10 Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals

Submitting prose to literary journals is a long game for most of us. Success doesn’t come overnight or easily, and it’s easy to get discouraged. I speak from personal experience. But you don’t have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and leave things to chance. There are some things you can do to increase the odds of having your work published in literary journals and magazines.

1. Read them!

If you’re a writer, you should be reading literary journals and magazines, whether or not you are submitting to them. I encourage writers to be true to themselves–don’t “write to the market” because (a) the market is constantly shifting and you’ll never be able to keep up; and (b) your best work isn’t going to come from trying to gauge what’s trending in the moment. That isn’t the way to find your voice. But you should be aware, not only of what’s out there, but of where the tastes of specific literary markets lay. For example, you’re not going to get very far by submitting your mystery story to a sci-fi journal.

2. Choose Wisely.

Research the literary journals or magazines you’re thinking of submitting to, to make sure your work is a good fit for them, yes, but also to make sure they’re a good fit for you and for your work. Too often, we are so anxious to be published that we fail to consider whether a particular market is reputable, offers equitable publishing terms, or will help us achieve our writing goals.

3. Start at the Top.

Why not? Sure, it’s faster and easier to get published in a lesser quality journal, and if your only goal is to see your story in print, then that may be the way to go. But don’t sell yourself short. If you want your work to get noticed by potential agents, for example, taking your time and striving toward getting your work published in a well-respected literary journal is the way to go. So start at the top, and then work your way down your list. And never submit to a journal you wouldn’t be proud to have your work published in.

4. Consider Your Goals.

This goes back to the last point: Do you want to see your name and your work in print? Do you want to get make money? Do you want your work to be noticed by literary agents? Do you want to see your work in a print publication or online? Or does it matter? Take your goals into account when choosing where to submit your work. For example, if your goal is to snag a literary agent, then you may want a few publication credits to list in your query letter. Toward that goal, you’ll probably want to submit to fairly recognizable markets, but you probably won’t want to enter a contest that offers publication of your book as the grand prize, skipping over the agent step entirely.

5. Read Submission Guidelines Carefully and Follow Them.

This is one of the most important tips I can give you. I’ve volunteered as an editor for several literary journals, and I can tell you this counts. The guidelines are there for a reason–they make our jobs easier and help tailor the submissions we receive to our publication. When a writer clearly hasn’t read the guidelines, or worse, chooses to disregard them, the writer-editor relationship is off to a bad start.

6. Pay Special Attention to Contest Rules.

Rules and guidelines for contests are often different than regular submission guidelines. For example, it is common for contests to require that writers take their names off their submissions, so the journal’s readers can read the submissions “blind,” without knowing who wrote them. In fact, I’m a little wary of contests that don’t read submissions blind. Make sure your name is removed from all the places: remove it from underneath the title of your piece, take your last name out of the standard header, and delete the address block that normally goes in the upper left corner of the first page of your submission.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
–Octavia E. Butler

7. Watch Your Word Count.

Word count limits for literary journals are all over the place. Some journals are into flash fiction and have word count limits between 50 and 1,500 words. Many journals cap a short story submission at 3,500 words. Some journals accept fiction up to 7,500 words or even 10,000. But the most common word count limits for prose are 5,000 to 6,000 words. Oftentimes, stories and essays that are longer could be much tighter. Space is at a premium in literary journals, and if your pieces fall into that sweet spot of 6,000 words or less, your odds of finding someone to publish your work go up.

8. Send Your Best Work.

You’ll hear me say this again and again: Polish your work until it shines before you submit it to a literary journal or magazine. Markets get many more submissions than they are able to publish. It’s already a challenge for a piece to stand out amount hundreds or thousands of submissions. Readers are eagerly searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack–a sparkling gem that catches their eyes and stands out among the rest. At the same time, they’re overwhelmed with submissions, and they’re looking for a reason to reject yours. If the work is sloppy, or amateurish, or replete with misspellings or errors in punctuation and grammar, it makes it easy for a reader or editor to decline the piece and move on to the next. Besides, once your piece is published, it’s out there in print or online forever, for all practical purposes. Make sure you’re proud that’s the case.

9. Pick a Dream Journal.

A “dream journal” is a shoot-for-the-moon literary journal or magazine you’d love to have your work published in, but that perhaps seems out of reach. Think the Paris ReviewPloughshares, Kenyon Review, or Zyzzyva. Having a dream journal (or a half dozen dream journals) is motivating. It gives a writer something to shoot for and to celebrate. But dream journals don’t have to be the most well-known or the most difficult-to-get-published-in journals. The journals I listed above are some of mine, but so was Kelp JournalKelp Journal is a relatively new literary journal, but I fell in love with it because of its aesthetic and its quality. My short story “The Jetty” was published in Kelp Journal‘s fifth issue. I will never forget the feeling of reading the email from one of my dream journals that began, “I’m delighted to inform you ….” After that, I took my love of Kelp Journal to the next level and applied to be a fiction editor. I’ve since edited fiction for two issues. We are currently accepting submissions for Issue No. 8, so send us something! And remember, no dream journal is out of reach if you follow Tip #10.

