Having worked as Managing Editor and Assistant Managing Editor of The Bellingham Review and Cutbank, respectively, I have some opinions on what and what not to do when submitting to litmags. I should note that these opinions are largely informed by the graduate student experience of screening submissions and not the nonprofit, non-university-associated editorial experience. I should also note that I am a writer who sends out work, who receives rejections regularly, who understands the heartbreak, and who is near enough to broke. I have chosen to work for litmags during time as a grad student as a way of learning how they work. I highly recommend that other writers do the same if the opportunity presents itself.
As an editor-type, these are my pet peeves (in no particular order):
Clever cover letters. First: As a graduate TA with a second, part-time job, I only have so much time to devote to reading submissions. I don't want to wade through paragraphs of self-congratulatory schtick to get to the relevant information. What's more, the more one writes, the more chance there is of annoying the screener to the point of prejudicing him or her against one's work. Bottom line: Name, contact info, bio in under 50 words, and recent publications (the last two items being optional). In addition, I don't need a synopsis of your story, nor do I need a lengthy explanation of what your poems mean. If I'm doing my job correctly, I'll be able to figure those things out for myself.
Form cover letters. It may seem only fair that since many litmags send out form rejections, writers should be allowed to send out form cover letters, CVs, or page-long lists of publications. Not so, my friends. Not so.
Bitter Cover Letters. I don't really need to hear that you expect a "timely" response to your work. Nor do I need to hear your sob story about how you've repeatedly submitted and been rejected by our litmag. I don't need to hear about your terminal disease and how this may be your last chance to "place your children".
Postcards vs. SASEs. It's all about time. We have form rejection slips. When you send postcards instead of SASEs, you're asking us to find a pen and actually write a response to you. This is the part where I remind you that we're unpaid volunteers, reading and responding to work simply for the love of the game. As a screener, I want to spend the bulk of my time carefully reading submissions--not scribbling personal notes to writers who chose not to pay the extra 15 cents for envelope postage. In addition, I'm not keen on the "notification of receipt" postcards. We don't mention those in our submission guidelines, so it's safe to assume that they are not part of the deal.
Content. Far be it from me to say what writers should write about. I'm merely noting the content that seems most prevalent and least interesting based on what I've seen so far: parents in nursing homes, with Alzheimers, with terminal illnesses, etc.; pomegranates; cicadas; conversations in cars; pet death; average joe plans a murder or deals with its aftermath; professor-student sexual relations; life as a student; life as a teacher; redneck makes good; relationship didn't work out...bummer; travel to a foreign place opened my eyes; having a baby opened my eyes; brush with death opened my eyes; nature is good--I want to describe it in vague detail; etc. and so on.
What I'm getting at: "Write what you know" works to a point, but it's no substitute for complexity and vivid imagination.
Those are the big ones. Those are the ones I wish I'd known when I graduated with my handy-dandy creative writing degree 10 years ago. Before I sent my work to The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Before I knew that litmags even existed.
One of the best things a professor ever did for me was to show me his file folder of rejections. Said professor was somewhat of a major player in his field and it never occurred to me that such a writer could ever be rejected by anyone, for any reason. Such was not the case. His advice: develop a thick skin. You are not your work. If one magazine doesn't want it, another one will.
I would add to this a simple tip: Make mistakes. Learn the ropes. Be your own best advocate and avoid the silly pitfalls as much as you can. Also, don't be a weirdy.