So that’s it – all over. It was a relief to finally be able to announce the end of Clear Poetry. I was touched by the number of people who expressed their sadness and disappointment that it’s coming to an end, but gratified that a lot of them support my desire to concentrate on my own writing.
I’d feel guilty shutting the site down if it weren’t for all of the other wonderful poetry websites out there, and it occurred to me that the poetry scene can never have too many of them. So I thought I’d try and write a few tips for anyone looking to set up their own online journal – after all, I did it, despite having no knowledge of web design and zero editing experience…and if I can do it, so can you!
Decide what sort of work you want to publish. Will it only be poetry? Or will you include flash fiction, short stories, art, photography? Are there particular genres that you know a lot about and/or feel are under-represented? How about reviews?
This is a tricky one – think of something memorable and not too long. Make sure you Google it too, just to avoid any clashes or potential embarrassment further down the line! Run it past friends and family to get their take on it. Make it memorable.
Will it be one or more poems from each featured writer every now and then, or will you look to put together issues where you put out work by lots of writers, either as a blog post or as a pdf via something like issuu?
How often will you publish? Once you’ve decided, try and stick to it – people are more likely to follow a website if they know that new content is added regularly. Bear in mind that you’ll need to take a break from it now and then!
The simplest (and cheapest) option is to get a free account from sites like WordPress or Blogger. I use WordPress because it includes lots of eye-catching website templates, as well as tonnes of useful features so that readers can connect however suits them best.
For a small monthly payment you can also purchase your own domain name, although to be honest I haven’t ever felt the need. The all-time budget for Clear Poetry between 2014-2017 was precisely £0.00.
If you’re using something like WordPress, have a play with the free templates. See what looks best and makes the content more prominent – there’s nothing worse than a really busy design where the poems get crowded out by menus and pop-ups all over the place.
At the very least you want three pages – ‘About’, ‘Submit’ and then the page where the poems or issues will appear. You might also like to include a ‘Links’ page.
The guidelines I ended up with for Clear Poetry were quite lengthy, and (as I later found out) rather intimidating! But all of that detail ensured that the poems arrived in a format which suited me. Consider the following, which will not only save you time as the editor, but also that of your contributors:
• How many pieces do you want them to send? The more you ask from, the better the chance that you will find something you like, which could be a plus in the early days when you’re just starting out!
• Will you accept reprints (ie writing which has been previously published elsewhere)?
• Format – should poems be submitted in an attachment or pasted into an email? The latter is better if you’re going to try and read submissions on your phone, but if you want to read the work blind so you’re not swayed by a submission from a better known writer, ask for a Word document with no identifying text on it. It may also be necessary for poems to be submitted in Word documents or PDFs if the formatting is unusual (white space, line breaks etc) as this doesn’t always come out properly in an email
• 3rd person bio – remember to ask for this if you want your readers to know more about the writer. Request any URLs (latest books, blogs etc), Twitter handles, Facebook pages and so on to help readers find more information elsewhere on the web
• Email or Submittable? The simplest way to receive submissions is via an email address, which you might like to set up separately from your main contact inbox so that general messages and queries don’t get lost in the tidal wave of submissions. Alternatively, you could use a paid service like Submittable, where users fill in online forms (to ensure they’re giving you all the information you require) and attach their submissions electronically. I have no real experience of using Submittable as an editor, but I am told that it is a very good way of managing submissions which will be read by multiple editors
• Rules – if you turn work down by someone, you might not want them to submit again straight away. This is your chance to stipulate how often writers are permitted to send work for consideration
• Simultaneous submissions – make it clear whether or not you are happy to receive work which is already under consideration elsewhere. Let’s just say it can lead to complications if the writer isn’t very well organised…
• Turnaround time – to avoid too many emails chasing you for a response, decide on a likely turnaround time for all submissions, quote it on your website and then do your best to stick to it. Try four weeks initially, but respond as quickly as you possibly can
• Payment – make it clear whether or not you’ll be able to pay your contributors. Most websites don’t pay the writers, generally because they don’t have any way of generating income in the first place!
• Copyright – make it clear that copyright reverts to the writer once it has appear on the site (but politely suggest that the site is credited if the work appears elsewhere)
If you’re going to be the sole editor, try to keep pace with submissions as best you can. Of course, there are bound to be times when they begin to pile up, but if you try and review them soon after they land you’ll avoid the unpleasant situation where it becomes a chore.
I found it best to come at submissions with a fresh pair of eyes, otherwise you run the risk of becoming jaded and potentially dismissing good work. Avoid situations where you try to blitz through backlogged submissions for hours at a time.
Unless the work is definitely not for you, try to read it at least twice, perhaps at different times of the day – I accepted plenty of poems which I initially didn’t warm to, but liked much better on second or even third readings.
I also decided to deal with submissions in the order in which they arrived – first come, first served. This forced me to work through them systematically instead of cherry-picking the ones I loved immediately and putting off making a decision on others.
If you’re going to work with a co-editor or even readers who will shortlist work for you, you need to think of a sensible way of dividing it up. If you’re using a Gmail or Outlook account online, you could share the password with others, or perhaps move submissions to folders with their names on them. Try to avoid printing them out and posting them around the country, though – it might make the process difficult to manage.
Either way, I would recommend leaving submissions in the inbox until you’ve dealt with them – there’s no worse feeling than finding you’ve accidentally deleted someone’s poems.
You might find that keeping your site open to submissions throughout the year gets to be too much, so consider having reading windows when you can carefully review all of the work you’ve received without the added pressure of more landing at the same time!
This sort of approach might suit you best if you are planning to publish the work in separate issues – a deadline will certainly avoid the situation where you’ve made your mind up about which work to include, only for something superb to turn up at a critical moment!
