Getting Published in a Literary Journal – A Beginner’s How-To Guide
A wise friend once told me, “A writer is one who writes.” No one needs a special qualification, degree, or resumé to be a writer. Certainly, one does not need publication to be a writer. Not every needs to seek publication in a journal or should: writing can be its own reward, and there are many wonderful ways to share work with others (including Prose). Personally, though, I sought publication of short stories and poems in literary journals and have met with a small amount of success, and in this post, I will offer what advice I can for similarly-minded individuals—with a couple of significant disclaimers.
Disclaimer #1 – I have absolutely no idea how to make money at this. I’ve gotten four short stories and three poems published in various small journals, for which I have received a grand total of $20. Writing is not a career or even a side gig for me. If you want to know how to make a living with writing, read Finder’s post for this challenge – she’s done it. From what I understand, there are far more paid writers of advertising copy/website text/technical manuals than there are creative writers, and if you want to pay your bills with writing, that’s the path to follow. I’m also given to understand that the majority of creative writers out there don’t actually make a living with it: most have other jobs (notably teaching, which is most of the reason people seek creative writing MFAs). I’m a high school teacher who writes, rather than the other way around.
Disclaimer #2 – The "beginner" in the title of this post is me. I am seriously small potatoes. Odds are, dear reader, that you have never heard of a single journal where I’ve been published. In other words, I lack any real qualification to be writing this post, but perhaps the scraps of knowledge I’ve gleaned can get someone else started. (Thanks to Finder for nudging me to write this.) If anyone reading knows something that I don’t, please, please share in the comments. I will be grateful for the advice.
Alrighty – steps, as best as I know them.
1. Improve your writing. I started submitting pieces to journals when I thought I was ready; the reality was, I had more learning to do. How vivid are your settings, how clean is your dialogue, how condensed are your sentences? Sentences in published pieces are certainly not short, but they almost never contain extra words: each letter in a piece serves a purpose. This is a post of submission advice and not writing advice, so I’ll stop there, but growth in writing is a process that never really stops, and if you tell yourself “I’m there!” you’re probably cutting your journey short.
2. Wait to submit – you want to revise your piece again. Finishing a piece brings a rush of pride, but that is the wrong moment to dash off a submission to a journal. This should go without saying, but when you’re seeking to be viewed as a professional, “minor grammatical error” is an oxymoron. Never send out anything that could have so much as a single misplaced apostrophe. (Most common error on Prose, btw? it’s vs its.)
Good revision means more than proofreading. Revision requires time and perspective, and rushing your piece will only slow you down in the long run. Finding an editor—that is, someone whose skills you respect who is unafraid to slather red ink on your crap—is a godsend.
When I decided I was ready to submit to publications, I wrote a flash piece called “Inheritance” of which I was very proud: it was based on a story my father told me of my grandfather, but fictionalized in that the narrator-son felt confused about the tale’s meaning. It started at 750 words, and the ending was lackluster; an editor-friend helped me trim it to under 500 words, and a long-running dialogue with him helped move the ending closer to right, and I sent it off to some places. Several months and rejections later (a couple of them extremely helpful rejections – more on that later), I revisited, and I couldn’t believe I had overlooked its flaws. For one, the story was too sentimental. Here’s the original ending:
Tonight, a decade later, the brother I hadn’t seen for eight years dialed me with the one phone call the law gave him. I realized, when I clenched my teeth, what was passed to me, and what Grandpap fought in those flames.
I got my coat.
I kind of like that first line as a sentence, but as an ending to a story, it’s a forced a-ha moment: “And then the narrator discovered the meaning of brotherly love.” The Hallmark story has its place, but I was not submitting stories to Hallmark; I also did not want to write for Hallmark. My editor friend had tried to tell me of that risk – and he had indeed gotten me to improve the ending – but I was too close to the subject matter to see its sentimentalism until I had distance. The intervening months and writing growth revealed a second fatal flaw: it was still far too long. I edited “Inheritance” down to 300 words, less than half the original length.
