How to Really Submit to a Literary Magazine
Literary magazines are weird. Publication credits can catch the attention of agents and publishers and make your writer friends seethe with envy – yet telling your mom or significant other where you’ve been published will likely earn a polite smile and a “So, how much are you getting paid?”
But what really makes lit mags weird is the submissions process. You work your butt off on your writing, polish it, and grow pretty darned fond of it. Then, at the end of it all, you upload a file to a form and hit “Submit.” From there, all you can do is wait while strangers cast judgment on your hard work. If you’ve never worked on a lit mag staff, that can feel pretty unfair, and more than a little alienating.
However, something writers often seem to forget is that the people on the other side of that form are human beings and that they are lovers of literature, just like you. And if you’re really interested in being a professional writer of any kind, there are a couple things you should keep in mind before sending your work in. Mistakes may happen here or there, but the glaring, disrespectful ones stick in the minds of your editors – and messing up a submission may have consequences you might not expect down the road.
We want you to have a good experience writing for us as much as you do. So, if you want to up your chances of being considered for publication by the lit mag you adore, consider the following five suggestions:
Do not send angry emails to your editor after a rejection. (Or ever, honestly. Please.)
Even if it’s a form response (a copied and pasted template), don’t waste time feeling offended over rejection. My mag, Blue Monday Review, receives about 300 submissions per month and will publish 20-25 pieces every four months. And we’re one of the little guys.
No matter how much a rejection boils your blood, do not lash out at your editors by calling them lazy, rude, evil, expletives, etc. This achieves nothing except to bar your work from publication with that magazine and likely from entire networks of publishers, since editors talk.
Literary magazine editors aren’t in this to crush your dreams. They’re overworked, underpaid (or, more commonly, unpaid) and only want to support authors they feel deserve readership. Show a little kindness and recognize that rejection is nothing personal. If you’re still angry, try this: write your rant in Word, press save, then go take a walk – for our sakes and yours.
Be intentional with your work.
What this means is please, please don’t send writing that you have not honestly put work into. “Work” means editing for typos, grammar, spelling, and syntax. Read your work multiple times and let others read it as well before sending it off to avoid embarrassing point-of-view changes, tense shifts, and incomplete sentences (the cut-and-paste disease). Mistakes like that distract your editor and could make a difference in the final decision on your writing.
“Work” also means that you make absolutely sure you’re telling a story that deserves to be written and read. The concept of rooming with a man-eating sphinx may be funny, but not if it doesn’t develop into something memorable, meaningful, and thoughtful. Instill your work with an intent that you feel strongly about and your work will catch your editor’s eye much more readily than any zany plot could. (And yes, this does extend to poetry, even if the “story” is a little more conceptual.)
Read and follow the submission guidelines.
Magazine guidelines may seem goofy, restrictive, or even unreasonable – but just like you’ll remove your shoes at the door if your host requests, you ought to trust that there is a reason behind everything that’s asked of you. An example is that BMR requests blind submissions so our Content Editors aren’t influenced by private biases on their first read, and will evaluate the work based on the writing alone. But before a final decision is made, everything is read by at least one Senior Editor, who can see any information and cover letter which may be relevant to the impact of the writing. So, have faith that we’re asking you to do stuff for your sake, not because we’re just picky weirdos.
Don’t overdo it on your cover letter.
To be honest, I don’t really read cover letters. I find them tedious, and they rarely add to my evaluation of a submission. But even magazines that do habitually read cover letters first will be forever grateful if you keep your cover letters brief, to-the-point, and cordial.
A cover letter should only be about 50-150 words long and, in my opinion, should be in business letter format, sticking to the essentials: your name, a word or two about the work you’re submitting, whether it’s published, and whether you’re submitting elsewhere. Then, optionally, a (short!) bio. Unless your magazine requests other info in their guidelines, that should be it.
When I see much more than that, or when I see super-long bios, all I think is, “Well, somebody is insecure.” To me, excessive cover letters read like an attempt to distract editors from the actual manuscript. Keep it brief and let the work speak for itself – if your editor wants to know more, they’ll ask.
Don’t send in a bunch of work all at once.
Believe me, I get the instinct. You’ve found a magazine that’s perfect for your writing. You feel kinship to the magazine. And you’ve got these eight stories just sitting around waiting to be published – what’s the harm in trying? But even if a magazine accepts multiple submissions (different than “simultaneous submissions” which means submitting a piece to multiple mags simultaneously), resist the urge to dump your whole backlog on your editor’s shoulders.
The feeling is similar, I’d imagine, to working at a recycling center and receiving a truckload of random junk with a sticky note on it reading, “Sort, please. Thanks!” It’s technically fine, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. And it’s just one more thing that may end up tipping an on-the-fence decision toward declination. Again, be patient, and know that if an editor likes your work, they will always ask for more.
All of this is to say: when you send your work to be considered in a literary magazine, try to remember that every magazine is staffed by people who are trying really hard to publish great writing. Make it as easy as possible for them to enjoy your work and I guarantee you’ll be one step closer to the treasured acceptance letter, or at least to warmer declinations.