Lit Mag Submission Tips

Posted on 18 January 2011

If I could just say a few words…I’d be a better public speaker. But seriously, I had a great time presenting to West Side Writers over the weekend. Everyone seemed engaged and asked lots of questions, etc. While I don’t think I can recap everything I talked about, I’ll give a brief overview here.

The topic of the talk was “Submitting to Literary Magazines and Entering Contests.” I used my year of intense submitting in 2010 as the basis for my presentation. That picture you see there on the left? That’s a chart of all my submission for 2010. That includes not only literary magazine submissions, but also contest entries, article pitches, a few creative nonfiction pieces, and even some grant/residency applications.

Before you think I’m insane and/or just shotgunning my writing out to every place with “Review” in its name, let me assure you that I had some good reasons for being able to submit so much and so often. First, I wrote many of the stories in Living Arrangements years ago and have been revising them on and off for quite some time. I wanted to be sure they were truly ready to submit (see tip #1) before going through the submission process. I therefore had a wide variety of stories to choose from and so probably had a match for the particular journal I was interested in. And once I won the Chandra Prize for my entire collection, I knew I had to step up my submissions if I wanted a chance to get some of the still-unpublished stories accepted and in print before the book comes out.

I spent a good amount of time at WSW discussing some of my own submission stories and statistics from 2010. I’m not going to go into all that here, though, so I kind of feel I’m left with the generic advice that anyone who reads this blog probably already knows. But here goes anyway.

Today, I’ll give a few quick tips on submitting to literary magazines. Tomorrow, I’ll briefly cover contests.

Submitting to Lit Mags

My No. 1 piece of advice is to make sure your story, poem, essay or whatever is actually ready to submit. So many writers are tempted to hurry up and submit to see if any editors will bite. In reality, you just end up wasting your own time when, six months later, you’re left with a bunch of rejections and the realization that the piece is in definite need of revision. I’ve been in this position in the past; it’s a big reason why I sat on so many stories in Living Arrangements for years before going through a submission surge in 2010. Be honest with yourself about your piece of writing. Is it really polished?

Read the journals you are submitting to. This is the advice you’ll hear from every journal editorial staff out there, and there’s a reason for it. Reading a few copies of the journal (or, at the minimum, the sample work posted online) will give you a much better feel for the types of work that journal typically publishes, for everything from tone to length to style. Plus, it’s more meaningful to have your work accepted by a journal you know and respect, right?

Follow the guidelines of each particular magazine. This is a no-brainer. Such a no-brainer, in fact, that I forgot to specifically work it into my presentation. Obviously, you should research the journal’s submission requirements and submit accordingly.

Don’t let rejection get you down. If you submit to literary magazines, you’re going to be rejected. The standard lit mag rejection doesn’t even faze me at this point. It’s life. Don’t take it personally and just keep trying.

Use any connections from personal rejections. That means if a reader named Mary H. wrote down editorial suggestions on your rejection and requested more work, you should probably address your next submission to her directly because she’ll likely remember you.

If your piece is accepted, understand the terms and what rights you’re giving up. Some journals don’t have contracts, which is fine, but if you do receive a contract, make sure you understand it before you sign. Typically, lit mags request First North American Serial Rights. Proceed with caution if you’re asked to give up additional rights, all rights, etc. and have a trusted friend or mentor look over the contract for you. Most editors are more than happy to discuss any questions you might have, so feel free to ask.

Don’t post your writing to your website if there’s any chance you will want to submit it to lit mags. Journals want to be the first to publish your writing. In most cases, putting something on your blog does count as publishing it as far as they are concerned (even if you only have 5 readers or take it down later). So play it safe and don’t make your work available anywhere online.

Keep good records. Record every response as soon as possible. It’s easy to forget otherwise, and then you’ll never be sure if a journal never responded or is still considering your story. Try using Duotrope to check out markets, track your submissions, and to obsess over response times. While I love Duotrope, I also maintain my own submission tracking system. This gives me a place where I can record all submissions, including contests or grant applications, etc. I set up a spreadsheet (again, see photo) and meticulously keep track of every submission and response, including personal notes from an editor or if I queried about the submission.