Making Your Mind Up
Deciding what you want to publish is a funny old business. I decided early on that I would only use work that I personally loved, not just because it was written by a high profile writer or, worse, someone I knew.
Trust your gut feeling – if you instantly love a poem, chances are that others will feel the same way. Either way, try to be consistent in what you use – don’t be tempted to take work you aren’t fussed about purely because, say, submissions have gone a bit quiet for a while. Your readers will come back time and time again if they trust your editorial judgement.
If you really like a poem but can see one or two small things which could be improved, it’s up to you whether you simply reject the piece, or approach the writer with your suggestions. Some people flatly refuse but others are glad of the feedback and are happy to make the changes in order to get the work published.
The best bit – emailing writers to confirm that you want to use their work! Be as gushing as you like with the email, but try to make sure that you confirm when you plan to publish, even if it’s only an approximate date; if writers know exactly when their work will be published, they’re more likely to note it down in their diaries and make a point of sharing the link on social media.
Before you hit ‘send’, make sure you have everything you need from the writer – any links to their work that you could include, as well as their 3rd person bio. I only say this because you want to avoid delays further down the line, especially if you’re putting together an issue containing a number of writers’ work – you want as few loose ends as possible at that point!
The worst part of being an editor is having to write to someone to tell them you don’t want to use their work. It’s bad enough when they’re strangers, but no matter how sensitively you handle it, sending a rejection to someone you know can be horrible for both parties.
Although I never had a form rejection note, I did develop a few variations on a theme which were designed to let the writer down as gently and as respectfully as possible. Unless you are certain the writer will take it in the spirit it’s intended, don’t be tempted to give constructive feedback or explain your specific reasons for turning work down – trust me, it isn’t worth the aggravation.
It’s inevitable that some people will take exception to you declining their work. Most people just won’t reply, but when they do, try not to get involved in a back-and-forth with an aggrieved party – it probably won’t end well. The best you can do is simply delete nasty replies and then empty your trash so you aren’t tempted to revisit them.
Layout and Proofreading
Once you’ve decided what to publish, you need to lay it out within whichever online platform you’re using. Most are quite intuitive, and work a lot like simple word processors, although there will be little tricks you pick up on the way and there are plenty of good articles online about how to achieve the desired result.
Once you think you’ve finished placing work on the page, give it a good proofread and try and get someone else to help too, just in case you’ve missed anything. I found that reading poems aloud on-screen really helped to highlight any typos or other issues which I’d previously failed to spot.
You should also ensure that when copying and pasting from the original submission, you actually selected the whole poem. I once published something which was meant to be a sonnet, although I hadn’t pasted in the last four lines!
The advantage of an online journal is that even if something is wrong initially, it only takes a couple of clicks to correct it. That said, make every effort to ensure the work is published right first time.
I found it very helpful to schedule every update in advance – it meant never having to remember to do it. WordPress is very good for this, and you can often set it up to automatically synch with Facebook and Twitter to create alters for your followers. Just be careful that the time zone is set to your own – otherwise you might not notice that a piece hasn’t been published until the same time ticks around in New Delhi or Sydney!
Although you’re unlikely ever to get paid for the countless hours you’ll sink into running your own literary website, you should aim to manage it in as professional a way as you possibly can. If you say you’re going to do something for someone, do it. Respond to submissions in a timely fashion. You know the score – keep all those plates a-spinnin’!
The Numbers Game
I found it really interesting to look at the statistics – WordPress will tell you how many people have landed on the site and what they’ve read while they’ve been there. You can also see which websites referred them. It’s even broken down by their country of origin, which often begs the question to a contributor – ‘who do you know in the Philippines?’
I set up a Facebook page for Clear Poetry very early on, certainly before the first poems were published, which helped to hook people in. Once people have liked your page, they’ll see updates in their News Feed which will help to ensure they don’t miss out on new content, calls for submissions and so on. I also used the FB page to share links to publications by previous contributors, as well as poetry-related information in which I thought the readers might be interested. I used a Twitter account, but spotted that the majority of the traffic to the site was coming from Facebook, so I spent much more effort working on that instead.
If you’re using a well-known platform like WordPress, you won’t have to worry too much about things like Search Engine Optimisation (SEO), which is geared towards making sure your site pops up on Internet searches.
Have a look around for sites which carry listings of other online journals and get in touch with them. The South Bank Poetry Library is a great place to start, as well as The Poetry Shed, Neon and Poetry Kit.
Duotrope is a pretty good service which seems to be mainly used by US-based poets to manage and track their submissions. You can request a listing on there, which will give your submissions levels a boost from our friends across the Pond.
If submissions are flagging then send out reminders via social media that you’re open to new work.
Until very recently, online publications were overlooked by the poetry establishment, but thankfully that seems to be changing, perhaps because the quality of the sites is improving. Every year, website editors are entitled to nominate three poems for the Forward Prize for Best Single Poem. There are also numerous other prizes, including the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net. If you’re very lucky then your site might be nominated for something as prestigious as the annual Saboteur Awards…
The Internet is such a dynamic, limitless new medium that it’s the perfect place to experiment with new things. I tried publishing audio readings by the poets next to their work for a while, which worked quite nicely, although the extra hassle became rather wearing after a while. I also published free anthologies to download which featured my favourite poem by each contributor.
Some online journals have even branched out into good old-fashioned physical publication.
Keep thinking of different ways that you could present work to your reader, as well as the formats they might like to experience it. Use online surveys to work out what they enjoy most about the site and canvas opinions on new features.
I think that’s it. If you can think of any other advice, or you have questions of your own, please get in touch via the comments section below.
Give it a whirl – editing Clear Poetry has admittedly been a huge amount of (unpaid) work, but I’ve got far more out of it than I put in.