A Brief Guide to Submitting to Literary Magazines

As a writer, I’ve written hundreds of stories and sent out thousands of submissions. I’ve been fortunate enough to have over two hundred stories published, but part of this fortune is the result of hard work and a thorough understanding of the submission process. When I was a new writer, I didn’t have a clue what to do. I bought a book, mailed some manuscripts, got some rejections. I only came to understand the process after I studied it and practiced it for months and months. Of course, being an editor of a literary magazine for over five years has also helped me know where and how to send my work. Here is a brief guide that I hope will help some new writers when submitting to literary magazines.

The initial thing a writer must do when submitting his or her work is find the proper venue (of course, this assumes that you have a complete and polished manuscript). This requires plenty of research and reading. Luckily, there are many resources, both free and paid, that can help a writer find the proper literary magazine for any given piece of writing. Resources like NewPages, Every Writers Resource, Duotrope’s Digest, and Writer’s Market are all good starting points, but there are also many others.

When finding the right market, a writer should pinpoint a handful of literary magazines that seem appropriate for the given piece. Since acceptance rates tend to be very low at most literary magazines, it’s important to have several viable options.

To determine the correct market for a work, consider the length, the theme, the tone, and the general aesthetic that a literary magazine typically publishes. It’s important to thoroughly read the “About” section or mission statement of a magazine, but that’s not where a writer should stop. Before submitting to any literary magazine, one must carefully read the submission guidelines. Ideally, a potential submitter should also read through several back issues before deciding that a particular venue might be a good fit. When reading the back issues, the writer should consider similar voice, writing style, and subject matter. Of course, if a previously published piece seems too familiar, the writer should probably steer clear of that market. A terrific story can be rejected simply because the literary magazine recently published something that was too similar. Most magazines want a certain amount of diversity and don’t want to risk creating duplicate content that may bore their readers.

Once a writer has targeted a few appropriate markets, now it’s time to draft the cover letters. It is absolutely essential to re-read the submission guidelines and follow every detail outlined. Some magazines give very little in the way of guidelines while others present a lengthy tome for the writer to sift through. No matter how long the guidelines are, be sure to read them all to avoid an instant rejection.

For literary magazine submissions, cover letters should be brief and to the point. Include any information that the magazine mentions in its guidelines. Every magazine has its own set of guidelines that may include method of submission (email, online manager, snail mail, etc.), format of manuscript, location of contact information, and many other factors. When submitting the same piece to multiple literary magazines, be sure to vary your cover letter and follow each specific set of guidelines. Also be sure that the magazines accept simultaneous submissions. A simultaneous submission means a piece is under consideration at more than one magazine at the same time. Submission guidelines might also mention multiple submissions, which means sending more than one piece to the same magazine. Not many magazines accept multiple submissions these days. A writer should also consider the rights requested and whether a magazine accepts reprints when submitting.

Be sure to address the cover letter to the appropriate magazine or editor. It’s best to sound formal when drafting a cover letter. Typically, with short stories or poems, it’s not necessary to deliver much of a pitch. The body of a cover letter for a short story is typically only a couple sentences in length. Novels, on the other hand, require a great deal more work in the submission process.

End the cover letter with an appropriate signature, and be sure to thank the editor for his or her time. Many editors are donating their time to the magazine, so it’s important to show appreciation for their work. Before submitting, a writer should proofread the cover letter and make sure the manuscript is presented in the appropriate fashion. Of course, the manuscript should be thoroughly proofread and polished before being sent anywhere. Some literary magazines are very particular about attachments or about spacing or fonts or margins. Other magazines don’t care much about the particulars. Failing to meet the guidelines, no matter how petty they may seem, will often result in instant rejection.

After submitting, a writer should use a set method of logging each submission. A simple spreadsheet works fine. There are online resources that allow for the tracking of submissions, but these can be time consuming and overwhelming. Be sure to record the date, the title, the venue, and the method of submission.

It may take anywhere from a couple days to several months to hear back from a literary magazine. There are many different responses a writer may receive, from a form rejection to a personal rejection to a rewrite request to an outright acceptance. It’s important to record the type of response received and to follow any directions given in the response email. If the editor sends an acceptance contract, go over it carefully and provide the editor the appropriate information in a timely fashion. If the piece is still under consideration at other markets, withdraw it immediately. Never ask an editor to wait until you hear back from another magazine.

In case of a rejection, there is no reason to panic. There are literally thousands of markets out there to explore. Never send an angry note back to an editor. A rejection should never be taken personally. It’s often the case that a piece is simply not a good fit. It is okay sometimes to respond to a rejection, but these responses should only be short and appreciative. Some magazines specifically tell submitters not to do this because it wastes their time.

Submitting stories or poems can be a daunting task, but if a writer follows the rules of the game, it can be a painless process that may even end with the joy of acceptance.


6 thoughts on “A Brief Guide to Submitting to Literary Magazines

  1. Hi Nate, it may have been my ask about my new novel, Gadabout, whether anyone had any small press or agent suggestions. If so, mystery solved. I posted a synopsis on my blog, http://www.derekosborne-writer.com.

    The above BTW, is very good in helping newbies work with the short fiction and poetry crowd. Wish I had something like this back when I was first starting out, it hits all the questions well.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Derek. Glad you enjoyed this. I’m sure there are plenty of similar articles out there on the web, but I also wish I had seen something like this in my nascent days of submitting.

      I’ll definitely check out your synopsis. Unfortunately, it wasn’t your novel comment that inspired this. Someone was specifically asking about submitting short stories.

      Thanks again for posting. Hope to hear more from you soon.

  2. Exactly as needed. Thanks.
    Now, how many mags. do you send ea. piece to? How much do you judge whether a contest is worth entering? (Are any of them worth the outlay?)
    Do unknown writers have any chance of being accepted (or winning)?
    Am I wrong, or has the level of writing (and competition) shot up over the past five years?
    Hope the foot’s better, the move’s finished and the job’s wonderful — it leaves you plenty of time to write.

    1. Clift, thanks for posting. You ask some really good questions. Here are some quick answers:

      1. I recommend sending a story to as many lit mags as you are comfortable with. Remember, if a piece is accepted, you will have to withdraw it from all the other places. Do you want to withdraw a piece from 20 venues? That’s pretty time consuming. I typically will have a piece under consideration at 2-5 places at once.

      2. Contests are tough to judge. If you confident in what you’ve written, or if you really like the publication and want to support it, then submit. I would make sure that everything is read blind before entering (doesn’t really matter if it’s free). I run a contest with Bartleby Snopes, and we have absolutely no clue who the submitter of each story is (thank you to Submittable for helping us to keep everything blind). Do thorough research on the contest. Look for reviews. Find out who past winners are. Unknown (or relatively unknown) writers can win them (I know a few who have, but does that make them known since I know them?). However, chances are that if there are well-known writers entering the same contest, they have a better shot at winning. After all, they’re known for a reason, right? At least in theory…

      3. I think that the competition has certainly shot up because of the huge increase in writers. There are so many venues out there though, and sometimes I feel like the quality of published writing has gone down because of this.

      Hope those responses help. I know they’re brief, and each could be its own blog post.

      The foot is doing better. Still a little swollen. I probably am still a few weeks away from running. The move and job have been great so far. I haven’t done as much writing as I would like recently, but it will pick up soon.

      Thanks again for your comment. I look forward to hearing more from you.

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