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So You Want to Submit to a Literary Journal

by Keene Short

Let’s say you’re an aspiring writer. You’ve just polished up a short story, a handful of poems, a nonfiction essay. Maybe your friends have critiqued it, or you’ve just revised it after receiving a mentor’s feedback. Certainly you should send your hard-written work to a literary journal, to a dozen literary journals. But many aspiring writers let the temptation to see their names in print, to see their work published, overpower the effort they put into actually submitting it. Here is a short list of tips for newcomers to the messy business of submitting to a journal.

1. Read over your draft a second time, or a fifth time, or a fifty-fifth time. Make sure there are no typos, that your characters’ names are all spelled consistently, that you’ve fact-checked the correct day of the D-Day Invasion or spelled the President of Chile’s name correctly. There’s no end to the list of possible errors a writer can make, and no end to the list of reasons to reject an otherwise solid story or poem.

2. Research the journals you want to submit to, extensively. Look at their past work. Look at their recent work. Look at the writers they’ve featured and debuted, and read their other works. For every journal you select, read its most recent editions in-depth. Take notes, even. If you expect a journal to take the time to read your work, it’s only fair for you to give them the same courtesy.

3. Research the journals’ editors and staff. Know the names of the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction editors. If they have additional biographical information, look at what they’ve been up to lately. Do they teach at a university? Have they recently graduated with an MBA? Do they do charity work on the side? You may discover that the journal is not quite for you. Don’t make the mistake of submitting an urban paranormal cowboy romance to a journal that publishes only creative nonfiction about traveling abroad.

4. Devote just as much time to crafting your cover letter and bio, after figuring out which journals actually want to read a cover letter or bio. Use the cover letter to list any previous publications you’ve had, and if you’ve had none, consider owning up to that. Write that if the journal accepts your work, it will be your first publication; past publications can help, but publication ultimately depends on your writing, and whether or not the editors enjoy it.

5.Use the cover letter to demonstrate that you’ve explored the journal. Compliment a particular piece from their most recent edition, especially if it’s similar to work you’re submitting. Address the cover letter to the editors you want–which is why it helps to know who the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction editors are in a given journal. Keep it simple: “Dear Fiction Editor so-and-so. . .” Be blunt, but polite.

6. Keep your bio snappy. List your writing career as simply as possible, sticking mainly to previous publications and educational history. Remember, some journals do not want a bio, or will request one only upon acceptance of your work. Make your bio idiosyncratic to the journal itself. If you’re submitting to a journal that publishes only Southwestern writers, include where in the Southwest you’re from. If you’re submitting to a journal that only publishes Southwestern writers and you’ve lived your whole life in Boston, find another journal.

7. Check, double-check, and triple-check your cover letter and bio. If you’ve copied and pasted it from another submission, make sure to change any necessary details. Don’t submit to Prairie Schooner with a cover letter that reads “Dear Poetry Magazine Editors.”

8. Keep a detailed record of what and where you submit, and prepare for rejection. The literary world is competitive, and any published writer will tell you rejection is far more likely than acceptance. But it’s even more unlikely that a journal will accept your work if you muddle the submission process. If you find yourself devoting several hours to submitting a single short story, you’re on the right path. It’s hard work, and that’s what makes publication worth seeking. The difference between published and unpublished writers is a willingness to put in the extra twenty miles to fine-tune their submissions.