I have previously written blog posts on things I’ve learned about using Twitter and blogging, so I thought I would offer up a few thoughts on the joys of submitting work to literary magazines. Please don’t take this to mean I’m an expert on the subject, however. While I’ve been submitting for a few years now (since 2015, to be exact) and have had some successes, there have been plenty of rejections along the way as well. Still, I hope these practical tips might be of use to anyone who is gearing themselves up to start submitting. If you are one of those brave souls, I salute your courage in putting yourself out there and hope to spare you a few rookie mistakes.
1. Do your research. I really should make things easy for myself and call this points 1-4. It’s vital that you spend time reading any journal you’re considering subbing to in order to figure out whether you’re a good match. There’s a popular approach at the moment to ‘aim for 100 rejections a year’, ie. a percentage of your submissions will hopefully stick so the more you send out the more acceptances you’ll build up. But this can be misinterpreted as taking a scattergun approach and sending any story to any journal randomly. Judging by the frequency I see submission guideline pages strongly advising writers to get a feel for the journal before submitting, I’m guessing some ignore this part of the process. This is a waste of your time and the readers’ time. There are a huge number of journals out there, many of which I wouldn’t send my work to because I know I wouldn’t be edgy enough for them, or experimental enough, or established enough. How do I know that? Because I’ve made it my business to read them.
Having said that, sometimes you have nothing to lose by being a bit cheeky and subbing to a wildly ambitious publication – nothing ventured nothing gained, and all that – but as a general policy you’re probably setting yourself up for a fall if you only aim for The Stinging Fly and The New Yorker as an emerging writer. That 100 rejections thing would be pretty painful if there weren’t any acceptances to balance it out.
Also on the research point, make sure you study the submission guidelines carefully. If they ask for your story in Times Roman, 12pt, double-spaced, make sure that’s how you format it – otherwise your submission will go straight in the No pile.
If you’re not sure how to find out about journals, Twitter is a pretty good place to start (and in fact the Submittable twitter account highlights journals open for submissions). There’s a list of UK literary journals on the Neon Books website here, and a bit of an international mix on the Words Ireland website. Plus Dublin poet Angela Carr does a very good monthly round-up of opportunities for short stories as well as poetry.
2. Address the editor in your covering letter. It’s a small thing, but if an online journal has an About page, have a read through it and find out who is likely to be reading your work, ie. poetry, fiction, non-fiction etc. Or maybe only the editor’s name is listed. Either way, it shows that you’ve read the site carefully and care enough to find out this piece of information. The opposite is also true – if the journal is a one-man band and that band is a woman and you address your submission ‘Dear Sirs’, you can consider yourself rightfully scuppered.
Of course, a lot of journals use Submittable and ask only that you upload your story and a biog, so this may not be necessary. Again, it’s all about reading the guidelines.
3. Polish your work. Don’t assume that editors are there to add the commas and run a spell checker for you. You won’t get as far as that if you submit something rife with mistakes. Make sure your story is presented as well as it possibly can be. If editing isn’t your forte, ask someone who is good at this stuff to go over your work in detail. If you don’t know anyone like that, just make sure you read through your sub again and again to get it as professional looking as you can. Does every piece of dialogue start and end with quotation marks? Are all of the characters’ names spelled consistently throughout? That sort of thing.
4. Be prepared to wait. Many journals, even small one, can receive hundreds of stories for each submission period so it may take a long time for them to respond. I’ve had a story with a journal since September and would love to know what the decision is – I really don’t mind either way at this point, to be honest. But unless it’s specified in the publication’s guidelines that they welcome queries after a particular length of time, it’s probably best not to nag them for an answer. They’ll get back to you in due course.
If you have a particular reason for wanting to know, eg. there’s another journal or competition that you think would better serve your story, you always have the option of withdrawing your submission. But it’s courteous to let the journal know of your decision.
5. Learn to take rejection on the chin… I really should make things easy for myself and call this points 1-4 (oh no, wait – I’ve already done this gag). The fact of the matter is that you are going to experience rejection, no matter how great your work is. There are many reasons why a submission might be rejected, from it not being polished enough for publication, through to the editor’s personal taste. It may even be something as simple as the theme of your story being too similar to something else they recently featured. So try not to get disheartened or take it personally if it is a no.
Sometimes editors will try to soften the blow with a line or two about what they did like about your work, or express an interest in reading more from you. Take this as encouragement – you are on the right track.
The good news is that the more you submit, the less personally you take it if you don’t succeed. You’ll get used to saying, Oh well, next!
6. …but don’t go all Terminator. If your work is turned down, do not, under any circumstances, go on the warpath. On Twitter, I’m amazed at the number of editors who post threads about the awful reactions they get from rejected contributors. People send pleading emails, abusive emails, patronising emails (usually men, unfortunately, along the lines of “what would you know, you’re a woman.”). If your work is rejected, move on with dignity. I usually send a short return email just to thank the editor for responding and for taking the time to read my work, but not everyone does this. The important thing is to not be a jerk. As with most fields, the international literary world is a surprisingly small one. Behind the scenes, those editors are in contact with one another and you better believe there is a virtual board of shame where the names of the most notorious blacklisted writers are shared.
So I hope some of the above is useful to you. It’s also important to remember that editors want you to send your work, otherwise their publications would be very empty affairs. Many are writers themselves so they know how tough it is to be on the soul-baring side. Everyone I’ve dealt with has been polite when rejecting my work (ie. no one so far has gone “Eww! As if!”) and incredibly enthusiastic and encouraging about the submissions that were accepted. And when you do get that occasional yes, it’s a fantastic validation of all your hard slog. Good luck!