If you’re just starting to submit to literary magazines, congratulations! This is an exciting time and you should be proud of yourself for doing the hard work of writing and the brave work of putting yourself out there for appraisal by strangers. It’s gutsy and worthwhile.
I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think writers need to publish in literary journals or have any publishing credits at all. But I do encourage writers who have ambitions of getting a book traditionally published to think about getting some shorter pieces in print too. Some good credits can only strengthen your query letter.
I’ve spent years working in the literary journal world, on the editorial side and as a fellow writer, and I’ve put together some of my best advice for those just getting started.
1-Pick the right publications
Writers who submit to literary magazines have to get familiar with the lit mag landscape. It’s time-consuming and there’s not much of a way around it. You’ll need to spend time poking around on the internet trying to figure out where to submit so that you can make smart choices about where your work might find a good home.
A great way to find new journals is to read the acknowledgment pages in anthologies and collections of short works to see where other writers have published. When you read a piece of creative writing you like, take a look at the author’s bio to see if they list any other publishing credits. Keep a running list of prospective places to submit.
Once you’ve found a potential magazine, read some of the work they publish to make sure yours seems like a fit for them. I mean, you don’t want to send your free verse poems to a place that only publishes formal poetry. If you find a journal whose work resonates with you, it might just be that your work will resonate with them.
2-Be willing to start with smaller-profile publications
There’s nothing wrong with swinging for the fences and going for a journal that is always likely to show up in the Best American series. But just know that when you do this, your odds of getting an acceptance decrease from what are already low odds.
If you’re just starting to submit to literary magazines, give yourself some time to get practiced at the submission process and to get better as a writer. As in most endeavors, it’s advisable to work your way up.
3-Choose journals that allow simultaneous submissions
Unless a journal promises a super-fast turn-around (like two weeks), there’s no good reason, in my book, for a journal to hold your work hostage for months and not allow you to send it to multiple places.
It’s common for magazines to take three to six months to respond to submissions. When you’re talking about a less than 5% chance that your work will be accepted (and that’s optimistic), it could and probably would take years for you to get that work published if you had to go one journal at a time.
4-Make sure your piece is revised and polished to a shine
Never send a rough draft to a magazine. That may seem obvious, but if your piece is a first draft, it’s still a rough draft. Revise it into the very best shape you can get it and then take it through your writing workshop, give it to your critique partners, or share it with a trusted reader who can give you good and honest feedback. And then revise it again.
Revising means rewriting, not just giving your piece a grammar and punctuation spit shine. Sometimes beginning writers are impatient to get something published (that’s okay, I was too) and I sometimes think it’s best to just scratch that itch and give it a shot. But remember, if your work is going to be published online, it might always exist there. So make sure that whatever you send out is something you’re going to be proud of for a long while.
Usually, a magazine will have some *first readers* who cull the pile of submissions down to a manageable size. Your work may get a couple of sets of eyes on it before it’s bumped up for an editor to read, or it’s possible that the reader who first looks at your manuscript might have rejection privileges.
In any event, you do not want to give a first reader an easy reason to reject or vote no on your work, and not following basic formatting guidelines looks amateurish and is irritating. One or two minor issues won’t keep good work from getting picked up, but I suggest you don’t let formatting issues even be a factor.
If the journal gives any guidelines about formatting, follow those, but if they don’t, here are some industry standards you can use: 1 in. margins, 12 pt. font, Times New Roman, double-spaced, insert page numbers, one space after a period, word count and personal info. at the top of the 1st page (first and last name, phone #, email), .doc or .docx file format, and left-justify poetry.
6-Follow their submission rules exactly
When you submit to literary magazines, make sure you save any creative rule-breaking for the work itself. Writers who do not pay attention to guidelines and submission conventions are wasting an editor’s time and seriously lower the chances that the work will be chosen for publication.
Most magazines are very clear about what they care about when you send your manuscript to them. Some will have many guidelines, down to the specific font they want you to use, and some will have few. Some might want your name in the header and some might read “blind” (meaning they don’t want to know who you are) and will ask that your manuscript be stripped of any identifying information.
It might seem like an irritation to have to adjust your manuscript to fit different sets of guidelines, but each magazine will have their reasons for their rules and it’s important that you follow them.
7-Write a good cover letter
It wasn’t long ago that if you wanted to submit to literary magazines, you had to mail your work in a packet that included a hard copy cover letter. Today almost all submissions are handled electronically and you will be presented with a text field in which to paste in a cover letter or author bio.
