"If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don't write, because our culture has no use for it." —Anais Nin
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Hopefully you have some trusted readers to consult, but the only clue you might, maybe, get (not a foolproof method) are hints in the type of rejection letters you receive. A lot of small publishers are using an online submission manager (more about those later), and they’re programmed with a few different types of rejection notes that often sound something like this:
1. Thanks for your interest in our magazine, but your submission was not right for this issue.
2. Thanks for submitting your work, we enjoyed it, but it wasn’t right for this issue.
3. Thanks for submitting your work, we won’t be publishing it, but we enjoyed it and hope to read more of your work soon.
There are a few hundred variations of these, but hopefully you get the idea. Rejections to watch out for say they want to read more of your work and usually mean someone--probably an intern or student reader--liked your work and tried to send it up the ladder to the actual decision maker, maybe even someone at the top held onto it for a while. So keep an eye out for those, and be sure to submit something equally as good, if not better, soon.
And then there are the coveted personal rejections signed by the editor. Hand-written post cards, personalized emails telling you you’re a rock star and you came really close. They are very rare and beam rays of hope on tall, dark stacks of rejection slips. I cherish and save them. Always send that editor something new as fast as is writerly possible, address it to them personally, and be sure to include a note in your cover letter that you’re submitting again in response to their request because sometimes you have to wait a few months until the new submission period opens. If that doesn’t work out, I put them on my 'warm' list and give them first dibs on my best and newest stuff. Personal rejections will also sometimes include advice on ways to improve the story, which leads to my repetitive Don’t…
Maybe, maybe something like this would fly in a cover letter for a piece an editor requested to see because there is some pre-established respect for your writing, but I wouldn’t do it. Submit with confidence or say nothing at all. On the flip side, surprisingly, it is not a sign of weakness to say (if it’s true) that you’ve never been published before. Literary magazines often lookout for fresh, new voices.
Also, and I really can’t say this enough--Don’t Send an Angry Reply if you get rejected. Not only are you burning a bridge, you’re not doing a damn thing to recover your pride because you will become the office joke of the week. To those of you who have done this, think for a minute about the amazing writers who you admire. Most of them are pretty darn humble, and if they’re not, they EARNED the right not to be. If you want to walk around acting like you’re king or queen of the quill, earn it. Please. But really I say this hoping you’ll mature enough as a writer, and as a person, not to act like that when you finally start getting published, though most of the flamers I saw had submitted the worst quality work. So if you’re prone to public fits of rage when you fail, you may just need to face the fact that you suck and re-direct that energy to actually learning how to write or try something new. Hacky-sacking is due for a comeback. And if you’re still hell-bent on getting “payback,” just waste everyone’s time by submitting a bunch of poems about unicorns, princesses, and magical owls, maybe even throw in something your brilliant kid wrote. Ha. Yeah, there’s a dual message in there. Those of you who seriously send that stuff to literary publishers may want to take pause. Moving on…
Use white paper and an easily readable 12pt. type font. Times New Roman is recommended, but you can take some artistic liberty here, just don’t forget to use a 1” margin. Most submission managers are electronic now anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. But for snail-mail submissions try to keep it pretty standard.
Whatever you do, just make sure your contact info and page headers are clear and numbered, so the pages are easy to correlate if they get mixed in with someone else’s submission, or shuffled by a naked ass during an office orgy, or just fall off the reader’s desk. (Had to make sure you were still with me. ;))
Including one is up for debate, as is using decorative paper. I do both. A cover letter isn’t required, but I think it creates a more professional presentation. And the few editors I’ve heard comment on decorative paper say they like it or don’t care either way. Just make sure the design doesn’t overpower the text. But that’s only applicable to snail-mail. Either way, I prefer to use a cover letter because it’s where you can talk about your teaching experience, degrees, publications (or not), and if you’ve done any internships or volunteer work that’s writing-related. I’m sure this varies by editor, but as a reader, I'm prone to give more time and attention to work that includes an impressive cover letter.
I don’t recommend talking about your inspiration for the piece, but if you feel compelled to do so, try to wrap it up quickly. The reader’s energy is waning with every run-on sentence about the night you woke up screaming in the dark because an astral-wolf scratched the first line of your story or poem into your chest. The only exception to this rule would be pitching an interview or review, specifically in regard to selling its timeliness. Either way, DO NOT talk about your divorce, your cats, your fifty-year-old China collection, doodle a sketch of yourself, or scribble one of your favorite recipes on the bottom of the page because you think the protagonist in your story would like it. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot. Point is, don’t flood the editor with useless info. Keep it brief and applicable, in the one-paragraph range.
