a brief guide to literary magazine submission

Publishing in a literary magazine is in many ways, a crapshoot. With upwards of 600 literary magazines in print in the United States (not to mention the hundreds of online outlets), there are as many tastes as there are slush-pile readers and there are only so many pages to fill.  That said, the best work usually makes its way to the top, which means that, for the most part, we can focus on making our work the best it can be, and then get it out there.

Writing is, of course, the first step.  Write. Write like crazy. Write until you’ve turned a piece inside out a dozen times at least. Workshop it, send it to a friend, sit on it for a few months, come back to it and cut out all the sentences that don’t fit even if you love them (you know the ones I’m talking about).  Then revise like crazy. Then move on to finding it a home.

First, check out the website of each journal you are thinking of submitting to (see my biased list of lit mags here). Read their submission guidelines and read whatever sample work they have available online. If the journal doesn’t have sample work on their website, you might be able to find some on Jstor or ProjectMuse, or your university library. If you’ve got some money (ha!), order a subscription or a back issue.  

After you have a feel for what the journal is looking for, you start selecting pieces to send off. I send off about five simultaneous submissions for each piece I submit.  At this point in my career, I can’t afford to waste time submitting to journals that frown on simultaneous submissions.  Of course, if you do simultaneously submit, you MUST be sure to drop everything and contact all the journals involved if you get a piece accepted. Drop everything and send off the email or log in to their submission manager and withdraw your piece.  It’s only common courtesy.

Each journal will have its own guidelines.  Many have moved to online submission managers, which makes your job easier. For online submissions, follow the site’s directions, upload your manuscript and wait. You’ll even get a handy confirmation email after you submit.
If you have to send snail mail, be sure to use a large 8.5 x 11 envelope for prose and something smaller for poetry.  And don’t forget a cover letter (see a sample here). If you work for a university or study at one, talk to your department about mailing supplies. Many universities will cover the cost of envelopes, stationery, and postage if the mail is labeled as official university post.

Keep track of your submissions on a spreadsheet, or use online services like duotrope.com or submittable.com.  For each manuscript, note which journals you’ve submitted to and when.  Also keep track of rejections and acceptances. I’m a total geek and color code mine, but that may be overkill. And remember, notify other journals immediately if a simultaneous submission is accepted elsewhere.