You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email? (And Other Problems With Submissions)

Anyone who’s spent time doing script submissions will tell you that it’s not uncommon to never hear back from the opportunities to which you’ve submitted. The notification window comes and goes, and at some point you assume the lack of a response signals your rejection. My term for this is “Default Response,” although I should probably call it the “You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email?” Response; I think notifications are a courtesy writers are owed. Plus, an email costs nothing but a little bit of [an intern’s] time.

In the last few weeks, Max has received a couple of these non-responses, as I’ve realized a few notification periods are overdue. Personally, I am not surprised that Max is getting more rejections. This business is tough and competitive, even for a writer like Max who has been engineered to fit the current prevailing demographic. And since I’ve already spoken about Max’s first rejection and what it “means,” what I actually want to discuss is what we could do to make the submission process a more fair system that promotes diversity. While obnoxious, “Default/You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email” Responses are more an issue of courtesy than parity. It’s other ailments that are entangling a system that’s supposed to be an equitable open door, intended even for those without agents or fancy MFA degrees or an Off-Broadway production.

Take, for example, submission fees. I recently posed a question to my readers on this subject because I have a moral and practical opposition to submission fees, but a competition to which I’d previously submitted now had a $10 fee, and if Max was going to reapply, I’d have to pay it. (The consensus was “different gender, same principle” and an interesting alternate solution was proposed.) And while I did talk about the ethical issues with asking writers to pay a fee, I did not highlight the other huge issue, which is that submission fees set apart the writers with disposable income from the writers without spare funds.


In the arts, we’re supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population. 


Because here’s the thing: For those fortunate enough to have sizable savings, or who earn six figures at a hedge fund by day and write plays by night, a few hundred dollars per year in submission fees might not significantly impact quality of life. You might just pay it, even if you understood the moral issue with the fees. And your scripts certainly deserve just as much of a chance as those of the playwright who makes $15,000 per year as a birthday party mascot, but the result is that the submission opportunities become an open door for the financially secure writer while they are turned into a non-option for the scraping-by writer. And sure, there are countless ways in life that those who have more money are afforded more opportunity, and if you have or earn a good living, it’s your right to enjoy the fruits of those labors. You might even like paying the fees because you feel as if you’re using your fortunate position to support the organizations receiving them. But the problem is that the very existence of the fee creates a division between those who can afford it and those who can’t, and in the arts, we’re supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population.

The other improvement that would help tremendously in leveling the playing field is making blind submissions a standard practice. When I first started out, I hated blind submissions. I was networking a lot, having successful productions, and building a reputation I was proud of. Blind submissions felt like they threw away all that hard work.

Today, I’ve had a complete reversal on how I feel about the subject. With added experience, both as a playwright and an individual, I’ve come to see how much bias is all around us. Blind submissions let the work speak for itself, and they’ve been shown to work wonders for diversity in other industries; as I’ve previously mentioned, orchestra musicians is a great example. Non-blind submissions allow readers to bring their preexisting judgments to the table instead of making the decision truly about the merits of the work. (If you want to read more on the subject, I recommend Karla Jenning’s HowlRound article, In Praise of Being a Blind Reader.)


A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it’s what the arts has always done. 


So how could we accomplish all of this? I believe that the Dramatists Guild should create industry-wide guidelines for submissions. Establishing no fees and a blind reading policy could do so much to increase fairness. There could even be industry-wide standards for what materials are requested for the evaluation. As it stands now, every group creates their own requirements, and while I understand that an organization funding a program is entitled to ask for the materials they want, it’s unfair to ask writers to jump through hoops—especially because the next submission wants you to jump through an entirely different set of hoops. (These can become so absurd that McSweeney’s has a brilliant parody article: “Playwrights should meet at least two of the following criteria: current resident of Colorado or Delaware; direct descendant of pirates; Capricorn.”) Much like the “Default Responses,” this is not even as issue of equality. Rather, if we streamlined the options, think of how much more playwriting our collective minds could accomplish when we didn’t have to constantly stop to translate the artistic statements we wrote last week into Tolkien Elvish.

All this is to say: We can do better. A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would stand to be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it’s what the arts has always done.

Originally published on Howlround.

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