How to Submit to Literary Journals and Magazines
One of the most intimidating moments in a writer’s journey is submitting to literary journals, magazines, or publishing houses. Most writers don’t even know where to begin, how to properly submit their work, or how to cope with the lengthy process. However, simple steps like staying organized, effectively researching journals and competitions, and submitting your best possible work will yield the most successful results to any talented writer.
Why Submit to Literary Journals?
Your work is what defines you as a writer. Publishing credit (a log of your published work) is merely another incentive for an editor or publisher to turn the page and take what you’ve submitted into consideration. Even writers with phenomenal novels stored on their hard drives will have a very difficult time publishing with major houses if they have not already shown that they are published elsewhere and have a promising writing history (for more information on publishing credit, read “Building a Publishing Platform”).
How to Submit
To begin, select a piece of work that you’re interested in offering up for review. Focus on polishing and perfecting your work. Editors lack the time and patience to sift through messy, convoluted sentence structure or grammar. Eliminate inconsistencies in plot or character development, disastrous grammar, and repetitive sentence structure (for more information about improving your writing, visit the “Mastering the Craft” article). Once you’re pleased with the state of your work, submit it for peer review. This will allow others to offer a different perspective to your work and the chance for any loose ends to be caught by a fresh pair of eyes. A writer’s greatest tool is other writers, so take advantage of TBL’s wonderful stock of freelance editors and eager writers ready to share their work and offer their opinions on yours. Look for local writing groups in your area or attend any writing or literary conferences hosted in your city. While peer review is a great (and free!) resource, nothing beats professional editing. If you are new to publishing, look into hiring a professional editor to thoroughly review your most promising work.1
After your work has gone through several (yes, several) reviews, take the time to properly format your work. An editor will set your work down before even reading the first paragraph if it is formatted incorrectly. Visit our formatting page for tips on how to properly format your work for consideration.
The next step is to compose a query or cover letter. These letters will help to solidify your work as a whole. Visit our “Writing a Query Letter” for a more in depth analysis.
Finding a Journal
Once your work is finalized and ready to be sent off, the daunting task of finding a journal or competition begins. The best places to start your search are your local bookstores, local writing groups, and writer’s websites like TBL, Freelance Writing, and the Writer’s Market.
Bookstores (local and chains) tend to carry hard copies of larger, well-known literary journals or magazines. Typically, the magazines will post their upcoming competitions, deadlines, or similar writing journals to submit to. While sifting through literary journals, pocket one or two that don’t necessarily match your style of writing, but that you find interesting. Editors are always looking for fresh perspectives and voices that break away from their normal publishing style may be just what they’re looking for. Writing groups that you may have discovered during the revision process of your work can usually provide you with a list of local competitions or publishing houses that are looking for work. This may prove advantageous as well because localized competitions generally have more specialized tastes when it comes to writing styles.
While these resources are valuable, many times they can be outdated. For this reason, writers’ websites tend to be the most beneficial sources for promising and prestigious literary journals. While there is a lot of content to sift through, visiting more cohesive websites will make finding the right competition a little easier. Such sources as Writer’s Market require a monetary membership to access their listings; however, they do update their information weekly and allow you access to a broader genre of competitions and publishing houses (there are a handful of sites, TBL included, that also offer this up-to-date information; for more information, visit our Up-to-date Contest List). Gather as many journals to submit to as you can, but keep it at a manageable level (ten to fifteen to start with). Take the time to outline deadlines, guidelines, requirements, and fees of each journal or competition. Double check the guidelines to make sure every journal takes simultaneous submissions (your same work submitted to their journal as well as others), and only submit to journals or competitions that do not accept simultaneous submissions if you are particularly invested in the publication opportunity or feel assured that your work is a good fit. Maintaining an organized list of what each journal requires will eliminate any possibility of your work being discarded for missing information. Keep an eye open for specific formatting requirements
From there, begin sending your work to each and every journal or competition at the same time. Keep in mind that most large publishing houses or journals do not accept unsolicited work. Unsolicited work is defined as work submitted by an author without representation from an agent (for more information about obtaining an agent, visit “Selecting a Literary Agent”). After submitting your work, the only thing left to do as a writer is breathe a sigh of relief, organize the next batch of competitions, and brace for possible rejection. If your work is accepted by a particular journal, be sure to immediately contact all other journals where you submitted your work and have it withdrawn from consideration. Writing is one of the most competitive fields in the creative arts and rejection is a common occurrence in a writer’s life (accomplished or not). How you choose to deal with it makes the real difference. Try to view rejection in a positive light. Think of it as your work taking the time to find the best possible fit to be published. What you believe to be the best platform for your writing may not be what is best for the publishing house. Rejection allows you the opportunity to take note of any suggestions an editor has taken the time to convey to you and opens up your writing to become better than before. Hugely successful writers like Stephen King faced countless rejections in his early days, so view an editor’s pass on your work as an opportunity for improvement and extended time for revision. The best and most productive thing you can do as a writer is move forward, revise, submit to five to ten new competitions or literary journals and carry on. There is no end-all-be-all secret behind getting published; success as a writer will ultimately come for continually submitting your work and making revisions where you can.
To stay sane as a writer and keep track of pending manuscripts, keep a detailed log of every venue you’ve submitted to. This should include the name of the journal or competition, the editor you’ve sent your work to (if applicable), the date in which it was sent “out,” and when you should expect to hear back from the competition. Typically, if you haven’t heard back three months after you’ve sent it to a specific editor at a publishing house, you should send a letter reminding them of the work you submitted and when. Competitions and literary journals that print monthly or annually have posted announcement dates for winners so you’ll know when to expect a notification. Include in your log when your work was received or returned and update any notes the editor may have included. This all can be managed using a spreadsheet base like Excel, Word, or a notebook. If you’ve invested in a Writer’s Market membership, they have a handy online tool that keeps track of all of your publications and pending manuscripts for you with an easy to fill-in format.
Be accountable to your peers and update them on your progress, even if you don’t succeed with a particular journal. If you have someone to report to on your comings and goings in the literary world, it can be a motivating factor to maintaining momentum and submitting your work until you succeed! Always view your submitted work as an accomplishment, whether it is rejected or not. So many writers have well-written stories but lack the determination or dedication to put it out there for others to see. Submitting your story for publication is a monumental step in your writing career and you should always take pride in that fact.
Once you’ve taken the time to prepare a polished work, submitted to well-researched venues, and maintained an organized log of pending manuscripts, you’ve then entered the ranks of an active author. Active authors never rest in the face of adversity that taunts new writers in the publishing industry. Publication will come with unwavering determination and continual revision. If you come out the other side experienced and with more knowledge than you had before, then you’ve succeeded.
“Plan to be published, expect to be rejected.”
—Mark Maynard, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, 2010, 29th Annual Edition
1 TBL offers professional editing to its members who have reached the rank of Publisher (writers who have submitted and been published to the site four or more times).