Submitting to literary magazines is always a hot topic in my workshops.
Whether I’m introducing beginning writers to the lit mag world or I’m working with seasoned writers like those my Press Send Workshop, who revise a story, research submission markets, and then submit to their top four markets during the final class, I know that all my students are eager to discuss how to go about submitting their work to journals.
And there is a method that gets results.
Do the hard, dirty, exhausting work of writing something actually worth submitting. Don’t just dash off a piece and assume that it’s going to get published by the first place you send it. Work on it until you can’t look at it anymore. Then get input from other writers you trust, writers who understand what you’re trying to do and are willing to give you specific, craft-based criticism. If you don’t know anyone who fits the bill, meet other writers by taking classes, attending readings, joining a writers’ space, and then form a writing group with writers whose tastes you share and opinions you respect.
And listen to the criticism, not just the praise. Use it to help you revise, write more, revise again. Get your work as close to perfect as you can.
Know the marketplace. Research literary magazines like your writing life depends on it. Which it does. You can’t find the best home for your story–or your essay or your poem–if you don’t know what’s out there. On my Writers’ Resources page under the category “Publishing Tools,” you’ll find a list of resources that will help you research and discover numerous respected literary journals that could be just the right fit for your work.
Here’s one way to use those resources: First, to get a lay of the land, look at literary magazine rankings like the Perpetual Folly Pushcart Prize Rankings and Book Fox’s Best American Short Story Rankings and see what the top markets are. Also consult databases like Poets & Writers or Duotrope Digest that list just about every journal out there, along with submission dates, special theme issues, contests, and even statistics on response times and acceptance/rejection rates. Also, branch out and take a look at your favorite short story collections and see where those authors have published.
Then move on to sites like The Review Review and NewPages to read reviews of the journals that most appeal to you. Don’t just look at the top ten journals. Read reviews of journals ranked in the middle and at the end as well. Some of the best journals–and by best I mean both journals that are putting out amazing quality work and journals that are the best fit for your particular writing–aren’t in the top ten.
Once you’ve compiled a list of interesting mags (aim for twenty or so), go to the magazines’ websites and start exploring. Consider the aesthetic and functionality of the site. Is it easy to use, easy to read, pleasing to the eye? If you’re looking to see your work in print, subscribe to that magazine or at the very least order an issue. You want to feel the weight of that journal in your hands, see the artwork, the typeset, the design.
And whether the journal is print, online, or both, read it from cover to cover to evaluate not just whether you love what’s being published but also whether your own work fits the magazine’s aesthetic. Are you an experimental writer, a voice-driven writer? Are you a humorist or are you drama driven? Or quietly poetic? Look for a magazine that fits the tone and style and subject matter of the work that you’re trying to place.
Strategize, strategize, strategize.
As you research, start tiering your list of journals. Figure out which ones are your absolute dream markets and which ones you’d be thrilled to publish in but are a safer bet, and so on. Have about four or five journals per tier. And don’t put all your favorite markets in the first tier, since chances are, you’re going to do some rewriting along the way and will want to submit your rewritten story to some of those favorites.
Then go back to those databases like Duotrope that keep track of response times and acceptance/rejection rates. Which mags are the tortoises and which are the hares? If your top mag is the slowest of the slow, then maybe send there first and wait a while to send to the faster-to-respond but less favorite markets.
Read each magazine’s submission guidelines carefully. Follow every single one. If they want a .doc or a .pdf, don’t send a .docx. If they don’t want your name in the document, take it out. If they don’t want simultaneous submissions (i.e., they don’t want you sending the story to other markets while they’re considering it), then don’t send the story to anyone else, or strike that magazine from your list if you’re going to send your work several places at once. I repeat: FOLLOW EVERY. SINGLE. GUIDELINE.
Write a simple, direct cover letter. If there’s a particular story you loved that the mag published, mention it. If you’ve submitted there before and the magazine asked you send more work, say that. If you’ve never published before, say that. If you’ve got a few publication credits list those.
Before you send out your story, know how you’re going to keep track of your submissions. Magazines hate it when they receive a story that they’ve already rejected, or if you inquire too soon about the status of your submisison.
There are lots of ways to tracking where you’ve sent your work: make your own Excel spreadsheet, or use an online submission tracker. There are both free and subscription services. For instance Tell It Slant, a submission manager, also provides a free submission tracker that allows you to keep track of submissions to all magazines, whether or not those magazines use Tell It Slant’s submission manager.
I’ve used Duotrope Digest’s submission tracker for years. It charges a small monthly fee that gives you access to an extensive database listing both journals and contests, editor interviews, and comprehensive statistics based on Duotrope users reports about response times, accceptance and rejection rates, etc. There are other trackers out there as well, some of which are listed on my Writers’ Resources page under “Publishing Tools.”
And finally, it’s time to submit. Stick the envelope with your story, cover letter, and SASE in the mail. Or cut and paste your cover letter into the submission manager, attach your document, and press Send.
Get your work out into the world.
For every rejection, send out two more submissions. Every few rejections, sit back down with the piece and read it again. Evaluate what needs development, what needs rewriting, revising, restructuring. Don’t be precious about your work. Recognize that rewriting and honing your work, doing more research, and submitting again, and again, and again, will be what gets you published.
The most successful writers aren’t always the most talented. They are ones who best withstand despair. Don’t let the despair of rejection unhinge you. Don’t EVER respond with a nasty diatribe about why the editors were wrong (which is submission suicide–the lit mag world is small and elephantine in memory). Let rejection galvanize you. Start the cycle over.
Write. Research. Strategize. Submit. Repeat.
Here are some blog posts about writing cover letters and submitting to literary magazines that are thorough, thoughtful, and chock-full of excellent advice:
It’s worth noting that four of the above posts are from one of my favorite literary websites, The Review Review, which offers numerous submission resources, from magazine reviews to submission tips to editor interviews to a killer newsletter that gives a weekly summary of what’s new and interesting in the world of literary magazines. Check out the site. You’ll be wiser for it.
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