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On not letting the competitive instinct crush creativity | poetry submissions stats

OK here goes.

I know some people will wonder why on earth I admit to all this in public. The reason is this: I’m sure I’m not the only person who gets downhearted about rejections, or who has self-doubts about my abilities as a poet. It’s fine not to show it if you do, and some people genuinely have no self-doubts. But I’ve also lived long enough in the belly of social media to know what a toxic and stressful environment it can be when you’re feeling vulnerable. So I think it can help to know you’re not alone.

It’s also very easy to have a skewed view of how things are going. For example, my feeling is I’ve had a poor year as regards getting stuff published. Every magazine I pick up I see a poem by Poet X or Poet Y, or I read the latest edition of Exceptional Poetry Magazine, and I think WTF – where’s my stuff?? I start to wonder what happened to the optimism and self confidence I had a couple of years ago. Or even the ability.

BUT… it really helps to do the numbers. Here’s what I found out when I looked at the stats from the last 12 months:

  • 50 poems sent out in 74 submissions (some poems went out, got rejected and went out again)
  • 48 rejections by magazines
  • 9 failed competition entries
  • 5 poems no response from magazine
  • 4 poems lost by magazine
  • 1 poem withdrawn because I had changed it a lot in the time I was waiting for a reply
  • 5 poems accepted by magazines
  • 1 poem placed 2nd
  • 1 poem longlisted

plus a pamphlet shortlisted.
I have only included competitive submissions in the above, for example I’ve not included anthologies or anything submitted by invitation. I’ve also not included poems currently out and awaiting reply (16 poems in 4 submissions).

Now what this says is that 10% of poems submitted  to mags were accepted for publication (5/50), 18% of poems sent to competitions achieved some kind of success (2/11), 14% of poems submitted to magazines were either lost, or presumed lost (no response in a year and no reply to enquiries) – 9/63.

I had a very good publication record in my first year of getting material placed (2011-2012), and in a way that’s the problem – I haven’t managed to keep that up. But actually, a 10% success rate seems fair. It doesn’t stop me feeling I’ve had a bad year and Must Do Better. That’s really just the competitive instinct in me.

What I find is that by looking at the numbers I can separate out competitive instinct from the creative instinct, and not let the former crush the latter. 

Quality of work is so hard to gauge, and it’s so clearly not the only factor when it comes to publication – yet it’s the first thing we question when work is rejected – ‘maybe my poems are actually rubbish!’ It’s a blow to the confidence. But if you trust a bit more in the stats, it can help put everything in perspective. Focus on writing MORE and writing BETTER – yes – but keep accurate records and once a year or so do a stocktake. I find it’s really worth it.

What do you think? Stupid to get bogged down in numbers? Helpful for painting a clearer picture? Stop crunching numbers and read more Bishop?

8 Comments on “On not letting the competitive instinct crush creativity | poetry submissions stats

  • kim881
    September 30, 2015 at 6:22 pm

    I know how you feel. Don’t get disheartened.

    Reply
  • pamthompsonpoetry
    September 30, 2015 at 7:53 pm

    I think you are right to be objective. it is a good idea to keep a record to attain some kind of perspective. You are so right that the competitive instinct can kill creative practice. I appreciate your honest blogs about what we all experience.

    Reply
  • Cathy Bryant
    September 30, 2015 at 9:50 pm

    I had a great first year too – but then during that first year I had my whole portfolio to choose from, and I wasn’t as fussy about which mags paid or how much, and I didn’t have as many other projects going…I’ve been beating myself up about not submitting as many pieces this year, but then I have had two books published, which is time-consuming! Perspective is everything. I bet you’re doing a thousand more things now than you were in the early years.

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      October 1, 2015 at 4:57 pm

      Good point Cathy. The more opportunities that present themselves the harder it becomes to find the time for just good ol’ magazine submissions. Thanks for your comment.

      Reply
  • coastcard
    October 1, 2015 at 6:23 pm

    I’m wondering if there is a reason for omitting anthology acceptances: I assume just to keep the stats relatively simple? You have made me want to check my anthology numbers against other submissions! Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Robin Houghton
      October 7, 2015 at 8:58 am

      Hi Caroline, thanks for your comment – I didn’t include anthologies because they weren’t competitive, that’s all. But that may be different next year I suppose, we shall see!

      Reply
  • Wendy Klein
    November 10, 2015 at 12:04 pm

    This is so sound, Robin. Thank you after my ‘bad’ year. I’ll do the sums again. LIke you, I have had really ‘successful’ patches. You start to kid yourself — can’t help it — that you’re on a roll, then it all seems to dry up and you look and look at your work… yep, been there!

    Reply
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