We’ve all seen the phrase in literary journal submission guidelines: “Submit your best work only.” I used to be annoyed by its pervasiveness. It’s the King Kong of submission guideline clichés. And what does it even mean? Are we supposed to thrust our stories, poems, and essays into an arena and let them duke it out? Then submit only the last piece standing, while the other pieces—the losers—cower in the dust?
That’s more or less how I once interpreted that phrase. I fretted about the impossibility of the situation it presented to me as a young writer who understood that some of my stories were better than others. After all, they can’t all be the best, just as all children can’t be above average. And we don’t subscribe to abandoning children just because they’re not the best.
But what this phrase really means is something different. Rather than is this the best piece I’ve ever written, “submit your best work only” prompts us to consider questions such as these:
Have I put in adequate time reading and writing to acquire the skills needed to write this particular piece well?
Have I put my heart and guts into this piece?
Have I carefully edited and proofread?
Have I enlisted fellow writers to offer criticism?
Am I proud of this piece?
Is this piece worth a reader’s time?
The phrase “Submit only your best work” is really about integrity and professionalism. Editors would rather risk sounding cliché than omit these words because they hope to dissuade some of the many writers who submit work that is unworthy of an editor’s attention. I’m not talking about work that is subjectively off the mark. I’m talking about the surplus submissions through which typos run wild like packs of coyotes. Or: a character’s name shape-shifts from one page to another—first it’s Claire, then Louise, then Claire again. Or: dialogue is punctuated strangely, as though the writer has never before encountered dialogue on the page or, more likely, never paid attention. I’m talking about a highly successful writer submitting a half-assed story that the editor suspects the writer wouldn’t dare send to some of the journals in which they’ve been previously published. I’m also talking about work that lacks urgency and intrigue—work that is proficient, even great at moments, but overall ho-hum. There’s no crime in producing ho-hum writing. We’ve all done it. But is it worth trying to publish just because you wrote it?
If you’ve got a piece for which you cannot respond to the list of questions above with an enthusiastic “yes!” then one option is to seek out the kinds of journals that don’t care so much about quality, the journals whose submission guidelines include lines such as “That piece that has been rejected eight dozen times, it may just be a great fit for us! We love the kind of messy, unpolished work that other journals decline!” Those journals are out there.
Of course, once a piece of writing is published, particularly if it’s published online, it may be in the world forever. This is perhaps another question we should ask ourselves before we submit: if this piece gets accepted and published, am I likely to feel good about it (or at least not want to stab the computer monitor when I reread it) weeks, months, and years from now?
Michelle Ross's debut story collection, There's So Much They Haven't Told You, won the 2016 Moon City Press Fiction Award and will be published in early 2017. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works as a science writer and serves as fiction editor for Atticus Review.
Read Michelle's story Sex Ed.