photo: Judy Ferrara
Photo Credit: Tracy Raphaelson





July 2005

Our lives accumulate on the basis of small actions taken or avoided, by reaching out or turning away, by seeing the world as it is or as we imagine it to be, by giving and accepting or saving or denying.
  Donald M. Murray, "Small decisions are a big part of our lives,"
  from "Then and Now," Boston Globe.


Fourteen Tips on Selecting Work for Submission

Dear Reader,

There it was: another rejection. Because I submit work to exhibitions, journals and competitions in the visual arts and poetry, I have twice as many chances for rejection. But this letter seemed different, somehow less painful.

The manager of the gallery gave details about the accepted artwork, which is rare. One artist "paints round, hex sign-influenced work..." and the other "creates large, geometric oil paintings." It was a window into the judge's aesthetics, and it seemed apparent to me that she favored a very specific style. If I had known beforehand, I might not have entered the competition, thereby saving myself $30. On the other hand, if I had known beforehand, I might have entered anyway, thinking boldly that I could turn her head with my work.

The experience made me think about what happens after I decide to submit poems or paintings to editors or judges. How do I select those three poems or that set of slides that will have me anticipating the mail carrier's arrival each day? These are the habits that work for me, and I hope they can help you, too.

1. Try to know as much as you can about the "destination." Read the journals, study the call for submissions, try to read between the lines and see IF your work might fit in.
2. Examine your work periodically-all of it. Put your poems or photographs of your artwork into groups. What do they have in common? What makes them different from each other? If you know your body of work, when the call comes you will know if you have something to offer.
3. When you look through your work, the strong pieces will sit on top, and you will snatch them up and start typing your cover letter. But you have just given yourself a chance to grow: don't be afraid to revise the poem or the painting that has nagged at you for weeks or years. Time (and fresh eyes) can help you to re-see your work.
4. A themed call for submissions might seem like a no-brainer: the entry form says "Light and Dark" and the editors or contest directors have written a semi-transparent paragraph about what they mean. Because you know your work so well, several pieces pop into your head, and you're off to the post office. The unthemed call presents more of a challenge, and here's where regular practice with #2 and #3 will help you select what to send.
5. Try to put yourself in the judge's or editor's shoes. Make a list of ten things you notice about the piece you are thinking about submitting? If the piece wasn't yours, what would you say to the poet or artist who created it?
6. Have someone you trust look at the work you have selected. You may have a gut feeling that these are strong pieces, but ask: "What do you notice first?" "If you had to tell in one word what this piece is about, what would it be?"
7. Prepare yourself for rejection (Judy's Journal - March 2005) and for acceptance (April 2005).
8. Whether it is a local, regional or national competition or a journal, don't hold back your strongest work. You never know who will see what you send in. Pay attention to "No simultaneous submissions."
9. Keep a record of your submissions. Use it to learn about what you valued enough to send out two or twenty years ago, and ask yourself, "What do I think about that work now?"
10. Prepare your submissions carefully. Proofread your poems, and have good slides ready. During the selection process, you may come across something that you feel is strong, but may not have the time to get it into shape for submission.
11. Be suspicious of sending out your newest work. You may still be on a honeymoon with the piece, so in love with it that you can't see its faults. That being said, your latest work might be your freshest and have a special energy. I finished a painting a few weeks ago and knew it was a strong piece. I had to run out and get slide film so I could include it for submission. You guessed it: that's the piece that was juried in.
12. Ask yourself before you try to select work: what have I already learned that will help me today? Do you know something about the politics of the organization, the venue, the editors? Will your work be "screened" so that the "final" judge may never see your work?
13. Self-evaluation (which is what selecting work for others to "judge" entails) is difficult. We are used to having someone else tell us, "This is good, this isn't. Fix this, keep that." How many times have you sent out certain pieces because someone else has said something good about it?
14. Talk with others about how they decide what work to submit. You may be surprised how thoughtless or how thoughtful people are when faced with these decisions.

Selecting work to submit is one small part of the creative process. And each time I submit work or decide not to, it adds to the accumulation of "small actions taken or avoided," as Donald Murray said in the opening quotation. The root of repeating the action is the need to put my work out there for others to see and to connect in some way.

While I have learned a thing or two about choosing work to send out, it would be great to hear from you: Next month's journal will be "Hanging an Exhibition."