You’ve revised your story more times than you can count and you’re ready for quick and easy publication. But what you may not realize is the submissions process should be taken as seriously as the story.
Find Your Journals
If you’re new to submissions, you may be unsure of where to find the journals. Try resources like newpages.com and the Writer’s Market series. You’ll find websites, contact information, reading periods, and more. Make a list of publications you’d like to pursue.
Read the Journals
It’s tempting to submit without reading because a journal is prestigious or published your favorite writer—and we’re all guilty of doing this once or twice. But if you check each journal’s website, there’s no doubt the editors will tell you to read several issues of the magazine before submitting. Do not ignore this advice. Unless you’re extraordinarily lucky, submitting without reading will waste your time as well as the editors’. There were many times I rejected well-written submissions because they didn’t fit with the journal’s tone. Reading the magazine will give you an understanding of the editors’ publication choices. And, most importantly, it will let you know if your piece lines up with those choices.
Be on the lookout for interviews and blurbs from journal editors, as they are likely to explain the nuances of their publication and the types of writing they publish. For example, Renée K. Nicholson, author of Roudabout Directions to Lincoln Center and co-founder/prose editor of Souvenir says:
In editing prose for Souvenir, a literary magazine I co-founded with Keegan Lester, I’m first drawn to surprising use of language, especially sensory, evocative language. A good example is a short I took from the writer Karen J. Weyant that begins, “That July, my mother broke out the bottles, and the sharp smell of white vinegar spilled through my summer.” There’s something about the senses—especially the lesser used ones, like smell and taste—that open me up to story. One of the best things a writer can do is delve into language that evokes sense, and I always recommend a book, Diane Ackerman’s Natural History of the Senses, to writers looking to really study our relationship to touch, sight, sound, taste, and smell.
The sense of story definitely grips me when I’m reading. Even the most oblique pieces, in either fiction or nonfiction, have that sense that we’re reading something that happened to someone. For me, the story’s voice and the story’s arc have a symbiotic relationship, and when that happens, I’m hooked. It can happen in very different ways. Sometimes it’s pretty clear up front, as in “The Mountains,” a story by Denton Loving that we published: “I’ve known Sue Ellen for half my life, since she befriended me on the first day of school when no one else would. She’s the only girl from high school I’m still friends with today. So I can tell something is bothering her.” In a very different way, Alice Lowe’s “The Last Turnip” caught me with both voice and story: “We heft a box onto the shaded veranda’s porch swing and divvy up the spoils between our canvas totes.” Even though both are really different, they both evoke place and set up that “something that happened.” When I see that in my submission pile, I’m hooked.
Follow the Submission Guidelines
While this may seem obvious, submission guidelines are all too often ignored. Just like failing to proofread, not following guidelines appears lazy and careless and could send you to the rejection pile. Pay attention to length and formatting requirements. Don’t submit a .docx if it calls for .rtf, don’t submit via e-mail if submissions are only accepted by mail. Make sure you understand what contact information to include and where, as some journals only read blind submissions.
Don’t Overdo Your Cover Letter
When it comes to writing cover letters, the best advice I’ve ever received is from Jason Kapcala, whose writing has appeared in The Summerset Review, Prime Number, Four Way Review, Long Story, Short, The Good Men Project, and more. In the essay "The Lost Art of the Cover Letter" that appeared in The Writer’s Monthly Review, Kapcala writes:
The experience of working as a reader for a journal (even an unpaid position) can be quite valuable. You get to see all the cover letters that come in: the good and the bad. And believe me, there are some that are very bad. Generally, I think it's worth remembering that the story, or essay, or poem, is the hero of your submission packet. Not the cover letter. With very few exceptions, no one is interested in publishing you because you are you. A cover letter is not a dating profile, or a job application, or a letter to your pen pal. It's not a philosophical treatise. And it's not the appropriate venue for an angry diatribe about the state of writing in society. It's the place where you, very practically, pair your manuscript to your contact information, for the convenience of the editor. Often, it's also the place to include your brief author bio, just in case it's needed later. (With any luck, it will be needed!)
So my best advice is to say something genuine and then beat a hasty retreat before you put your foot in your mouth. Don't list your credentials ad nauseum. (A handful of recent publications will do). Don't explain what your story is about. (They're going to read it anyway.) Don't brag or go overlong. (A simple "thank you for your time and attention" is going to be far more impressive.) And don't try to say something shocking because you think it will make you memorable. (It might, but that's not always a good thing.) Do take the time to look up the name of the editor. Do include the title of your piece. Do follow the directions in the manuscript call. And do remember that finding the right home for your work is the only goal that matters in this instance.
For your own cover letter, keep it simple with something like:
Enclosed is the [submission type—short story, essay, poem(s)] [submission title] for your review. I received my [degree] from [school] OR I currently work as [title] for [company] and my work has appeared in [journal name(s)]. Thank you for your time and consideration.
The 2016 Writer's Market is packed with complete, detailed listings on how to submit materials to book publishers, consumer and trade magazines, contests, awards and literary agents. Each listing is complete with contact and submission information including the types of materials being sought after!
Keep a Spreadsheet
A spreadsheet will save you time and effort as you submit to multiple journals. Include categories like reading period, response time, a link to submission guidelines, reading fee, date submitted, and date rejected. With this information, you can easily track your progress and see if it’s time to query about your submission. Hint: Do not query before the maximum response time has passed.
Embrace Personal Rejections
If an editor sends you a personal rejection, you’ve received a compliment. Yes, it’s a rejection, but it’s also a sign of encouragement. A personal letter means the editor took time out of his schedule to explain why your piece wasn’t accepted, and more often than not, it usually means your story was among the top contenders for the issue. It means he enjoyed your piece but it wasn’t quite right, or he was overruled by others. In either case, your piece moved him enough to write a letter. Personal rejections usually include areas to improve and/or an invitation to resubmit with revisions. Give these a special color on your spreadsheet. Revise and submit again if you were invited to do so. If you weren’t asked to resubmit, send them a different piece in the future.
Give Yourself a Cutoff
When you begin the submission process, give yourself a maximum rejection number before you revise and try again. Personally, I aim for 20-25 submissions before I try again. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t accepted your first round. It is very difficult to be published in literary journals. Take the feedback you received (if any), ask for critiques from trusted readers, and try again.
Chelsea Henshey is an Associate Editor for Writer’s Digest Books and the Writers Market Series. Follow her on Twitter @ChelseaLHenshey.