Starting From Scratch as a Writer

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by Ruth Hill

There are several growth stages in being a writer. Secretly, writers can write anything they want, but then, what to do with it? If the writing is good, no sense hiding your creation in a drawer!

Finding publication for any work can be daunting. It is important to find which publications are compatible with your work. Read their guidelines to see if your work is eligible. In your browser, you can research many publications. Use Duotrope, Winning Writers, or SPAWN, or type “call for submissions” into Google, and filter these down to the ones you want.

Be prepared before you submit. You will need to save things on your computer or print them in order ready yourself for requests. Every writer should have a recent headshot, a short 50-word bio, a long 100-word bio, a universal cover letter, and complete contact info, ready to go and re-use.

We are in a transition era, with mailed submissions being replaced by electronic submissions. Do not be intimidated by this. Sign up for Submittable and join the crowd. Be sure you know if a publication accepts mail, email, or online (submittable) submissions. Prepare your format as per their instructions.

For both mail and email, you will need a brief universal cover letter wherein you can change the addressee and titles of your submissions. Address the cover letter personally to the correct current editor. If a fee is required, confirm the amount and method of payment, include a short bio only if requested, send no photos until requested, include the genre and titles you are submitting, and your contact info.

You should have a good security program on your computer so you can verify that your submissions are virus-free. Check the sizes of your files to see if a virus is attached. For example, if a poem should be 54 KB, and it shows a file size of 12 MB, it is contaminated, so do not send it. Save another new clean file to send. Pay attention to your document file type. Word 1997-2003 compatibility mode is the most desirable.

Be attentive to whether your work should be included in the body of the email, or attached to it, and whether the recipient wants individual files attached, or all writing in one file. You can use the body of the email for your cover letter, or include the cover letter as the first page of your attached file.

If the recipient wants your work included in the body of the email, open your file, select it, choose “copy,” put your cursor inside the body of the email, and choose “paste.” This is the same way you would combine an all-in-one file.

If the recipient wants your submission attached, prepare your individual files ahead of time, then open your email and choose the paper clip to attach files. Browse and choose your file, “open,” and click on “insert” to attach them to the email. Fill in the subject line as instructed (example: “poetry submissions, Ruth Hill”). Verify that your file was attached in the line below the subject line.

If only online submissions are accepted, register for a Submittable account. If a fee is required, payment methods include PayPal, credit cards, or mailed checks. Payment will either be verified before or after the submission. All require complete contact info. Some allow pen names to be noted, but real names should be used when registering. Most publications “read blind,” which means your contact info is kept only on the registration form, but the actual submission files should have no contact information. This is to prevent favoritism by the judges, and to give everyone a fair chance. It is best if you submit only to agencies displaying the CLMP ethics policy.

Adjust your spelling if sending internationally. Adjust your grammar style if sending to newspapers versus literary journals. Consult style manuals or look it up online.

It is important to know submission terminology. In the past, publishers wanted exclusive reading before relinquishing the submission. They say, “No simultaneous submissions.” The publishers are competing to discover new writers and new writing. It is easier for them to reserve First North American Serial Rights without worrying about other publications. Writers complained about this restraint. Recently, fewer publications request this and allow you to send the same item elsewhere, if you let them know as soon as possible if the item is accepted.

To clarify, there is a difference between a simultaneous submission not published yet, and a simultaneous publication, which puts publications at odds over copyrights. Protocol would be to not send simultaneous submissions if not wanted, and to never publish the same item at the same time in two different venues. Publications are legal agreements.

Pre-published used to apply only to print, but now often extends to anything posted online. Blogs used to be exempt, but some publishers will no longer print anything previously appearing on a blog. Depending on the type of publication, previously published material is sometimes allowed only if the previous copyright time has expired, and copyright has returned to the author.

It is the writer’s responsibility to keep track of all submissions. Submittable was invented for just such a purpose, but there will always be submissions not made on Submittable. Choose your accounting method: calendar, diary, computer, or handwritten list, but definitely record all submissions. Note editor, publication, date sent, payment, and titles. This might seem unnecessary, but you will need it in the rare case two editors want the same item at the same time. It also helps your bio.

Also keep a list of publications for the same reason. This will help you know when copyright has returned to you, usually after one year, and you are free to send the item out again as pre-published material. Anthologies and collections often allow pre-published material. Give your work as much exposure as possible to help your writing career.


Ruth Hill was born and educated in upstate New York and has traveled North America extensively. She is a Certified Design Engineer, lifelong tutor, and enjoys spoken word. Over 300 of her poems have won awards or publication in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Israel and Australia. She welcomes email at ruthhill@joiedevivregardens.ca.

Everyone is welcome to email Ruth any time for encouragement or questions regarding submissions.

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