9 Tips for Submitting to Literary Magazines

Submitting work to literary magazines is an important step in the career of any emerging writer. Why submit? Publishing in literary magazines can introduce your work to new readers, help you gain experience working with an editor, and get your work into the hands of agents and book editors. Submitting is also a relatively low-stakes way to normalize the rejection process, a must for all writers. The submission process, however, can often be opaque. Here are nine steps to demystify it and help get you started on your submission journey.

For more advice like this on submitting your work to journals, magazines, and residencies, along with resources and action items to aid in the process, register for my class Hit Submit

1) Find your trusted beta-readers. Beta-readers, or people who read and assess drafts of your work, are some of the most important relationships for a writer to cultivate. These are readers who can tell you what’s working and what needs work in your draft. Find friends—or, better yet, other writers—whose feedback you value. Their comments will come in handy when submitting, because editors can usually tell when a submission hasn’t had a second set of eyes on it. Once you get feedback from your readers, it’s time to revise, revise, revise. Then you can get started submitting.

2) Research the market: start your list of magazines. There are so many places to start researching lit mags. Poets & Writers has an incredible database you can use. Chill Subs is another, newer database with lots of helpful filters. Anthologies like Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize anthology are also great starting points, and will give you an idea of what magazines are getting the attention of these prize committees. You can also go completely analog and visit your local bookstore or library and look at the literary magazines they carry.

3) Read (or, better yet, subscribe to) the magazines you are submitting to. This may seem obvious, but it’s a step many writers skip. Each magazine has its own aesthetic, and a lot of times that may not be evident by just reading a single issue. Do they lean toward experimental fiction, or are they more focused on realist narratives? Do they publish emerging writers, or are their authors mostly established? If you can’t afford to subscribe, many magazines offer selections of their work for free online. And online magazines often have their entire archives at your disposal. Read what they publish, and decide whether you can see yourself among their contributors.

4) Decide on your submission strategy. Once you have your dream mags lined up, think about how you want to approach them. Do you want to play the numbers game and submit to as many as you can in one go? Or do you want to divide them into tiers, and submit to a handful at a time? Both strategies have their pros and cons, but it’s important to have one in mind before you start sending your work out into the world.

5) Create a submission spreadsheet to track your submissions. Stay organized! Your future self will thank you. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy. It doesn’t even have to be a spreadsheet! But you should have some type of document that records where you sent your submission, what submission you sent, the date that you sent it, and the response from the magazine. This comes in handy when you’re citing prior rejections in your cover letter for future submissions, and when you’re withdrawing your submissions from magazines after being accepted somewhere. It’s also useful if a magazine has been holding onto your piece for longer than their estimated response time and you want to check in with them on the status. If you have the budget for it, you can also use trackers and services such as Duotrope or Literistic.

6) Don’t stress too much about the cover letter, but do make it professional. Unlike sending your work to literary agents or applying to jobs, a cover letter isn’t super-important when it comes to literary magazine submissions. It isn’t the deciding factor in whether your piece gets read or not. It’s simply a way to briefly introduce yourself to the reader or editor who is looking at your piece. Still, it’s important to present yourself professionally. Keep the bio short (no more than 3-5 sentences) and be sure that you are addressing the letter to the correct editor. If there’s no fiction editor, you can address it to the editor-in-chief of the magazine. And be sure to mention any encouraging rejections that you received for past submissions!

7) Know that not all rejection letters are created equal. Don’t just skim over that rejection notification in your inbox: read it! Did they ask for more work? Is it personalized? If a magazine sends you a decline asking for more work, know that that’s a good thing! They receive too many submissions to ask that of everyone. And if an editor is sending you a personalized note, that’s also something to celebrate. It means that they want to continue reading, and possibly eventually publish, your submissions. If you aren’t sure how to decode your rejection letter, RejectionWiki is a user-compiled database of different tiers of rejection letters form different magazines.

8) Get comfortable with rejection. Here’s the hard truth: there are many more writers than there are opportunities out there in the world. Magazines receive more submissions than they could possibly publish. There are countless reasons a story gets turned down that are out of the writer’s control: it wasn’t right for the particular issue, or the editors had already accepted another story that dealt with a similar subject matter, to name a couple. A sustainable writing career means learning to handle rejection in a way that doesn’t impact your writing practice. Know that you will eventually get an acceptance if you keep trying.

9) Celebrate your acceptances! Getting your work accepted in any magazine, large or small, in print or online, is an honor! You become part of a community of contributors and, best of all, find new readers for your work. Do something nice for yourself—you deserve it!

Lena Valencia is the managing editor and director of educational programming at One Story and created the class Hit Submit. Her writing has appeared in Joyland, BOMB, the Masters Review, and elsewhere. She has an MFA in fiction from The New School, is the recipient of a 2019 Elizabeth George Foundation grant, and has been awarded residencies at the Vermont Studio Center and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. For more information please visit lenavalencia.com.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash.

Posted On:
November 1, 2022
Lena Valencia
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