Writers Toolbox: 10 Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals

Oct 30, 2014   //   by Christina   //   Latest News, Writers Toolbox  //  No Comments

Writing for literary magazines is a good way to hone your craft and, with luck and a lot of hard work, get those valuable publishing credits. With over 160 submissions and counting under my belt over the last 3 years, plus a few acceptances to boot, I’ve learned some things about submitting to literary magazines which I’d like to share with you today in the hopes that it helps you to pursue your writing dreams.

1. Read all instructions carefully.

This is the first piece of advice you’re going to get, and, arguably, the most important. The top literary magazines get thousands of submissions every month, while only being able to accept about 5 stories & maybe about the same number of poems on average. You do the math. So, if you don’t follow their instructions on how to format & send your submission, you’re making the editors’ job so much easier. They can just toss out your work in an effort to diminish their slush pile. Generally, there are five main things to watch out for in the instructions.

Formatting: This is the type & size of font the editors want, information they want on the first page,

Length: What is the minimum and maximum length of stories they’ll accept.

Method of submissions: I’ll talk more about this in my next point, but follow these to a T. Don’t email, if they want it mailed. Don’t mail, if they prefer electronic submissions. It seems kind of obvious, but better safe than sorry.

Blind submissions: If the instructions specify that they read “blind”, this means that all identifying information should be deleted off your submission. Double-check this thoroughly. I once forgot to take my name off my header. Thankfully, the editor kindly informed me and allowed me to resubmit. Other editors may not be so merciful.

Cover letter & biography: I’ll also cover this in more detail. I personally feel you should always thank the editors for taking the time to read your work. Beyond that, some want you to include a bio or specific information in your cover letter. Some will want your bio. Some don’t care unless you’re accepted.

Sometimes, the instructions will be very short or vague. When in doubt, I follow these default manuscript guidelines. They make my submission look professional. It’s always smart to make a good first impression.

2. The 4 major methods of submissions

Email: Make sure to use the specific email address for submissions. Also, doublecheck if the editors prefer your story as an attachment (and which document format) or pasted into the body of the email. Also, make sure your email host saves a copy of that sent email. If you do need to follow-up, it helps to know the exact date you sent the story and be able to prove it.

Submittable: Get an account here right away. So many magazines use this submissions platform, and many more are signing up everyday. Easy, efficient, and a great way to track all your stories using this form of submission. You may have to pay a small fee to submit here in order to help defray the costs. It’s usually not more than $3. I tend to shy away from magazines that charge more than $5. The only exception are contests that charge higher reading fees, but often have a chance at richer prizes (and even then, I rarely submit to these).

Own Submissions Manager: Some literary magazines have their own submissions manager through their website. You’ll have to sign up a separate account for each magazine. But, once you’ve signed up, you can submit to the magazine multiple times without signing up again.

Mail: While many literary magazines have switched to electronic submissions, there are still some who’ve stayed old school. Unfortunately, many of them are top-tier magazines. I’m a girl of the electronic age, so I tend to shy away from magazines who like the more manual form of submission. I’ve only tried twice. One was rejected, and one was accepted. The accepted one was my first paying acceptance. So, I’ll let you be the judge as to whether you want to go this route. Again, follow the directions, like whether they want multiple copies of the same story or they want your name only on the cover letter. Make sure you send the package with correct postage. And don’t forget to include a SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), or you may never receive a response.

3. Cover Letter & Biography

The key to both the cover letter and biography is KISS (Keep it Simple, Sweetheart).

Cover Letter: Follow instructions. Thank the editor. If there’s something special regarding this story, make sure to include it, but keep it short and to-the-point. For instance, you can mention that you’ve written the story specifically for a magazine’s prompt, or if an editor liked a previous story and encouraged you to submit another story. This can make you stand out from the rest of the slush pile. This is not the place to ramble on and on about random things. And for the love of God, be polite! If there’s a specific fiction editor (or a single editor for the smaller magazines), address the letter with their name. It shows you took the time to peruse the website and understand their magazine.