3. Find where to submit your piece. There’s really two phases here: understanding where one discovers journals, and determining whether a particular journal might be receptive to your work.
Lists of journals: As far as the where, there’s a big ol’ ranked list here: http://www.erikakrousewriter.com/erika-krouses-ocd-ranking-of-483-literary-magazines-for-short-fictionThat list is geared toward short fiction, but many journals would also take poetry or creative non-fiction (CNF).
Here’s a place I check regularly where some journals advertise their calls for submissions: https://www.newpages.com/classifieds/calls-for-submissions
Most journals will expect you to submit using Submittable (www.submittable.com) – signing up for an account is free, and if you click on the “Discover” tab, you can see submission calls listed by end date.
Speaking of Submittable, you’ll see that most publications on it require a small fee ($3-4); that’s normal. I won’t say I’ve never paid a larger fee, but generally speaking, I don’t think it makes sense to pay more than the nominal $3-4, and regardless, they add up. (Note that earlier I said I had “received” $20, and not that I had “made” $20, because the latter would be a lie; I am very much in the red thanks to fees.) If you’re looking to avoid submission fees, it will restrict your submission possibilities, but it can be done: a lot of journals offer free reading periods, and some never charge (particularly those that operate through email alone and thus don’t have to pay a submission management platform). I would also urge you never to fall prey to “publishers” who send enthusiastic acceptance notices offering to sell you a copy of their “anthology” for the low low price of $40+. Legit print publications usually offer contributor copies even if there’s no other payment.
Picking journals: Sending your work blindly will likely waste your time: you need to do some scouting. Every single journal will advise you to read their past issues; as a practical matter, you probably don’t have time to read that much. I always look for the “About Us” or “Mission” tab on a homepage for starters. For my own part, I never send work to publications seeking “experimental” or “cutting edge” pieces, as what I write does not qualify; other publications specifically seek work from women, or teenagers, or people of color, or LGBTQ+ individuals, of which I am none. Some journals are genre-specific.
I generally do read a piece or so from the journal before submitting, attempting to judge whether my general style and approach are in keeping or at odds with what they publish.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with submitting a piece to multiple journals at the same time, and most journals explicitly state that they “accept simultaneous submissions.” (A handful don’t, and you should respect that.)
Another word of warning: the overwhelming majority of literary journals state that they want “unpublished work,” and pieces posted on social media or elsewhere on the web almost always count as published. A piece you have posted to Prose is therefore ineligible for most journals.
4. Format your piece. Follow the directions the publication gives. Whatever information they want, or don’t want, or font or spacing or lack of italics or pasted in the body of an email or RTF format or cover page or anything, just do it. You’re asking the editors to do you a solid by reading your work: respect their wishes. Almost every journal wants something slightly different in the formatting, which means the process of submitting will take far longer than you expect it will, but give them what they want.
In the absence of specific formatting guidelines, double-space prose using size 12 Times New Roman; include a header on every page but the first with name, title, page. Here’s the one I used: (Love – “Inheritance” – 2). For better and more precise guidance, click on “Standard Format” here: http://www.erikakrousewriter.com/other-author-tools-and-resources Poetry is often requested to be single-spaced. Many journals permit submission of 3-5 poems at a time. Again, your submission format should be whatever the hell the journal specifies, but here’s a general example of a submission of multiple poems: https://www.shunn.net/format/poetry/
5. Write your cover letter. Cover letters for literary journals should not be long or fancy. As always, follow all directions. Be polite and direct: they usually need your name, the genre of your submission, the length, and a third-person bio. If the piece is a simultaneous submission, tell them and assure them you’ll notify them of acceptance elsewhere. On the rare occasion when I’ve submitted something previously posted on Prose because the journal did not rule such pieces out, I’ve identified the writing as having “previously appeared on my personal page at Prose, a site for aspiring authors to share their work with one another.”
