Obviously I can only speak for our own magazine, but some of this advice will be more general.
1. Pet Peeves
All three of us read these submissions together, so we can talk about and discuss each piece in real time. Having three editors go over your work is a good thing because we all have our little idiosyncrasies and pet peeves. And rarely do the three of us unanimously and strongly agree that a piece should go into the magazine. Without naming any names, below are some of our editors' biggest pet peeves.
Line breaks that end carelessly on a preposition
Poems whose alignments are centered
Poems that rhyme loudly
Pieces that rely heavily on italics to convey emphasis
Pieces that spell things phonetically to convey an accent but still use proper grammar/syntax
Walls of text
2. Don’t Overstay Your Welcome
Too often we reject poems or stories just because they go on too long. Without fail every issue we accept a poem with the condition of cutting a stanza (usually the first or the last) out of the poem. The conventional wisdom is: the shorter your piece is, the less room there is to mess up. If you are reading something over that you’re submitting and the ending is some sort of gesture towards, “And the moral is…” or “and we all learned…” think about cutting it out. Trust your reader to be smart enough to get the message or point of your piece without you having to explicitly tell them.
3. Don’t Be Overly Verbose
“Show don’t tell” is probably the most conventional wisdom thrown at people, but there’s one that’s just as important: If you can write it in ten words but choose to write it in twenty, there’s a problem. Also shorter syllable words are easier to control both visually and sonically, so in most cases, stick with words like “crash” instead of words like “collision.” Finally, the three of us all got our college degrees and have pretty good vocabularies, so if you use a word that none of us know there’s a problem. Don’t count on your dictionary website’s word of the day for inspiration.
4. The Lunch-Break Contradiction
There was a study of judges that found how appeals cases could be decided simply by where your case was in line. When it came to deciding cases before a judge’s lunch break, 100% of the appeals were rejected. I bring this up to say that we are human beings, and while we try to be very vigilant editors who try not to let our personal lives affect how we read a piece, our lives very well can. Without getting into our process of editing pieces, we do a lot of things to try to read work as objectively and thoroughly as possible, but this is a problem all editors at all magazines deal with. Sometimes your work may just get rejected because it reminds the editor of a style of writing their ex used, or your poems were in the last packet the editor had to read before they went to lunch with their friends and they were in a rush. If your peers keep telling you the work is great but you’re striking out with the editors, it really may just be bad luck.
5. There’s Always An Exception to the Rules
I don’t want to be handing down “rules for writing.” There’s a whole market of books for that, and fortunately for us the English language is flexible enough that sometimes you can break all those rules and still come up with something exhilarating.
We’re living in an exciting time where there are more artists and writers than ever creating work, and while that may make it seem crowded and difficult to get your voice out there, don’t back down from that challenge. If you keep trying to improve and keep putting the work out there, it will find a home. Ultimately, if we pass on your piece and you want to query us asking why, feel free to. Just be prepared for some honest criticism of your work.