No one ever teaches writers the ins and outs of submitting to literary magazines and journals. It’s something you have to learn by yourself, by trial and error by talking with peers.
If you’re lucky, you might have one generous professor who shares a strategy for submitting to literary magazines.
In my experience, it’s rare that professors discuss literary magazine submission strategies. Between my undergrad and MFA program, only two professors discusses their literary magazine submission strategies with us.
This was a real disservice!
Because they left it as a mystery, we aspiring writers had to figure it out on our own. We made a ton of mistakes when submitting to literary magazines.
We racked up a lot of rejections, and we lost confidence in our writing. Those of us who persevered eventually got better at sending our work to literary magazines. We learned how to identify the magazines that were right for our work, and we figured out what not to do.
By trial and error, we got strategic about submitting to literary magazines. We found ways to streamline the work of finding opportunities, sending out work, tracking results, and revising pieces that weren’t finding homes.
Now that I’m an editor for Atlas + Alice, I see writers making the same mistakes I did when I was just starting out.
Here are the most common mistakes I see writers make when submitting to literary magazines. When you know what NOT to do, you reduce the odds of your work getting rejected.
1. Respect the word count
This is so obvious I shouldn’t have to say it but nonetheless one of the worst things you can do as a writer submitting to literary magazines is to ignore submission guidelines, including word count.
If your essay is too long for a journal, find a journal that takes longform work. There are plenty. Use Duotrope or Submittable. Ask the literary community on Twitter to recommend markets. Ask in BINDERS threads.
If you insist on submitting your essay and it doesn’t meet the journal’s guidelines, you’re wasting your time and the editors’ time. It won’t get your work accepted and it could leave them with a bad taste in their mouth the next time you submit something.
2. Don’t follow up with literary magazine editors
While it’s the norm to follow up when pitching story ideas to magazines, literary magazines are different. They are usually run by people who are volunteering their time, who are passionate about what they do, and who are overwhelmed by submissions from writers.
They will get back to you when they’ve decided on your piece. It will take longer than you want it to. If that upsets you, simultaneous submissions are your friends.
3. Don’t use the wrong name
It’s totally fine if you’re submitting through a submissions manager to address your cover letter to “Dear editor”– after all, you don’t know exactly who will be reading your piece. What’s not fine is using the wrong name.
A writing teacher who edits for an online journal once told me that when Modern Love closed for submissions, she started getting a ton of submissions addressed to Dan Jones, the Modern Love editor. I’m pretty sure they all got automatic no’s.
Take the time to get the details right, like the journal name or the editor’s name. It’s another simple thing that shouldn’t need to be said that can make the difference when submitting to literary magazines.
4. Submit again if the journal encourages you to
If a journal editor reject your piece but invites you to submit again, always do it.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard editors say that they never hear from writers who they’ve invited to submit again. They usually add that the writers who don’t submit again are female writers.
Women continue to be underrepresented in top journals (see VIDA count), and while you can’t change what an editor accepts, you can change your submission habits. I always seek to embody the confidence of a mediocre white man when submitting to literary magazines.
5. Don’t email the editor directly unless you’re invited to
This one is kind of conflicting as people have different opinions. I’ve heard it said (from writers) that you should try to email editors directly rather than going through submission platforms like Submittable. The theory here is this will get you a faster read.
I’ve also heard it said (from editors) that this is not only annoying, because when they’re in their personal email they’re not thinking about the magazine, but on a practical level they might end up losing your piece since you didn’t submit through the appropriate channel.
If you meet an editor at an event and they invite you to submit directly to their email, then feel free to do so. Otherwise your best bet is using the submission protocol on the journal’s website. You can address a particular editor it’s a person has asked to read your work (i.e. when you’re sending something new after positive reject, which again you should always do).
6. Don’t submit twice in one submission period
If a journal states their preferences regarding the frequency of submissions, follow it. Journals generally don’t like it when you submit multiple pieces in a submission period, even if you wait for the first piece to be rejected before submitting the second.
If you’re lucky enough to have a piece accepted by a literary journal, do not send them another piece right away. Some journals will tell you how long you should wait if you been published in them, but a good rule of thumb is to wait anywhere from 12 to 18 months before trying that journal again.
Literary journals want to publish work from a variety of writers, and they can’t do that if they’re always publishing the same pool. It also benefits you to get your work published widely.
Consider what other journals are similar and send your pieces there. An easy trick is to read the magazine and check the bio of writers whose pieces you like. This way you can gather a list of other literary magazines that may be the same tier or enjoy the same themes.
7. Always withdraw your work if it’s accepted elsewhere
Most writers do not submit anywhere near enough to get the traction they desire.
My personal feeling is that you should always embrace simultaneous submissions, because if you’re sending an essay out to one market at the time it could take you years to get it published. These days almost all literary magazines operate under the simultaneous submissions model.
Editors understand that your piece could be accepted elsewhere while they’re still deciding. If your story is accepted, pull it immediately from anywhere else it’s still in consideration. Send a note that says why you’re withdrawing the submission. This can actually work in your favor, because the editor may get to your next story sooner, especially if they’d been considering your work before it got pulled.
If you don’t pull an essay and an editor accepts it, then you have to tell them that you already have the piece published (since most literary journals want to publish original work, they don’t take reprints). It’s disappointing for an editor if they find out an accepted piece is off the market. When make an editor sad (and risk getting a negative reputation) when it’s so easy to withdraw your work?
Publishing your work in journals is rewarding, and it’s a proven way to get noticed. These tips won’t necessarily help you get more acceptances (working on your craft will do that), but they will help you submit with confidence and professionalism.
Whether you’re just getting started submitting your writing or are trying to break into the next level of magazines, always make your submissions the best they can and avoid mistakes that rob your work of the consideration it deserves.
Want to take your submissions strategy to the next level? Join my 5-day submissions challenge with prompts and tips to help you develop a personalized, organized, and consistent submissions strategy. Get on the list here.
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