10. Persist.

This is the best tip I can give you: Don’t give up. The odds may be stacked against you, but that only means the odds get better each and every time you submit. And your writing is getting better and better too! It’s not uncommon for a piece to get upwards of 30 rejections before it finds its home. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the story or essay, but that it didn’t suit a particular market at a particular point in time. If you’re sure you’ve followed all the other tips and submitted your best work, it’s a matter of being tenacious until you find the literary journal or magazine that’s meant to publish your piece.

Bonus tips:

  • Don’t bombard your dream journal with submissions–guidelines often request that writers submit no more than once per submission period, and annoying them isn’t going to win you any points.
  • If a journal says they’d love to see more of your work, believe them. Send them something even better and/or more suitable than the piece they praised.
  • Once a piece is accepted, be sure to withdraw it from any other markets to which you’ve submitted it for the sake of the journal’s readers and editors, as well as your reputation as a writer.

The Calm Before the War

Last week, I wrote about The War of Art, a book by Steven Pressfield, the author of The Legend of Bagger Vance. The book was recommended to me at just the right time in my life. I finished my MFA last year and came out of it tired, but promptly enrolled in two more year-long programs and launched a book coaching and editing business, while continuing to work at my full-time day job. A little over a year ago, I was up before dawn, writing three to four hours each and every morning before my day job even started. So I know I can do it. But over the past year, I’ve mastered every excuse for not writing or for promising myself I’ll get back to my old writing routine “starting on Monday.”

Pressfield’s book was perfect for me. I was well-positioned to write for several hours a day. I just wasn’t doing it. My only obstacle was myself. So I needed someone to tell me to stop mucking around and do my work. Thanks to Pressfield’s advice, I am beginning to think of myself as a professional writer and to behave accordingly.

But as I read, I also thought about the fact that not everyone is as privileged as I am. Not everyone can climb out of a warm bed in the morning, turn on a light, make a cup of coffee and a slice of peanut butter toast, boot up a computer, and write for several hours, without worrying about anything or anyone else. (Which makes my neglect of my writing all the more shameful.)

I was gradually reminded of “prosperity theology” (abundance as a sign of divine favor) and “limiting beliefs,” a philosophy that blames any lack of success on a person’s mindset, despite the person’s circumstances.

I am uneasy with descriptions of things like drug addiction, chronic illness, and tolerating abuse as products of a mind trying to avoid creative work. I’ve been guilty of allowing life’s unnecessary dramas to keep me from writing, and that, I agree, is disrespectful of my life, my dreams, and my talents. But there are things which are not so easy to set aside or escape from. I don’t believe that someone who is in an abusive relationship or battling illness or addiction is allowing limiting beliefs to keep them from realizing their potential as a writer.

I do believe writers can find greater success by changing their mindsets and by developing professional work habits. We can be limited by our beliefs. For example, we might believe we aren’t worthy of good things in life, when we most certainly are. Or we might believe we can’t wake up a couple of hours early to write before work, when we definitely can make that shift in our schedules. But it’s a mistake to say we can’t also limited by our individual circumstances. To believe otherwise is a limiting belief in and of itself, a way of shirking our obligation of love toward our fellow human beings. It’s similar to victim blaming–a way of shielding oneself from fear by thinking, “That could never happen to me. I would never end up like that, I would never find myself in those circumstances or in that situation, because I would never do the things that person did.”

I’m thinking now of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, one of the most basic and accepted psychological theories, usually depicted as a pyramid:

The idea behind Maslow’s hierarchy is that human beings must have their basic needs for physical well-being and safety met before they can worry about other needs. In other words, if a person is homeless, cold, and hungry, their focus is going to be on finding shelter, warmth, and food. If they’re experiencing those circumstances, and they also have children in their care, or are struggling with a drug addiction or physical abuse, they face even more difficulty. In the meantime, they probably aren’t going to knock out the great American novel. They’re not going to move up the pyramid. They’re not limited by their beliefs; they’re limited by their circumstances. They’re limited by their need to spend their waking hours looking for food, or housing, or a job, or a place to sleep or shower. As you can see, “achieving one’s full potential, including creative activities,” is way up at the top of the pyramid.

Do people write novels under adverse circumstances? Yes, they do. We’ve heard about the outliers, like the woman who wrote an unbelievably successful book about a boy wizard while she was a single mother, living on government assistance in a rodent-infested flat, and hiding out from an abusive spouse, or the highly successful romance author who wrote all her books late at night after putting her seven children to bed. Stories like these can make us feel ashamed that we aren’t as industrious or as dedicated. But if someone doesn’t produce art while setting mouse traps in the kitchen, applying for restraining orders, and enduring rude remarks in the checkout line as they pay for their groceries with food stamps, to say that person is being held back by a scarcity mindset is a surface-level oversimplification. Even with the outliers, if you look at their stories more closely, there is almost always a little luck or privilege involved, as well as some access to support and options not everyone has.