Biography: Don’t write your life story in your biography. Keep it to a few sentences. Make it quirky or fun, if you like. Include any publishing credits you have or are forthcoming.

4. Tracking your submissions

Hopefully, you’ll have more than one submission. A spreadsheet might be sufficient with with only a few submissions out. But, once your submissions, acceptance, and rejections start adding up, I highly recommend you get another tracking system going. Not only will you know which stories are out, but which magazines they’ve been submitted to (magazines don’t like reading stories they’ve already rejected) and what comments you’ve received for each story.  Tons of people love Duotrope for its extensive database of magazines and their acceptance stats. I personally swear by SONAR, which is a free tracking software that’s served me well over the years. Find one that works well for you and stick to it.

5. Simultaneous & Multiple Submissions

Simultaneous submissions: submitting a story to multiple magazines at the same time. This can quickly increase a chance of acceptance for a story, if you manage it right. Most literary magazines don’t mind simultaneous submissions. However, many request that you inform them at the time of submission. Also, it’s bad etiquette to get accepted at one magazine and forget to withdraw your story immediately from all the other magazines you submitted to (this is another reason why tracking is so important). So make sure that you’re submitting to the magazines you really want first. Many genre magazines like science-fiction/fantasy/speculative magazines absolutely forbid simultaneous submissions. Check the instructions. When in doubt, don’t do simultaneous. I shy away from simultaneous submissions, but that’s a personal preference.

Multiple Submissions: submitting multiple stories to the same magazine at the same time. Most magazines discourage this practice. There are some magazines, especially those for flash stories (<1,000) or poetry, which allow multiple submissions. But, of course, don’t submit more than they ask for.

6. Rejections (& what a good rejection is)

If you submit, unless you’re some unheard-of prodigy writer, you’re going to get rejected.  It sucks! I’ve gotten tons of rejections, and I won’t lie, it still stings a bit. But the important thing is to move on, keep writing, and keep submitting. Literary magazines reject for any number of reasons. Maybe your story isn’t up to the quality that they want. It’s true. In that case, you keep learning about the craft of writing and improve the story after each rejection. I’ve had a couple stories that were rejected over and over. I listened to comments I received about them, and tried to understand the story’s underlying flaws. And, you know what? They were accepted eventually. When I look back at these stories when I first submitted it out, I’m actually glad they weren’t accepted. They weren’t ready at the time.

But quality isn’t the only reason a story is rejection. Maybe the literary magazine already accepted a similar story. Maybe your story doesn’t fit what they’re looking for.  Or maybe a theme developed from the stories they were looking at and yours didn’t quite fit. So many maybes  you’ll never know about unless you’ve edited a literary magazine yourself. It’ll drive you straight to depression if you dwell too long on it. So, grieve a little, then submit out again.

Sometimes, you’ll get a good rejection. I know, sounds crazy. When is rejection ever good? When a story makes it to the top percentage of stories, but was eventually cut for some reason, editors will often include comments or encouragements with the rejection. They can’t do this for every rejection, or they’ll never have time to do anything. So, if you get comments, take it as a sign that your story was top notch enough that an editor will take time out of their crazy schedules to help you improve as a writer. And that’s pretty awesome.

7. Edit, edit, and submit

Do not ever submit a story without at least one good bout of editing. Even if you’re the most amazing writer in the world. Edit for spelling and grammar. Edit for content flow, plot, character development, setting, and language. Read it aloud to listen for any awkwardness or repetitiveness. Have someone else read it, if you can. Then edit for everything all over again. Most literary magazines won’t be picky if you have a couple grammatical mistakes. But, as a reader, you know that any weird misspellings or glaring plot holes will pull you right out of a story. An editor is not going to publish a story they can’t get through.

On the other hand, don’t be such a perfectionist that you never get a story submitted out. If you don’t submit, you don’t get published. Simple as that. Do the best job you can at the point you’re at, then submit it out. If it gets rejected, grieve a little, learn a little,  sit down for another round of editing, then submit it out again.

