A previous version of this post appeared at One Night Stanzas in September 2008.
A while ago I received an email from an uncertain emerging poet, asking if I could help him figure out whether or not he was ready to start sending his poems out to magazines. As I looked at his stuff, I realised that — although I could see his work definitely had potential — I had no way of knowing either way. Unfortunately, no one else can tell you when it’s time: YOU have to be truly ready before you send your poems out to be seen by readers and editors.
I do realise that this leaves a lot of people frustrated - how do you know when you’re ready? Well, here are some tips. Try these, and then see how you feel about your poetry. Hopefully, it’ll help you reach a decision.
Shelve your work.
A ONS reader happened to mention once that this is something he always does before sending work out for publication, and I think if you’re uncertain about the quality of your stuff, it’s a really good idea. Say you’ve written five new poems that you think would work really well for a magazine, but you’re not really sure if they’re good enough. Print them out or type them up, and hide them away somewhere safe. Stick a reminder in your diary for a date, say, a month or two down the line, and don’t read those poems again until that date. It seems like a long time, but it’s necessary to leave them for that long to make yourself “forget” them. Read them over again, and you’ll see them with totally fresh eyes. You’ll be able to see typos and mistakes more clearly, and you’ll also have a better feeling for lines that work and lines that don’t. Read the poems aloud, and see how they sound. Sit down and edit anything that feels a bit clunky - and don’t be afraid to edit as much as you need to until you’re happy. Also - though it might feel like you’ve wasted a whole load of time - don’t be afraid to chuck the poems in the bin and start all over again if your fresh eyes tell you they’re not all that good. And if you make a rewrite, or any changes that you’re not sure about, repeat the hiding-away process. Yes, it all means that it takes a while for your poems to reach publication stage, but it also means you’re submitting stronger poems which are less likely to be rejected.
Read other people’s work.
This is my standard answer to any poetry-related question: if in doubt, read. In this case, seek out literary journals, creative writing publications and online zines. Don’t just look at the big obvious ones - nose around for little niche websites, small-scale hand-stapled chapbooks and blogs that accept daily poetry submissions from unknowns. Read as many poetry publications as you can get your hands on, and support the ones that publish stuff you like. Check out poems by hugely successful poets, and poets you’ve never heard of before in your life, and don’t be afraid to emulate any of them in your own writing. Pay attention to the kinds of things magazines tend to publish - often you’ll see that patterns emerge. This magazine likes alt-lit-type poems with heaps of pop-culture references, while that one likes traditional poetic form and meter, etc. Read submission guidelines, too - take note of the things editors don’t like to see, and ask yourself: do your poems do any of these things? Paying attention to what magazines like and don’t like, what published poets do and don’t do, can really help you edit your work into a publishable shape. Make a list of any publication you come across that you think might like your work. Once you think you’re ready, start sending your work out to them… and keep reading, always. Keep adding to your list.
Something that puts off pretty much all editors is the old cliché. Clichés are so abundant in our everyday speech, so everywhere, that we often slip them into our writing without noticing… I do it, famous poets do it, we all do it. Have a look. Have you put “beady eyes” or “pitch black” or “back of my mind”, or anything else that makes you think ‘I hear that all the time’? Whip it out and put something more imaginative in there… and remember, editors are looking for originality, so don’t be afraid to be a bit wacky.
It’s not just common phrases that constitute clichés, either - you need to be on the lookout for more subtle things. Using terms like “bleeding heart” etc can make your work sound rather ‘emo’ (even if it’s not supposed to be); and to an editor, that can be shorthand for ‘immature.’ If they come across something that makes them think ‘cliché!’, it can make the difference between the ‘yes’ pile and the ‘no’ pile.
Join a workshop.
Workshopping can work wonders on your poems — so often, total strangers see things that you’d never see, no matter how much shelving, reading and editing you do! You get to find out how your work looks to an impartial reader without having to go through the whole submissions process, and having a couple of people in a workshop say “I don’t think this is ready to be sent out” is way less stinging than getting a rejection letter from an editor. Workshops are also a brilliant way of meeting other writers and like-minded people, and you can often do some networking, too. My very first magazine publication came from chatting to someone in a workshop group, for example.
Be careful though: workshop members won’t critique your work in the same way that your friends and family will. Because they don’t know all your foibles, they’ll just give their honest assessment of your work, regardless of your personal feelings. OK, people are seldom rude, but they can be very direct, and if you’re new to the workshopping progress, it might come as a shock. Remember, your workshop group are doing you a favour by saying “this part doesn’t work for me” - they’re giving you feedback which you can use to improve your work. If you do go along to a workshop, don’t let it knock your confidence - be polite, take feedback on board, and offer critique of other people’s work in return. Workshopping is a really beneficial exercise and it can also be loads of fun too… try it!
Seek advice from a pro.
If you’ve got a poem you’re really proud of and you think you want to send it off to a magazine, try asking for the opinion of someone in the know. Perhaps you have a writer-friend who’s had their work published already? Maybe one of your teachers or tutors seems to know their stuff? It might be a bit embarrassing, but try asking them - the worst they can say is “I don’t know”, or “sorry, I’m too busy.” Chances are, they’ll be happy to give your poem a quick read and to give you some feedback… which you should always try to take on board, even if you don’t actually act on it.
You can also send your poetry off for professional critique, but beware! There are a lot of scam artists out there offering critiquing services on creative writing, so be careful who you go to. You almost always have to pay for this kind of thing so first and foremost, make sure you can afford it… and before you send anything, read all the small print (if there is any) and make sure you’re not committing yourself to paying more than you bargained for. If you decide to go ahead with it and pay for critique, make sure you check out the person or company who’s providing the service. If you’re even slightly unsure about it, walk away. The Poetry Society offers a costly but reputable feedback service, for example. Alternatively, you can seek feedback via free sites like deviantART, but beware: the kind of feedback you receive on these sites can sometimes be more harmful than helpful. The best option is undoubtedly to seek advice from someone you trust and respect, if you can… so don’t be shy — ask!
Hopefully these tips will help you to seize the moment when you finally feel ready to publish. The last thing I’d say is: if you’ve tried all these things and you think you’re ready, the don’t be scared; just go for it. Be ready for the rejections, because they’re inevitable, and when you get them, keep going. It doesn’t matter as long as you keep reading, writing, editing and improving. If you do that, you’ll get there eventually! Good luck!
You can also visit Read This Press for more poetry (and typewriter paraphernalia!). Alternatively, check out Edinburgh Vintage, our sister site. If you want to get in touch you can follow OneNightStanzas on Twitter, or email claire[at]onenightstanzas.com. I reply as swiftly as I can!