I’ve had some rough circumstances in my own life. I’ve overcome some tremendous odds. Statistically, I should never have even graduated high school. And yes, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve been stubborn. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished. But I’m also mindful of what part of that wasn’t earned, but was luck mixed with privilege. I’ve met other women who’ve experienced similar circumstances and who, for whatever reason, were broken by them or didn’t survive them in the same way. I’ve known women who didn’t survive at all. When I was in the worst of it, I was not brave or tenacious or resilient. I wasn’t writing. I was barely getting by. I didn’t do anything special to have come out okay on the other side, and the others didn’t do anything to deserve not coming out okay on the other side. I was lucky, and I was more privileged in some ways, and they were not as lucky or as privileged. Life, in that sense, isn’t fair. I’m quite aware things could have gone a completely different way for me, and I’m mindful that I didn’t do anything to earn the fact that they didn’t.

I was lucky for a long time before I found myself in a position to be able to build on that luck with my own hard work. I survived the storm and came into the calm. Only then was I able to begin to think about anything besides battening down the hatches and bailing the boat nonstop with a thimble.

I know this is kind of rambling. I guess what I most want to say is to be kind to yourself, but also be kind to other writers. People are struggling in more ways than we can begin to imagine. Be a warrior for yourself and your own writing, but also be a warrior for those who need a boost. If you are struggling, rather than shame yourself, consider what is holding you back–I think there is a lot of power in just knowing what we are up against. And then, please, ask for help. With any of it. With all of it. There are people who will help you reach the calm so you can have peace and begin to think about other things. After that, ask for a notebook and a pencil–writing will save you. And if you’re already in the calm, if you’ve had a bit of luck, enjoy your success, but then lift others up behind you.

Writing and Warring

I just finished reading Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles (2012). At the risk of oversimplifying, the book’s advice boils down to this:

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

Writer: “But–“

Pressfield: “Do the work.”

I enjoyed the foreword by Robert McKee immensely. McKee is an author, lecturer, and story consultant, perhaps most famous for the “Story Seminar” he developed and taught at the University of Southern California and for Brian Cox’s portrayal of him in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation. “Steven Pressfield wrote The War of Art for me,” McKee writes. “He undoubtedly wrote it for you too, but I know he did it expressly for me because I hold Olympic records for procrastination.” McKee is funny–his foreword made me laugh out loud.

Pressfield starts out strong. The first section of his book defines what we writers are up against. “It’s not the writing part that’s hard,” he writes. “What’s hard is sitting down to write.” Yes! Resistance stands between “[t]he life we live, and the unlived life within us.” Yes! “[T]he battle must be fought anew every day.” Yes, yes, yes! I felt seen as I read the opening pages of The War of Art. I’ve often wondered what goes on in my mind when I come up with excuse after excuse not to sit my butt down in the chair and write. Now I feel I know.

The second section was my favorite. It discusses becoming a professional and applying the same kinds of principles to our writing that we apply to our day jobs, like showing up each and every day and doing our work. Pressfield is right–I show up at my day job every day and do my work. I stay at my job all day long, whether I want to or not. But when it comes time to sit down and write, I don’t employ the same kind of self-discipline. If I called out from my job as often as I call out from writing, I wouldn’t have to worry about it, because I wouldn’t have a job anymore. I’d never thought of it this way.

The third section explores muses, angels, God … “the invisible psychic forces that support and sustain us in our journey toward ourselves.” The book leans a little heavily into religiosity toward the end. I am spiritual, and beyond that, I strongly believe there are forces we can’t begin to imagine, not to mention little-used parts of our brains, at work when we write. Many times, I’ve been surprised by the ending of a story I am writing–an ending that comes out of nowhere and writes itself. Countless mornings, I’ve awakened from a good night’s sleep with a solution to something I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the day before. Frequently, when I’m out for a walk or shopping for groceries or enjoying a few minutes’ peace in the carwash, an idea will pop into my head unbidden, when I am thinking of something else or nothing at all. So spirituality and these kinds of concepts speak to me personally, but they may not be for everyone. To his credit, Pressfield acknowledges this.

The War of Art is 167 pages of no-excuses advice for writers and other artists. I respond well to this kind of upbraiding. I need a kick in the pants now and then. This is what I needed to hear. It works for me. My writing life will change because of it–I’m turning pro.

My only criticism is that the advice sometimes comes from a black-and-white, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps perspective that fails to consider systemic racism, ableism, and poverty, as well as the disparate treatment of people based on age, gender, or sexual orientation. For Pressfield, no excuses means no excuses. Again, this works for Pressfield, and it works for me. But I think we must recognize that it doesn’t work for everyone. We aren’t all on a level playing field. It is much harder for some to work toward or realize their dreams than it is for others. The solutions Pressfield offers may not work for every person at every point in their life. I recommend the book with that caveat, and I’m going to write about limiting belief theory for next week.