Submitting to Literary Journals and Contests

Submitting your work is intimidating. Most writers don’t even know where to begin, how to properly format submissions, 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 dramatically increase your odds of succeeding.

Why Submit to Journals and Contests?

Your work is what defines you as a writer. Publishing credit (a list of your published work) is a huge incentive for an agent or publisher to take your longer works into consideration. Even writers with phenomenal novels will struggle to find representation without establishing previous publishing credit. (For more information on publishing credit, read “Building a Publishing Platform.”)

How to Submit

Preparing Work

To begin, select a piece of work that you’re interested in offering up for review. Focus on perfecting your work. Editors lack the time and patience to sift through messy, convoluted sentences or incorrect grammar and eliminate inconsistencies in plot and character development. (For more information about improving your writing, visit “Mastering the Craft.”)

Once you’re pleased with the state of your work, submit it for peer review. This will allow others to offer a different perspective on your work and for any loose ends to be caught by a fresh pair of eyes.

After your work has gone through several (yes, several) reviews, take the time to properly format your work. Make sure to review the submission requirements and specifics before submitting to a publication. An editor will set your work down before even reading the first paragraph if it is formatted incorrectly.

Certain literary journals and publishing houses ask for a cover letter to accompany your submission. What is included in this cover letter is subjective. At a minimum, thank the editor by name (if you cannot find a specific editor who is responsible for the publication, use the editor-in-chief’s name) for reading your submission. At most, give a mini-synopsis of the work (a couple catchy sentences akin to a back-of-the-book blurb) and a brief author biography. Visit our “Writing a Query Letter” for a more in-depth analysis.

Finding a Journal or Contest

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 writer’s websites like TBL (take a look at TBL’s comprehensive contest list). You can also check out local bookstores and writing groups.

Bookstores tend to carry hard copies of larger, well-known literary journals or magazines. While sifting through literary journals, purchase one or two that don’t necessarily match your style of writing, but that you find interesting. Editors are always looking for fresh perspectives.

Writing groups can usually provide you with a list of local competitions or publishing houses that are looking for work. Local competitions generally have more specialized tastes, and may even be looking strictly for local authors!

Select five to ten journals or contests that appeal to you. Take the time to outline deadlines, guidelines, requirements, and fees for each journal or competition. Double check the guidelines to make sure every journal accepts simultaneous submissions (your same work submitted to their journal as well as others). 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.

Keep Organized

Maintaining an organized list of submissions is essential. Since this can be quite arduous, we’ve created an easy-to-use Submission Tracker. This program allows you to organize all of your submissions free of charge. You can track your progress,  prizes, and deadlines. You can also take notes on specific formatting or submission requirements for each contest or journal. This organization will ensure you are doing everything possible to enhance your chances of being accepted.

Update your Submission Tracker regularly. Typically, if you haven’t heard back three months after you’ve sent your work to a specific editor at a journal or 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 often have posted announcement dates for winners so you’ll know when to expect a notification.

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 for maintaining momentum. 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.

Submit your Work

From here, begin sending your completed work to your selected contests and journals. Make sure to record when you can expect to hear back about the finalists or winners. Do not pester the journals because they usually have an overflowing inbox. Often, journals will say something like: “If you haven’t heard from us in three months, feel free to contact us.” This information will help you stay motivated (and sane).

Make sure that you keep submitting regularly. Because of the sheer amount of rejections even the most talented writer receives, it’s important to always have something pending. This will help you keep going.

Often, when perusing a contest list, you’ll find contests that sound like excellent opportunities, but realize that you haven’t yet written a story that fits their criteria. Jot this contest down in your tracker and use it to motivate you to work on a new story. These deadlines are incredibly helpful to ensure you complete new work.

If your work is accepted by a particular journal, be sure to immediately contact all other journals to which you submitted that same work. Have that story withdrawn from consideration.

Brace for Rejection

Writing is one of the most competitive fields in the world, and thus, rejection is a common occurrence in a writer’s life. How you choose to deal with it makes the real difference. Try to view rejection in a positive light. Rejection allows you the opportunity to improve. If you are lucky enough to get a reply from an editor along with the rejection (which is uncommon), take note of any suggestions he or she has taken the time to convey. If not, send the rejected story to other writing friends and open yourself up to serious revisions. The ability to keep improving in these situations will separate the professional writers from the wannabes.

Remember, even hugely successful writers like Stephen King faced countless rejections. The best and most productive thing you can do as a writer is move forward, revise, submit to 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 from continually submitting your work and making revisions where you can.

If you are struggling to make revisions (or to even identify what needs to be revised), submit your work to TBL’s literary journal and take advantage of our free-editing policy. This will allow you to receive professional advice about your work.

Note about Unsolicited Works

Most large publishing houses and 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.”)

Closing Note

When you begin submitting your work, you take an enormous step forward as a professional writer. This is the first step to making writing your career, and it should not be taken lightly. Make sure you celebrate each submission, each short-listing, and certainly each acceptance. It may take years, but with enough determination and passion, you will experience the joy of publication!

“Plan to be published, expect to be rejected.”
—Mark Maynard, Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, 2010, 29th Annual Edition

Dani Hedlund published her first novel, Threads of Deception, at the age of eighteen. Experiencing the difficulties of breaking into the market, she founded TBL in 2007 to help other new writers perfect and publish their works. Offering free writing coaching, editing, and publishing guidance, Hedlund expanded TBL into a global community of writers, editors, and artists. In 2010, she pushed the company to new heights, creating TBL’s literary journal, Tethered by Letters Quarterly Literary Journal which has since evolved into F(r)iction Series (published by Sheridan Press), a literary and art collection that pushes the boundaries of conventional storytelling.