The cover letter is also where you should inform the publisher if it’s a simultaneous submission, meaning you also sent it elsewhere. And if your piece is accepted anywhere, you should withdraw it from wherever else it was submitted. Immediately. And be sure to pay attention to which magazines don't accept simultaneous submissions.
SASE (Self Addressed Stamped Envelope):
Fortunately, the new electronic submission managers eliminate the need for SASE’s, but if you submit via snail-mail BE SURE to include one, unless the publisher says otherwise. Some will respond to snail-mail submissions via email, which is nice, but don’t count on it.
Where to submit:
This was my number-one question when I first started trying to figure this all out. There are a few good databases of literary magazines and journals online. Both Newpages.com and Poets&Writers are a great place to start. Duotrope.com is free and offers a convenient way to keep track of your submissions online plus a huge list of publishers. But you have to do some research because no-names are mixed in and placing work with them won’t necessarily earn you respect from your writing peers and colleagues. I primarily write fiction and the best advice I ever got concerning how to select where to submit was from a writing professor who recommended that I stick with the publishers listed in the back of Best American Short Stories and the PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories. The stories in these prestigious collections are selected from the literary magazines listed in the back, so it's an easy way to find where the best-of-the-best writers are submitting. And we want to be among those, right? There are probably still some questionable publications included in this list, but it’s the safest list you’ll find for where to publish if you’re trying to build a reputable name as a literary writer. It's probably safe to say that the same rule would apply to the Best American Poetry Series, Best Creative Nonfiction and Best American Essays, etc.
Electronic Submission Managers:
Rock! Besides the very few that cost a couple bucks, they save writers postage fees. But they can also be sorta confusing.
Submittable, AKA Submishmash is fun because you can sign in and see the status of everywhere you submitted. And there aren’t enough literary publishers who use it to max the free account limit, so don’t be afraid to sign up and don’t worry about paying anything, unless the individual publisher requires it, but that’s separate from the Submishmash service options.
The most common submission manager is called—yeah, you guessed it--Submission Manager. :) The example I’m using for my tutorial is The Louisville Review’s site. And, for the most part, the only variation you’ll see elsewhere will be the color scheme and of course the magazine name. The technical part is all the same, so once you understand one, they’re all easy to work with. Yay! Click Here for my goofy Submission Manager Tutorial. :)
Allow up to six months for a response on your submissions. But if they say that they respond sooner, wait at least that amount of time before sending a status inquiry. If at all. Pay special attention to how many pieces a publisher is willing to read from each writer during a reading period and the length they prefer. Minimum and maximum. Poetry is usually 3-5 at a time and stories are generally 2 per year, one submission at a time, but always check, especially on length. They’re giving you a leg-up with this info, so it’s worth paying attention to. But don’t necessarily write a new story based on these guidelines. There are so many publishers that someone will be interested in reading whatever length piece you’ve written. However, if you have something over 8,000 words the list of interested publishers drops considerably, which is something to keep in mind if you’re planning on doing a lot of submissions. Space is at a premium. It has been much easier to place my short work, so I try to always have a variety of word counts in circulation.
Some publishers ask that you don’t use the manila envelopes with a metal clasp because the clasp gets caught in sorting machines, but those are the least expensive envelopes so I buy them, but I fold the flap over the clasp when I seal it.
Also when you address the envelope, it helps to write Attn: Fiction Editor or Poetry or whatever your piece is, so it gets put on the right desk as fast as possible. Unless your work was requested by an editor it doesn’t need to be addressed to a specific name.
ALWAYS review the submission guidelines on the website of wherever you’re sending work. Magazines that accept email submissions are especially particular about how they want it formatted. Most Magazines Do Not Accept Email Submissions, so don’t assume everyone with an email address does. You’ll get rejected and they’ll send you to their online submission manager or give you a mailing address, which is really information you should have found on your own and is a big waste of everyone’s time. Not a great way to make a first impression.
Take a breath, Vanessa. :) ...Okay, one last thing!
It does not matter how good your work is, you’re going to get a lot of rejection. Plan for it. Be good-humored about it. Whether they admit it or not, everyone actively submitting is getting LOTS of it. I’ve heard some very good writers say that they publish 1 piece for every 80 submissions. My first year submitting was very near that. This past year, I placed around 1 out of 45, which means I sent nearly 200 submissions. Ouch. Yay for publication, but by the time that happens you’re gonna be super humble. Maybe that’s a good thing. Come what may, stay positive—never base your worth or identity as a writer on your number of publications. Ever.
Any Questions? =)