8. Rights, Copyrights, and Payments

Most magazines I’ve encountered ask for First North American Serial Rights. This means the copyright still belongs to you, the writer, but you’re giving the magazine permission to be the first to publish your story in North America. After it’s been published, you can publish it anywhere else, as long as it’s specified that it’s a reprint and to mention where the story was first published. Also, you can be published elsewhere in the world, though you may have to wait from 6 months to a year after publication depending on your contract. Sometimes, magazines will ask for audio rights if they want to record a reading of your story, or anthology rights if they want to have the option of publishing your story in another anthology. Just make sure you retain copyright. I’ve come across a few commercial magazines that ask for all the rights. This means you’ve given up all your rights to the piece you’ve written, and you’re not allowed to publish the story anywhere else. Some feel it’s worth it for the exposure. I personally don’t like it, unless I wrote that story specifically for that magazine and can’t see any other outlet where I’d like it published in the future (unlikely…).

I’ve had stories published with magazines that ask for a signed contract, and I’ve had stories published without one. I’ve never encountered problems with either case. Typically, contracts are required when there’s some sort of payment upon publication. Read it carefully before you sign it, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand any specific terms. As for payments, it depends on the magazine. Some prefer to mail a check, while others are fine with Paypal or electronic ACH deposit. Payment terms should be laid out in the contract. And if it isn’t, be sure to ask.

9. Querying

Querying, in the literary magazine world, mostly means following-up on a submission. Waiting for a response is tough, and it’s tempting to want to follow-up soon after submitting something. Many journals will post how long you should expect to wait for a response to a submission, and how long to hold off before querying. When there aren’t explicit instructions, my rule of thumb is to wait about 6 months.  Why query? I’ve once sent out a story, but 6 months had passed with no response. When I queried, it turned out they’d never received my submission in the first place. I resent, and they accepted within a couple days. Other times, I receive responses from magazines that assure me they’re still working on reading submissions. This reassures me that my story wasn’t lost in the depths of cyberspace somewhere. So, yeah, querying is worth it.

How do you query? Just send a nice little email that says: “Hi, I sent <my story> on <this day>. Can you please update me on the status of my submission? Thanks!”, or something along those lines.

Some magazines say that if you don’t receive a response by a certain date, to assume they’re not using your story. It’s up to you whether you want to try querying those. And I’ve had a couple magazines who’ve never responded back to me, even after a couple follow-up emails and over a year of waiting. I tend to consider those stories rejected, and move on.

10. Try to read a few stories

Different magazines have different tastes. This seems obvious. But it’s a fools’ errand to send a humorous story to a magazine who prefer horror (unless it’s dark humor), or a heartwarming family story to a magazine who delights in the surreal and fantastical. The best way to figure out the tone of a magazine is to read a few stories. I admit it’s next to impossible to purchase a copy of every magazine I want to submit to, though I’ve splurged on a couple subscriptions. I’m a writer in the beginning stages of her career, whose husband is a PhD student (do the math). So, I devour every free story I can get my hot little hands on. Not only is it a great way to do research, it’ll really improve your writing. Plus, it’s fun to read these amazing stories & poetry. Heck, go and read from magazines you wouldn’t consider. I bet you’ll find some amazing gems and completely rethink everything you ever knew about writing. I know I’ve had a few of those revelations myself.

Plus some resources:

Free Writing Contests: a free database of writing contests that don’t charge reading fees

Writing Career: a great blog of calls for submissions from paying literary journals

NewPages: Calls for submissions for a lot of different literary journals

5 Fiction Mistakes: Things to keep in mind while you’re editing

What Editors Want: A great article from the perspective of editor, Lynne Barrett.

6 Questions: Jim Harrington asks the editors of various magazines 6 questions. A great insight to each magazine and what the editors are looking for.

Purdue Online Writing Lab: Free resources on grammar, writing, and style guides


**And, cheesy as it sounds, really have fun with your writing! Don’t lose your enjoyment of creating stories and playing with words.

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