likewise have copies of all the current guides for writers. The advice they give is very useful for any beginner.

9) In any event, please avoid the vanity presses that prey on writers eager to be published at all costs. Vanity presses just take your money and do almost nothing in return. For full details of this pernicious 'industry' please see Johnathon Clifford's detailed analysis here. Mr Clifford makes further general advice available which is useful to any neophyte writer.

10) Finally, if you are rejected by Shearsman—and the vast majority of submissions are rejected—it doesn't matter too much: there are hundreds of other potential outlets. Just choose one that looks as if it might be in sympathy with the kind of work that you're writing, and perhaps start with a local journal which might give you more of a fair wind for that reason. Being rejected by Shearsman is no reflection on your innate qualities as a writer: it just means you might have been knocking on the wrong door.