If you know a specific editor or two who will be reading your work, address the letter to them rather than the general “Dear Editors.” When I submitted “Inheritance” to The Blue Mountain Review, it fell under their microfiction category by word count. I found the name of the microfiction editor, then googled him to ensure I could have his proper title or pronoun – it turned out that he taught at a university. Here’s the full text of my cover letter, which I pasted into the proper field in Submittable:
Dear Professor _____:
Thank you for taking the time to read my microfiction “Inheritance,” which is 300 words long. A childhood memory my father described inspired the story. It is a simultaneous submission; I will notify you immediately if the story is accepted elsewhere.
Here is my bio:
Ryan F. Love teaches high school English in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, where he earned a degree from Alfred University. He lives with his wife in a Victorian with pairs of daughters, beagles, and guinea pigs. His work has been published in Blue Lake Review, The Copperfield Review, Sleet Magazine, and Blueline.
Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing from you.
Ryan F. Love
6. Bring on the rejections – and read them. If you’re seeking publication, you will receive rejections. You will receive so, so many rejections. It’s normal. Rejections mean you're trying. I read a blog post by a writer whose stuff has appeared in journals I only dream about, and she said her acceptance rate was about five percent. I make a ritual of it: before I open any email from a journal, I say the word “rejection.” A rejection could mean that your piece wasn’t really ready, but it could also mean that they published something else similar recently, or that it didn’t quite suit the journal’s style, or it just couldn’t quite fit in the issue. Exact words from a rejection email I received: “Though I won't be taking this piece, it is lovely.” I deeply appreciated the encouragement.
There’s no need to keep feverishly refresh your email or Submittable page to see if you’ve heard anything yet. The Submission Grinder (https://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/) gives quality estimates of response times (more accurate than the journals give themselves, in my experience). If you see a light blue “In Progress” flag in Submittable, it means precisely diddly squat: you still might not hear anything for six months. You might also get a rejection (or acceptance!) without the flag ever having moved from “Received” to the pointless “In Progress.”
Keep track of your submissions and rejections: Submittable will do this for you on a basic level, but you should note when you get some kind of tiered rejection that’s more encouraging. If you’re told to send more work, you should try to do so and mention the previous interaction in your cover letter. (If you’re not sure whether you got a standard rejection or a higher tier, check out the journal’s samples on the Rejection Wiki - https://www.rejectionwiki.com/).
A rejection with personal note from an editor is a high compliment. It can also be extremely helpful. An editor rejecting one story of mine wrote, “We love the humor and the sense of place, but flash fiction has to start quickly. This one just didn’t grab us.” I didn’t yet realize how much it meant to get a personal note, and that one felt discouraging when I read it; it was actually exactly what I needed to hear. I was taking too long to get my flash fiction started. The criticism rang around in my head a few months before I processed it, and then that advice prompted me to take an axe to the beginning of “Inheritance.” The finished result was a vast improvement: it still got rejected twice, but that 300-word version is the one that got published. Finished version here, if you want to read it: https://issuu.com/collectivemedia/docs/bluemountainreviewjune2021/286
7. Keep writing. This is the part where I say things about improvement, practice makes progress, etc., but writing is inherently valuable in and of itself, whether a journal accepts it or not. Don’t let the quest for publication, or the inevitable rejections, stop you.
I first submitted to a journal way back in 2014. The essay was the best thing I had written up to that point. I made a lot of mistakes with the piece itself and with my submission process, but the dumbest mistake of all is easy to identify now: when that essay got four rejections, I stopped writing essays, stories or poems for five years.
Don’t do that.
When I’m working away at a draft of something that I’ve already revised three times, I quite frequently pull up a Prose challenge and post. There’s joy in writing; there’s joy in sharing writing; there’s joy in a writing community. If you choose to pursue publication in a literary journal, I wish you all the best, but publication is not purpose. You have reasons why you write; remember them, always, and keep at it.