The Wildebeest & The Watchmaker: How to Know When it's Time to Submit
Hey, pals, Jacqueline here! Last week, we had a chance to talk about some resources that can help you decide where to send your work. But how do you know when work is ready? This week, I'll be spending a little time talking about two different trends I've noticed in writers/submitters, and how each approach can know when it's time to make the leap and start submitting.
If you're the tl;dr type, I can sum up what I'm about to say for you right here: there's no magical right answer for when your work is ready to go out. It's all a matter of figuring out what "ready" looks like to you.
Approach 1: The Wildebeest (AKA Draft Now, Revise Later)
Let me know if this sounds familiar: when you sit down to write, you hit the ground running, fall into some kind of weird fugue state, and emerge some number of hours later with a miraculously finished draft in front of you. The idea of revision makes you feel itchy, and you tend to need to let work sit for a long time before you're capable of returning to it with fresh eyes. In fact, you may feel some anxiety over the idea of not finishing a piece in one sitting because it's difficult to recapture the energy of a particular writing session, which can make returning to half-finished work a challenge, if not impossible.
I've been a Wildebeest writer my entire life. Part of it stems from poor time management skills, which were then reinforced by my career as a slam poet. For me, a poem was finished when it was said out loud and received a score, which meant that poems had to be completed in one sitting and were very rarely returned to after a slam event. It's taken me almost a decade to even begin to move away from this style of writing that, while stressful at times, feels authentic to the way that I create.
Because I'm not able to change the way that I write, I've had to change my expectations for the way that I submit. Anytime I send a packet out for the first time, it's comprised entirely of first drafts. I do this because I tend to feel increasingly less confident with poems as they go through repeated revisions over time. In order to make this okay for me, I've had to accept the fact that three to five different versions of a poem may be out at different journals at any given time, and that the version that winds up in a journal may not be the final version of a piece.
For example, here is a side-by-side comparison of the same poem three years apart. The first was published in Split Lip, while the second is a part of a manuscript sent to a publisher earlier this year.
As you can see, the structure and syntax of the poem have changed quite a bit between the two versions of the poem (and it's still not finished, check that errant period in the 4th line!), but ultimately, the spirit of the piece is still the same. Frankly, I'm a better poet now than I was then, but it's my honest belief that if we wait to submit until we feel we've become our best selves, then we would never submit anything at all. If this manuscript is ever picked up (fingers crossed, amirite?), then Split Lip will still receive acknowledgment as the first place the piece appeared, though the piece has changed since.
In order to honor this method of creation and submission, as well as to keep from getting bogged down by my own insecurities, I keep drafts of every version of every poem I write, just in case I happen to take a step too far and revise all the good bits out of a piece. I also keep individual files of each packet I send out to each journal so that I can see which versions of pieces were sent to which journals.
Once I freed myself of the idea that being in a journal meant a piece had to be Capital-F Finished, it allowed me to send out work more frequently, which led to more frequent publication. In keeping with that, I would urge fellow Wildebeest writers to lean heavily on methods of organization that allow you to keep track of different drafts of pieces in their various states of "completeness." Doing this will help you keep that spirit of running and revision (if revision comes at all), while providing some order to the chaos of sending several different versions of pieces out into the world.
Approach 2: The Watchmaker (AKA Slow & Steady)
Maybe the idea of shooting different drafts out into the void doesn't work for you. Maybe you're the type of writer who prefers to plug away at a piece over a period of time, then tinker with revisions until a piece feels perfect. This is totally a valid way to engage with your writing, it just means you'll have to ask yourself a different set of questions, and work with a different set of expectations, when it comes time to send things to journals.
Writers who utilize the Watchmaker method may tend to produce work a bit more slowly, and frequent rounds of revision may lead to fewer submissions. While there's nothing wrong with that, if submitting your work for publication is a goal of yours, you might ask yourself a few questions in order to keep your work from languishing on your hard drive forever.
What does "finished" mean to you? For Watchmakers, it can be hard to answer this question; it may be that work isn't finished until it feels finished. But think hard—try to figure out what tends to have fallen into place in a piece for you when you get that feeling. Is the emotional resonance of the piece clicking into place? Is it something to do with the characters? Are things clicking at the sentence level? Once you know what tends to be the thing that sends the signal to your brain that a piece is finished, you can work that process into your writing goals in order to help you get to that place before you get stuck.
How many rounds of revision seems right? No two pieces are the same, and sometimes a piece will require more rounds of revision in order to click into place, but if you're someone who can get trapped into a never-ending cycle of tinkering, it may help to establish a ritual for how many times you revise a piece before sending it out (to journals or, if you feel more comfortable, to peers whose feedback you trust). Combine that with the knowledge of what a finished piece feels like to you, and make sure that one round of revision involves you reading for that particular thing.
Who do you trust to help you see if a piece is finished? Relying on a network of writers whose feedback you trust is crucial to any writer, but it can be especially helpful for Watchmakers to receive outside feedback from a group of trusted peers to keep from getting stuck in the loop of cosmetic edits.
If this sounds like you, try to have that "this will make the piece feel finished" quality in mind when you send it to your peers. People generally love having a little direction when they read a piece, especially if it will help them give you feedback that will actually be useful to you.
No matter what your process looks like, if you're a Watchmaker type, it may be helpful to set yourself some goals. For example "I will revise this piece x number of times and then send it out." Those goals can be flexible, but if you know that you're the type of person who may use revision as an excuse not to submit, then having an endpoint might help keep you from getting stuck.
A Few Final Thoughts
Like I said before, there's no right answer for when it's time to start sending your work to journals, and whether you're a Wildebeest or a Watchmaker (I'm committing to this, let me have it), submitting will still come with its fair share of rejection. That sucks (and give Ashely's post this week a read to hear more thoughts on that), but it doesn't mean that you were wrong to send the piece out. What you decide to do with your work in response to a rejection is up to you, all that matters is that you keep writing, keep submitting, and keep trying.
Do you have questions for our Q&A? Contact us via email or tweet us @LammergeierMag