For aspiring poets, working out how to get your work read, heard, and recognised can be a real preoccupation. However ringing the endorsements of your family and friends might be – however much Grandma just loves your villanelle about Autumn – seeking a wider audience for your poetry can be an ideal next step if you’re starting to take your work seriously.
Exploring how and where to profile you work, however, can be a minefield. It really is a poetry jungle out there, with countless competitions, magazines, e-zines and open mic nights, all clamouring for new writing. To help you negotiate this tricky terrain, we’ve put together a list of our top tips for submitting your work, as well as some common pitfalls to be wary of when looking for a platform for your poetry.
- Don’t be disheartened by a rejection. This is the first and most important thing to remember. When something you’ve worked hard on and feel strongly about gets passed over, it’s completely understandable that you might feel a bit lousy. You’re allowed to mope for a few minutes. Maybe snap a pencil if it makes you feel better. But don’t let it put you off – remember, editors and judges are often reading hundreds, sometimes thousands of poems in a short space of time. Just because they didn’t pick your work out this time, doesn’t mean someone else won’t the next. Editors and judges are also individuals with their own specific tastes and preferences; if your poem isn’t chosen, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not good – just that it’s not what that particular person is looking for. Keep going. Someone, somewhere, is looking for your poem.
- Think about what you’re submitting to. The most obvious advice is to submit to a publication whose work you already know and like, rather than an oblique e-zine you’ve unearthed from the depths of the Internet. Make a short list of the places you’d like to see your work appear, and start working on submissions to these. Have a look at the writing biography of an emerging poet you admire, and see where they’ve previously had their work published – this can also help you narrow down a pretty full field of poetry publications.
“When you submit to a publication or competition, remember that all the amazing poets you look up to have been where you are now, and that they probably received just as many rejections as you have. As you stick at it, things will start to go right.”
Imogen Cassels, Foyle Young Poet of the Year 2013 and a winner of the Poetry Business’ New Poets Prize 2016
- Be realistic in your approaches. If you’re new to sending your work out, for example, it’s a good idea to first explore platforms which particularly welcome younger and previously unpublished writers (see our Poetry Opportunities section for a list of these). Some of the larger and most prestigious poetry magazines and reviews will usually only accept work from writers with a strong track record of previous publication – if you don’t have this yet, a submission here is probably something to work up to, rather than go in for straight away.
- Do your research. If you’re submitting to a magazine or e-zine, read at least a few of their back issues first. If you can’t access these for free, try checking your local, university or school library to see if they carry copies (or ask them to consider taking out a subscription). Get a feel for what kind of work the publication is profiling – if you’re thinking of submitting an epic ballad about what you had for breakfast to, say, a publication which deals mainly in haiku, chances are the editors will pass you over. Don’t waste time and energy submitting to publications that don’t feel like a ‘good fit’ (a phrase you’ll often find editors using) with your work.
- Check the rules for submission. Most publications and competitions will have clear guidelines about this – which contact details to include, which format (word document, PDF or body of an email) to send your poems in, how many poems you can submit at one time, and so on. On Young Poets Network, for example, we have our own set of terms and conditions for entering our poetry challenges. If editors and judges have stacks of poetry submissions to go through, any that don’t comply with the most basic submission instructions might well go straight into the ‘No’ pile. Don’t let your work fall at the first hurdle.
- Get names right. If you’re sending any kind of covering letter or note with your poems, make sure you get the name of the editor and/or publication correct! There’s nothing more discouraging to an editor than seeing the name of another organisation used where their own should be – it shows a careless and scattergun approach to submissions, and a lack of respect for the publication itself.
- Ask for feedback. If you receive a rejection, it’s perfectly reasonable to ask (politely) for some feedback on the work you’ve submitted. The majority of editors may not have the time or ability to offer this (and you shouldn’t be offended if they don’t), but some will be happy to give you a brief critique, which may help you to hone your work. There is never any harm in asking.
- Don’t stretch yourself, or your work, too thin. If you find yourself in a rut of constantly recycling the same pieces of work to submit, and submit again, take a break. Give those poems a rest, and try to make time just to write, without worrying about where the poems are going to end up. Don’t underestimate how much energy submitting work can take – if it begins to feel like you’re spending way more time trying to get your poetry noticed than you are actually writing it, it may be time to take a step back.
- Keep records. Make a note of all the places you’re submitting your work to, which poems you’re sending, and the date and outcome of the submission. It may sound a bit obsessive, but it’s a really good idea to keep track of exactly what’s happening with your work and when – both so you can keep an accurate record of any successes for your writing CV, and also so you can…
- Avoid simultaneous submissions. This is when you send the same poem(s) to more than one publication or competition in the same period of time. Some rules and guidelines allow simultaneous submissions; the majority don’t, as it creates extra work if a poem has to be taken out of the running for one thing because it’s been successful elsewhere. Our advice is that it’s best practice to avoid simultaneous submissions, whatever the guidelines say.
If you’re submitting to poetry competitions:
Be mindful of entry fees.
In our Poetry Opportunities section, we try to profile only competitions where there is no (or only a very small) fee for entering poems – and this should certainly be the case for competitions which are aimed specifically at younger writers. The majority of poetry competitions for over 18s do, however, carry an entry fee, which generally goes towards the costs of running the competition and providing prizes for winners. Although there are often reductions if you are submitting multiple poems, the cost of consistently entering competitions can really build up if you’re not careful.
Before spending money on an entry, think carefully about the poem(s) you’re submitting, what exactly you’re submitting to, and what you’re hoping to achieve. It’s best to only submit work you feel really confident in, and which you have worked on and edited extensively, rather than rushing to enter a handful of poems you’re not quite sure about, just to be ‘in with a chance’.
Think about what you want to get out of entering a competition.
Obviously you’re entering because you’d like to win (right?!) – but think more specifically about what the benefit of winning might be for you. Publicity? Publication? Prize money? Investigate other ways in which you might achieve these things through your poetry. Sometimes, having a poem published in a well-respected magazine or journal can be worth as much, or more, than winning a place in a competition. A good track-record of publication will certainly benefit you as a writer in the long-term (and is likely to be more achievable than multiple competition wins).
In the case of competitions which state that winning and commended poets need to pay to receive copies of their winners’ pamphlet or anthology, our advice is that these are best avoided. In situations like this, you should not have to pay to receive copies of your own winning work.
We hope you find these tips useful – if you have your own tried and tested pieces of advice, please feel free to share these in the comments below. To find out more about competitions and publications to submit to, see our Poetry Opportunities section. For further advice about getting your poems into shape for publication, check out Holly Hopkins on ‘How to edit your poem’.