I've noticed something odd about the editorial guidelines offered by many literary journals. In their tips to contributors, they often say something like, "send us only your best work." Which means . . . what?
Maybe it's some kind of code. Maybe if I'd attended an MFA program I'd know what they were talking about. Maybe it means, "make sure to proofread, you moron!" Or, "send only those stories that your thesis advisor compared favorably to the works of Chekhov and Hemingway." Or, "if you've written a hundred stories, throw them all at the steps and send only the one that lands on top."
Because really, how many writers seriously consider sending their worst work to a literary journal? Yes, I suppose there are a lot of desperate writers out there (maybe I'm one of them), and I suppose there are people who jot down a story, run a quick spell-check (or not), and then flood the markets with the thing. Given how many journals accept electronic submissions these days, this is relatively easy (and cheap) to do. So I guess, in this light, the journals are just trying to protect themselves.
But my guess is also that it doesn't work. Because those few writers who adopt the above approach are not going to be dissuaded by such editorial advice, and the rest of us are not going to be helped by it.
I'm confident that most writers, the vast majority of writers in fact, are sending their best work--the best work of which they're capable. That doesn't mean it's going to be great; but the fact that it isn't great doesn't mean it isn't their best. The majority of writers, even those whose stories are not very good, are not trying to annoy and infuriate editors by sending inferior stories; they're sending their best, and it's precisely the job of editors to determine which stories among the innumerable "my bests" are actually the best.
I've written lots of stories. Most of them I consider to be pretty good. A few I know are awful. And many I consider to be my best. But I'll be darned if I know how to make my best better. The only way I know to get better as a writer is to keep reading and writing, and so that's what I do--but should I sit on these stories forever, hoping that in years to come they'll meet someone else's hypothetical standard of "best"? Or should I send the work I consider to be my best at present, knowing that as I continue to write, my best will get better? The stories I send out for possible publication are the best I can do right now, and so it's not particularly helpful to tell me they're the ones I should be sending. That would be like me saying to my students, "Send me your best paper." What other paper would they send me?
I think it's time for some honesty here. Don't tell us on the editorial page, "send only your best work." Tell us, "send only the best story ever written, the single story most likely to be immortalized by the bards of the future." If I saw that advice, I'd know not to submit my stories there.
Instead, I'd submit to some market that's willing to consider my best.