Check back tomorrow for a few quick suggestions for entering contests.

13 responses to Lit Mag Submission Tips

  • amyg says:

    this is soooooo good that i’m printing it out and pinning it above my computer. thank you thank you

    where are you pitching this post to? Writers Digers? The Writer? Poets & Writers? this is definitely worth pitching (and the whatever you can make from it)

    thanks again.

  • amyg says:

    oops…i meant Writers Digest, not Writers Digers (the lesser known writing magazine for writers of the Diges commune of Yonne in the Burgundy region of north-central France).

  • Poets & Writers, mostly. (I like to keep things under wraps until a piece is accepted or I have a contract to write the article.) I’m working on another article for P&W right now.

    Actually, I can’t really pitch what I wrote here as an article since I already published it to my blog! Tricky, huh?

  • amyg says:

    what about if you prefaced your pitch with, “after receiving many positive responses from a post on my blog covering “Rules for Pitching Lit Mags” i thought a polished version of my post would appeal to the majority of [insert magazine here]’s readers.”

    add a new intro, edit/revise some of the numbers maybe. i wonder if they would be open to it as long as you are open about how you came to the idea. they may want to know your stats (how many people have already read it, where all it’s showing up online, etc.), but it may not take much work to rework this into something you could pitch other places.

    this is really me asking you if it’s possible as you are the expert when it comes to pitching these lit mags. of course, another pitch idea could be an article on where writers should draw the line when it comes to their blog content and what they are pitching.

    sorry, i’m just random thinking here.


    • I pretty much made the decision when I posted this blog that this wasn’t info I was going to try to pitch to a magazine. First, a lot of it is fairly basic or info I feel I’ve seen elsewhere. (A lot of the fun of my presentation was pointing to my crazy visual aid o’ submissions and talking about that.) I also like having some writing advice like this up on my blog. I think it serves its own purpose.

      I have heard of cases where print magazines have paid to reprint someone’s blog entry, but I can’t imagine that happening here. Rather, if I decided to write an article along these lines, I’d probably come at it from a different angle and create something totally new.

      Thanks for raising an interesting point! You also gave me an idea for a future blog entry, so thanks.

  • margosita says:

    This is good advice. Your use of spreadsheets alongside Duotrope is impressive!

    I’m interested in hearing what you have to say about contests, tomorrow!

  • glasseye says:

    Such great information, Laura. I’m going to print this out and keep it for future reference. Thank you!

  • Downith says:

    Grrr. My computer crashed as I left my comment.

    Thanks for this. One question: you mentioned that after you won the Chandra Prize you were quick to ensure unpublished stories were submitted before the book comes out. How does that work? It’s okay to keep submitting individual stuff?

    Be back tomorrow!

    • It depends on every publisher, but in general, if you have a short story collection, it’s beneficial to have those individual stories appear in journals first. In my case, I was able to keep submitting stories individually as long as they appear in journals *prior* to the book release.

      The tricky thing is that many print journals have a very long-view publication schedule. It can easily take them 6 months to accept your story. Then they might not have room in an issue for another 6 months. Or a year. Or even longer. So it really depends on whether the journal is even able to publish your story before your book release date in the first place.

      For their part, most journals are happy to publish a story that is forthcoming in a collection (as long as they are the first to publish it). But I did run into a few cases with journals that did not want to publish something already slated for a collection and/or said flat out it wouldn’t work with their schedule — so it depends.

  • lisahgolden says:

    I’m working backward here. This is a keeper. Thank you, again!

  • Daniel says:

    Those are all some interesting and good pointers there…

  • dan hahn says:

    Helpful article! I started by looking up some lesser known lit mags online to pad my portfolio a bit. I especially liked The Midwest Coast Review. They got back to me instantly and had some surprisingly good comments for a startup.

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