In a perfect world, a writer sends a submission to an editor. The editor writes back immediately that she'd love to publish the piece, contract attached, the article is published immediately, and everyone is happy. But sometimes there are glitches in this perfect world. I had one that has lasted nearly a full year.
On December 5th of 2008, I sent an article to an editor of a writing website. She e-mailed me that she'd like to use the article and would probably publish it in January of 2009, but then said she didn't promise it would be January. I happily returned my signed contract to her and began to watch for the article to appear. Months went by and no sign of it, but I wasn't overly concerned.
Finally, in August I e-mailed her asking if she still planned to use the article. My thinking was that if she had decided against it, fine, but I'd like to be released from the contract so that I could market it elsewhere.
I waited a couple more months and wrote her again. I didn't want to be a pest and be put on a list of writers editors avoid, but I didn't want the article to lie in her files and grow moldy with age either. No answer.
Last night, I decided to give it one more try. The old "third time's the charm" theory. I wrote a short note and pasted the second letter below that and attached a copy of the article. Within a very short time, I had an answer. She apologized and said that the article would run later this month.
The question is can you pester an editor? And if so, how much? And how? Yes, I think you can make contact with an editor when you're concerned about the status of your work. The most important thing to remember is to do it in a mannerly mode, even if your anger is simmering and nearing the boiling point. Angry letters often receive angry responses. State the situation in a civil way, add any other correspondence at the bottom so the editor doesn't have to go searching through files. For the same reason, attach a copy of the submission you'd sent in the beginning.
When do you become a pest? I'd say you've reached pest level when you send your inquiries too close together. If you send three within one week, the editor will remember your name forever, and it won't be with favor. Use common sense. Give them time to consider the situation, determine if they are still going to use the piece or not. Keep in mind that yours is not the only submission the editor has to deal with. More often than not, if you follow those good manners your mother taught you, you'll come out a winner.