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How the Sausage Is Made, Part One of Three

by Jerri Bell, O-Dark-Thirty Managing Editor

I get a lot of questions from submitters about what’s happening to their manuscripts, especially if we’ve been backlogged and haven’t been able to respond in our ideal ninety-day window. So here’s a behind-the-scenes look at what happens to your manuscript after you hit “Send” in Submittable.

Submittable takes the first step for us. It sends you a form e-mail to confirm that the submission is sitting in our queue, and you’ll see the status “Received” in your Submittable account.

Then, Plink! I get a notice in my e-mail inbox that there’s a new submission. I open Submittable and check the cover letter to make sure that the submitter is a veteran, is on active duty/in the Reserve or Guard, or is a family member. I also give the submission a quick scan to make sure that it meets our other guidelines – word length, maximum number of poems, not previously published, that sort of thing. If the contributor’s military affiliation is not clear from the cover letter, I send a quick e-mail requesting more information.

If the submission fails to meet other guidelines, I may send an e-mail requesting a change to the submission (please choose only three poems and withdraw the other six!) or, in the case of previously published work, declining the piece – that one’s not negotiable. In my experience, this is unique to O-Dark-Thirty: most literary journals simply reject submissions that don’t clearly meet guidelines – it helps keep the “slush pile” to a manageable level.

I only go into the Submittable queue once or twice a week, so the status of your submission may remain “Received” for a few days. As soon as I’ve opened it, you’ll see its status in Submittable change from “Received” to “In Progress.”

This is all you’ll see in Submittable until we’ve made an editorial decision, but things are happening to your work behind the scenes. When the submission clearly meets our guidelines, I assign it to one of our editors: fiction (Jim Mathews), nonfiction (Dario DiBattista), poetry (Fred Foote), or drama (Bryon Reiger). I may note that the writer has confirmed in a separate e-mail that his grandfather served in WWII, or that the writer has submitted work to us before. Although I usually read at least a page or two of the submission when it comes in – the whole thing, if the first page gets my attention and if I have time – I don’t offer the other editors an opinion on its suitability. It’s best if they come to your work fresh, with no preconceived notions about it.

Each of our editors has his own style for reviewing work. They all have day jobs, and they read your work at night, on their lunch hour, or on weekends and holidays. Fred Foote likes to look at poems in groups of ten or fifteen every few weeks (I always picture him spreading them out side-by-side along the back of a sofa for some reason, though he probably uses a desk or his kitchen table). Jim Mathews prefers to read smaller batches of submissions on weekends – I often get three or four responses from him on Sunday evenings. Dario has so many irons in so many fires that I have no idea how he finds time to read at all, but he not only reads – he likes to work with our contributors. When he accepts a submission, he often initiates a dialogue with the writer to fine-tune the essay; he’s one of those editors who seems to have a gift for understanding what a writer is trying to do, and for somehow making the work more of what it originally intended.

If Jim or Dario wants a second opinion on whether we can use a submission, or whether it’s a better fit for The Report or The Review, I’ll re-read it carefully and weigh in. (Fred knows better than to ask me what I think about poetry! Any discussion between us is me asking an elementary question and Fred making time to explain and teach. I don’t know much about poetry, but most of what I do know, I learned from Fred.) More often, I’ll get a notice from Submittable that one of the editors has reviewed a submission and reassigned it to me for further action. Editors can “vote” on a piece with a little thumbs-up/thumbs-down button: if we can use the submission, I’ll see the vote as a little green rectangle with a note attached indicating whether the editor thinks it would work best in a future print issue or in the online journal. If the editor has declined to publish a submission, the rectangle is red.

If the piece is a no-go, I send the dreaded rejection letter. Although it starts with a basic template we created in Submittable, and often that’s all we have time to send, the editors sometimes add personal comments that I can include. Often, if a piece isn’t right for us but the writing is good, we’ll ask for a different submission later. Very occasionally an editor will send specific feedback on the submission.

I always feel a little sad pushing the button to send rejection letters. They’re never personal, and they’re just a part of the business for everyone who writes and submits. But I’ve received dozens and dozens of them myself, and I know exactly what it feels like to open that e-mail. I always hope that the potential contributor won’t lose heart, and will keep honing his or her craft and submitting, so that one day I can send an acceptance.

Sending acceptance letters is much more enjoyable. I’ll talk about how we process accepted work in my next post.

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