If the journal asks for a letter, a business-like approach is perfect. And I think you can keep the tone a bit casual (that’s my style). Start with a “Dear So-and-So-Journal Editors” and end with “Sincerely” or some such. I always thank them for their time. And I don’t tend to look up the names of specific editors to address the letter to because those names often change within the course of the process.
The main word that best describes what your approach should be when writing a cover letter is “restraint.” Shoot for five to six sentences tops, including your bio. A cover letter is nothing like a book query so do not even think about describing your work or offering a teaser or summary of what you’re submitting. You can let them know that the work is poetry, nonfiction, or fiction, and the title(s) of the work, but no more explanation than that.
Also, the cover letter is the least important part of your submission and many editors ignore them altogether. A long cover letter is just another chance to irritate. Restrain yourself. And speaking of bios…
8-Write a good bio
Your author bio will either end up being benign (the editors don’t care or they don’t read it), it will help you (it’s not only short but impressive), or it will hurt you (it’s long and you’re trying way too hard to impress by listing 20 publishing credits or you look amateurish by your long list of publications that no one has ever heard of).
If you have “impressive” or even decent publishing credits (this is subjective but use your judgment here), list three to five of them. You can state what you do for a living or that you’re a dad of twelve or that you run ultramarathons, but keep it short and don’t get too cutesy.
If you have a number of publishing credits but the editors are sure to not have heard of the journals, first of all, congrats! That’s awesome and how you get your publishing mojo going. But as far as listing these in your bio, it’s kind of gray territory. There’s nothing wrong with being a new writer (journals love discovering new writers) or an amateur, but we want to steer clear of looking *amateurish*.
Listing little-known journals in your bio can be okay, but there’s a little bit of “dress for success” here. If you’re just starting out, there’s no shame in a bio along the lines of “Kim Lozano lives and writes in St. Louis.” Short and mysterious is fine. It can come off as a confident bio. Playing it cool is way better than looking desperate to impress.
9-Submit to enough places
We’ve talked about the odds of getting an acceptance when you submit to literary magazines, right? It’s low, baby. There are many literary journals that take less than 2% of the submissions they receive. And I doubt there are many magazines out there that take more than 10%. This is the statistical reality for us writers.
Here’s what I suggest—send your work to ten to twelve places at a time. As the rejections roll in, keep sending the work out so that it’s continually being considered at a good number of journals. There will come a point (you decide) when you might want to quit sending out the manuscript and either rework it or shelve it. Not everything you write will be published. Another reality of the writing life.
10-Keep track of your submissions
Do not rely on your submission list in Submittable (the platform most journals use) to keep you organized. Make sure you have another document or spreadsheet (or use a resource like Duotrope) where you are keeping track of the work you submit (including each individual flash piece or poem), the date you submitted it, and the date you heard back. This allows you to keep an eye on how long a piece has been in the slush pile at a particular magazine.
If your work is accepted, you need to know where else the work is in active submission status so that you can withdraw from those places immediately. This is very important. There’s nothing more maddening to an editor than to have spent time with a writer’s work (which usually means several rounds of reading and discussion), to have chosen it for publication, and then to have gone to deliver the good news to the writer only to be informed that it’s being published somewhere else.
11-Don’t let rejection stop you
Rejection in publishing is a certainty and it’s not personal. There are some reasons your work will be rejected that will have nothing to do with the quality of the work itself. The piece might not have struck the fancy of a particular reader even though it might delight the next reader. This is just the luck of the draw.
Or the piece truly might not be good enough, yet, to be published and you may need to spend more time in revision. All writers will have a good amount of writing we’ve not gotten published that is waiting to be dusted off, revised again, and resubmitted.
Or it might be work that just needs to be put to pasture. This is okay too and just part of being a writer. Over years you’ll accumulate scads of work that will never make it into print. To build a publishing resume in the lit journal world, you’ll need to submit to literary magazines a lot, get rejected a lot, and persist.
Oh, but those acceptances are sweet sweet sweet. And now I’d like to ask you a favor. If my articles, teaching, or editing have helped you in your publishing journey, would you use the contact form to reach out and let me know? I love hearing success stories and want to know where your work is appearing in print. Cheers and good luck!
ps—In addition to sending out editing tips and other resources, I often include calls for submission to literary journals in my free bi-monthly [Kim’s Notes]. I’d love to send it to you.