Tips for Writing for McSweeney's
A few things I've found helpful when submitting to the site.
I developed a soft spot for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency when I first heard about the site when I was living in Brooklyn in the early 2000s. At that time McSweeney’s had a small store that featured things like taxidermy and a book about how to care for your miniature donkey, and I liked the work they were doing, particularly on their quirky humor site.
My path to publication in McSweeney’s
I sent in my first submission in 2001, and it was rejected. A couple of years later, I took a humor writing class through Mediabistro when I was living in New York and was inspired to start submitting to them a little more. I got six more rejections. Then in 2005, I got my first acceptance—an essay about U2’s song “One Tree Hill” for a series they were running. That piece is not typical of what McSweeney’s Internet Tendency currently runs (so don’t send them funny essays), but it was for a series they were doing at the time.
Since I had accomplished my goal of getting a piece placed with them, I took a break from submitting there. Life got in the way. Then in 2015 I got back into writing and submitting more regularly. I read their site regularly for a while and then sent them a new piece, and it was rejected. Then I sent a second piece, and it was accepted. It was a piece that poked fun of all the contradictory rules that parents hear about how to discipline toddlers. The piece landed on their trending articles list for a couple of weeks and it led to me getting more writing assignments from other places.
The next piece I submitted after that was also accepted and at that point, I felt like I had cracked the McSweeney’s code and would have better luck with acceptances — so of course, my next four submissions were rejected. But the fifth one was accepted — an imagined note to a kid’s college roommate about things he never grew out of (e.g. needing to be swaddled at night and sleep in an infant swing). And then of course after that, I got nine more rejections before they took another piece.
I have since submitted several more times and racked up several more rejections and a few more acceptances. But what I’ve learned from other humor writers published on the site is that they are getting rejected too (exhibit A and B). Sometimes when you hit a rejection streak with a particular publication it can feel like you are the only one being rejected, but you aren’t.
I think I’ve gotten a better handle on the voice of the site and better at writing satire since I first started submitting, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still get plenty of rejections. Some things are out of your control (they’ve already accepted a similar piece, they have gotten a lot of submissions of that format before, etc.), so I try to not take the rejections too personally, and more often than not, I can place a piece rejected by McSweeney’s somewhere else. Of course, some rejections do sting more than others, but I think that is just something to get used to with submitting writing.
A few tips for submitting to McSweeney’s:
Read the site regularly to get a sense of what they publish and follow the submission guidelines. They publish short satire/conceptual humor pieces and have a specific voice that is different than other places. They now have separate emails for super timely pieces vs not (and in the latter category, they still tend to respond pretty quickly). But following the guidelines and making sure you are sending something that fits with the site helps.
Subscribe to their Patreon — they send out periodic calls for content and I’ve had a piece accepted that was a response to a content call (and I’ve also had some rejected that were responses to content calls, so this is not the magic bullet!)
Get feedback on a piece from other writers familiar with the site before submitting it. I know other humor writers whose opinions I trust that I can trade work with. Finding good feedback partners via Facebook writing groups, comedy writing classes, or conferences can be a good way to start developing relationships. A few places that regularly offer satire writing classes include Second City (I took Writing Satire for the Internet Level 1 and 2 through them) and St. Nells.
Tie a piece to something timely. McSweeney’s (and many other publications) often like pieces that are tied to a holiday or season or something going on in the news. I tend to not submit super timely pieces because I am not a super fast writer and it can be tough to submit them somewhere else if it’s extremely timely, but thinking ahead to certain holidays or seasonal content has worked well for me.
Search the site archive before submitting. McSweeney’s has published a lot and they have an extensive archive. Before I submit something, I try to search the archive to make sure there isn’t something too similar to the piece that has run recently.
Continue to try. Sometimes it takes several submissions before you can get something placed in a publication, so don’t give up after just one rejection. But this doesn’t mean you should bombard a publication with submissions. There is such a thing as submitting too much because it can feel like you are just throwing spaghetti at the wall. (I know there are some satire writers who can write lots of good pieces really quickly, but I am not one of them.) I have also realized that if I get on a long rejection streak with a pub it’s sometimes better for me to take a break from submitting or take a little more time with pieces before submitting another thing there. And hopefully, this goes without saying, but don’t ever be a jerk responding to a rejection — editor Chris Monks has a special jerk folder for that.
Learn more about what they want. McSweeney’s editor Chris Monks has done some interviews talking about the site and his preferences so it’s worth doing some searches and checking these out. Two that you can start with are this interview series on Medium and this podcast interview with Greener Pastures.
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