The Art of Submission: Inquiring After Our Work
Written by
Emily Lackey
May 2015
Written by
Emily Lackey
May 2015

So I did a little experiment.

In my last blog post I wrote about whether or not inquiring after overdue submissions was worth it or whether it would incite the ire of managing editors everywhere. My mind wasn’t exactly changed after writing that piece, or after reading your comments, since we all seemed unsure and had different approaches to the issue. Even when I posted the link to that blog on Facebook, my friends all responded with different tactics. Some inquire after a certain amount of time had passed, some do not. Some stick their necks out there with the hope of hearing back, and some bide their time until they do.

I decided recently that I would give it a try and see what happened. What was the worst that could happen? I’d get rejected outright? That happens on the daily for me. What was there to lose? 

So my experiment. Statistically sound it is not, but the results were largely positive. If you remember, my hesitation to inquire about my submissions was based on my experience as a fiction editor and how my reaction to those inquiries tended to be one of exasperation. Now granted, they tended to come too early (one month after sending us your work is not long enough to inquire), but it was still a concern. I didn’t want to seem pushy or impatient or unappreciative of the probable mountains of submissions they were wading through.

The first thing I did was go to each of the journals’ websites and find out how long they asked writers to wait before inquiring. Most ask that you wait anywhere from three to six months, but even that didn’t seem like long enough to wait. So I only sent inquiries to the journals who had had my work for over two hundred days. Two exceptions: I sent one to a journal I’ve submitted to in the past because the other rejections I have received from them have always arrived happily in my inbox around the 90-day mark. The current story I have with them has been out for 177 days. I also sent one to a journal that promises a 20-day turnaround time, because my story has been with them for 85 days.

What? I’m impatient.

A quick aside: This is where submission-tracking sites like Duotrope can really come in handy. For each of the journals I submit to, I can see a list of recent responses from other Duotrope users. So I can see that other Duotrope users are getting responses from that last journal after 8-18 days, which tells me that 85 days is probably a decent amount of time to wait before inquiring.

The next step is writing the inquiry email, which was something I decided not to agonize over. Important things to include, however: your name, the date of your submission, whether it was electronic or paper, and the title of your piece. I gave my letter a “just wanting to keep my records tidy” sort of feel and hit send as quickly as possible.

Here’s the good thing that happened: pretty much every journal responded within twenty-four hours. THANK YOU FOR NOT MAKING THAT PAINFUL, JOURNAL EDITORS EVERYWHERE. Here’s the other good thing that happened: no one wrote back saying, “Fie on your crap work. We reject you and your impatience outright.” No, instead, each editor responded graciously and apologetically and patiently in their explanation of where my piece was in the process and why I hadn’t yet heard back.

What I heard back was varied, but, in general, this:

  1. Sorry.
  2. Your work is still with an editor, which may be a good thing.
  3. We are inundated with submissions and are trying to find our way through.

A few odd ball responses to mention: no response at all, a response asking me if my submission was electronic or print and when I replied electronic they never responded again, and a response that said a decision had been reached on my submission and that I would hear from them soon. This last response was kind of the worst (HELLO AGAIN, FALSE HOPE, YOU OLD FRIEND), but I’m taking it in stride.

The other thing I’m taking from all of this is that inquiring about my work after a reasonable amount of time has passed seems like acceptable thing to do. However, I didn’t receive any responses that were game changers. No one had lost a submission. No one had rejected it or accepted it and forgotten to tell me. In the end, I’m in the same position I was in before I sent the inquiries: six pieces still float in six editors’ inboxes.

So was it worth it? Meh. Maybe. But there was something I wasn’t anticipating: the whole thing felt very proactive to me, like a follow-up letter you send to a potential employer after an interview to let them know you are still interested. Maybe it helps. Maybe it doesn’t. But it’s better than sitting on my hands and waiting. One other thing: It was nice to interact with the people behind the journals, to hear more from their side of things than the usual. It made me feel connected in a way that waiting does not. And in this drawn-out, terrible process of submitting work, sometimes that is what you need to keep going. 

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  • Catherine Hiller

    I applaud your stance.  It MUST feel better to be active about your submissions, after a reasonable amount of time has passed, rather than silently brooding. And you have provided useful information to y/our writing community!

  • That's fascinating, Pat. Reminds me of few times I've learned why I was cast (or not) in an acting job: you flailed your arms the best. I thought you were the one I must wanted to f--k. I've never seen it performed that way, but I think that's how I wrote it. (From a writer/director.) or: you were too pretty. I decided to cast my daughter instead. i thought you were the best, but we needed a name.

    What a shame we can't really know the answers. I'm fairly sure, from my experience, that knowing would be easier than not, no matter what the frustration. Otherwise, it starts to feel like a slot machine--you puts the coin in, and pray that those fruits will finally line up.

  • Pat Sabiston

    I'm going to forward this to my husband who gets anxious on my behalf.  But, having worked for a publisher in my past life, I know:  the secretary opens the package and submits it through a chain of command:  Marketing/PR Dept, Sales Dept, Editor, Publisher, Partners ... and all must reach consensus on the title, which takes time.  In one case I remember, the publisher and partners LOVED a title, but as National Sales Director, the sales team and I did not feel we could sell it, so the project died.  As with any relationship:  it's complicated.

  • AR Neal

    Thank you for sharing your experience, Emily. I am a member of Duotrope and find it both encouraging and painful! Encouraging for the reasons you indicate, and painful when I can so easily catalogue rejections :) 

    One additional response I have received has been related to internal (read: business-related?) issues with the publisher itself. I've had one or two replies indicating that the particular journal is not moving forward with a particular issue. The messages seemed canned, sent to many writers. 

  • Emily Lackey

    I'm not sure if this would apply to queries sent, Jane. I'm not sure what the protocol is for inquiring about queries. I conducted my experiment on literary journals to which I had submitted short stories. Anyone else want to weigh in on mass market publications?

  • I'm curious whether you think your experiment would hold true for, say, mass market publications such as the women's magazines or travel magazines. I've come late to this conversation, so maybe your submissions were to the mass market publications. They are what my experience is with (is that sentence grammatical in any way whatsoever?!), and I well remember feeling like a teenage girl waiting to be asked to the prom when I had queries out to editors.