May 20, 2015 by Nathaniel Tower
Ten years ago, I was a hotshot writer. Of course I was a hotshot. I was a writer. That not only made me a hotshot, but it also made me hot shit. As hot shit, I knew my stories should be published. So I bought a thick book that told me where to send my stories. And send my stories I did. For a year or two, I probably paid a full postal worker salary with my stamps.
But here’s where this gets funny. Nobody published my stories. Instead, they sent form rejections using the stamped envelopes I had stuffed into my submission packets. Turned out I wasn’t hot shit after all.
The thing is, I never bothered to read any of the magazines that I thought should publish my work. I had no clue what they wanted. I just knew they published stories. Some of them even paid to publish stories. I figured it would be easy money.
If only I had known a damn thing.
When my first publication finally came, it wasn’t from a snail mail submission, and it wasn’t by a venue I had found in that big stupid book. I had discovered something even better. I could email submissions out to lit mags. This meant I could send hundreds, even thousands, of submissions a year. My chances at becoming a rich and famous writer had just gone up exponentially.
What actually went up exponentially was my rejection rate. You see, I still wasn’t reading these publications. I was just throwing my work out there to anyone who would consider it. After all, I was destined to become that hotshot writer, and destiny operates purely on random chance.
I still didn’t know a damn thing.
I was technically a published writer, and I probably knew even less about being a writer. But I was growing tired of rejection, and I became determined to do something about it.
I continued writing. I started a lit mag. I changed my submission routine. I received more acceptances (and more rejections). I made some money. Things didn’t look so bad for me anymore.
To date, I’ve had over 200 stories published. But I’ve probably received well over 1,000 rejections. Many of them could have been avoided if I hadn’t been so foolish. Ultimately, I wasted a lot of my time—and a lot of other people’s time.
So how did I change my strategy and go from an oft-rejected failure to a frequently accepted pseudo-success? Here are a few of the adjustments I made to my submission process:
1. I did a better job tracking my submissions. I didn’t need to pay for any fancy writing tool. I created a relatively simple (and color-coded) spreadsheet that tracked everything.
2. I began reading and researching any market where I intended to submit. This meant a lot more than reading their guidelines. I tried to read at least a dozen stories from each lit mag. If I didn’t like the first few—or thought my writing didn’t jive with what they published—then I moved on. I never submitted to a place I didn’t like.
3. I came up with the rule of 5: never have the same story under consideration at more than 5 venues simultaneously. This saved a lot of time, especially when a piece did get accepted.
4. I stopped trying to conquer lit mags. I used to send story after story to the same lit mag, responding to each rejection with another piece ripe for rejection. In most cases, it’s foolish to try cracking a lit mag. If they don’t like your first seven stories, they probably won’t like your 37th either.
5. I sought relationships rather than one-issue stands. Instead of trying to land my work in as many publications as possible and then moving on, I started developing favorites—magazines I would not only read again and again, but magazines I would submit to again and again. Just be careful not to overstay your welcome. Most magazines want to publish more than just one writer.
And that’s about it. Nothing too drastic. Oh, I also spent more time editing before sending out my work, but that’s another story.
Of course, no matter what type of submission regimen you follow, there’s only one way to ensure you won’t be rejected: don’t submit. Writing will always be a matter of taste. If you want to get accepted, you have to deal with rejection no matter how carefully conceived your submission strategy is. But why not give yourself at least a fighting chance?
What else can writers do to improve the submission process? Share your thoughts in the comments.