Mistake No. 73: Missive attachment

Question from a student: “After submitting a letter, how long should one wait before assuming the letter will not be used? Should one treat letters as ‘disposable’?” Send one off and if you don’t hear anything, forget about it and write another?”

I have been asked this many times before, and I probably always give different answers because each time it comes around I’m never quite sure what the best advice might be. This time around I asked a number of my fellow tutors at the Writers Bureau, whose comments have basically made up what follows, and I hope any readers who find the following post useful will join me in thanking them.

First thing to say is that it’s natural that you want to find a home for all your work, and if one editor isn’t interested, you’d ideally like to try another, and another, and so on until it is placed. But how do you know whether an editor is or isn’t interested in a letter? You are rarely told so, although Simon Whaley did tell me that “some of the weekly magazines (Take a Break, That’s Life) will email a rejection – sometimes within hours, other times within weeks”, adding that “most don’t”.

Letters are also written by ordinary readers, remember, and often too many are received to acknowledge or respond to. Editors tend to be better at responding to articles or proposals, as they are written by writers not readers and, believe it or not, they do try to make more of an effort where someone’s living is concerned. (All this can be a bit different for articles, incidentally, and, coincidentally, Simon’s just blogged about this here.)

Tutor Andy gave this response: “In my experience, you can safely quote four times the publication frequency as the maximum wait: i.e. 4 weeks for a weekly and 4 months for a monthly. Reader’s Digest is completely different and dance to their own tune but the four-times publishing frequency works well as a benchmark.”

Good advice if you don’t want to think about this issue in too great a depth – especially the RD tip, as they can take a really long time – but I think there are variables to consider if you do. Some questions about your letter to consider:

a/ Is it topical? Tied to a recent event, which will be tomorrow’s / next week’s / next month’s old news?
b/ Is it referring to an article in a previous edition of the publication?
c/ Is it timeless – as publishable in summer as it is in winter, as useable tomorrow as it will be in two years’ time?
d/ Is it seasonal? Tied to Christmas, Easter, Halloween etc?

Helen Yendall said: “I write quite a few letters to magazines (see Helen’s ‘Magazine Madness’ posts on her blog) and in my experience, they tend to use them pretty quickly, if they’re going to use them at all. Your best chance is to be topical and/or comment on an article in the latest issue, so those letters will naturally not have a long ‘shelf-life’. If it’s a monthly and they don’t use it in the next issue, it’s likely that they won’t use it. For weeklies, give them 3-4 weeks but then I think you can safely forget it.”

Other tutors felt longer waits may be advisable.

Michelle H said of topical letters: “If a weekly hasn’t used it within two or three weeks, or a monthly within a couple of months, I would say it won’t be used in that magazine.”

And Sue Wilkes advises a longer wait: “If the student’s letter refers to a previous feature in the magazine, then I’d advise them to sit tight for six months, say.”

If it’s timeless, you may have to wait more.

David Kinchin told me: “A letter that does not have an obvious shelf life may sit on the desk of the editor for a while before being used. Maybe they are waiting to collect a group of letters on a theme – then publish the group. I have had students telling me that letters are sometimes published nine months later, but I have never got as far as a year from the date of writing.”

JackieCosh says: “Years ago I had a letter published in Women’s Weekly. It was published about six months after I had sent it, so I always err on the side of caution.”

Sue added: “I had one student whose letter was used ten months after submission … but I would say this is exceptional.”

Avoid the temptation to quickly resubmit, seems to be the advice. But you can, of course, “get around it by angling the letter differently for different mags”, as Vanessa C pointed out (and as you always should do with articles). Simon W goes further and suggests rewriting the letter “so that it’s completely different anyway”.

As far as seasonal letters go, I would advise sending it out to your chosen market, and then moving on. If it doesn’t get published, well, there’s always next year. It’s a philosophy which Sue W advises more broadly – and which explains the title of this post. She says: “I advise students just to send out as many letters as they can, rather than getting too attached to one small piece of work.”

What’s the worst that can happen if you submit to multiple publications and your letter finds more than one home?

Simon also told me about a letter he’d read in Writers’ News – and which also appeared in the New Writer the same month. “As a reader I felt peeved, and I’m sure the editors were a bit miffed too.”

But Jackie Sherman said: “I should add that I was once awarded the star letter in Computer Weekly and the same letter appeared in the TES very soon afterwards (as it covered a topical issue and I wanted to make sure it was published somewhere) – and I survived!”

And you will too.

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