In 2021, I’ve had the incredible luck of being published in 5 literary magazines, with one more publication forthcoming. I’m a bit flabbergasted by this. The online literary scene abounds with rejection, and I’ve become accustomed to receiving a lot of it. This year may turn out to be a fluke for me, but even if I don’t get published again until next year, or several years from now, I’ve discovered some strategies for making the submission process more meaningful and less painful that I want to share.
Just a quick disclaimer: This post assumes that you are already familiar with the submission process to lit mags. If you are not already familiar, there are already some amazing articles that break down that process, including this one.
1. Find journals that match your writing style, but also cast a wide net. The biggest determinant of acceptances to lit journals is the taste of the editors at the journals. If your writing doesn’t match the taste of the editors, no matter how good it is, it won’t be accepted. Most lit mags also receive far more excellent submissions than it is possible to publish, so you should never take it personally if your writing is not accepted. If you tend to only submit to the literary giants and aren’t having much success, it might mean that you need to discover some lit journals that are not The New Yorker and The Paris Review.
There are thousands of literary journals out there, both print journals and online lit mags, waiting for you to discover them. You may need to explore to find ones that fit the niche that your writing falls into or find places that would be open to your writing, even if they are not an exact fit. The best way to know if a lit mag is a good fit for your writing is to read their previous issues. Most lit mags have at least some free content on their website, so even if you can’t read all of an issue, you can still get a sense of what they publish. Plus, you don’t need to read the issues from back to front. Two or three pieces in the genre that you’re submitting to can be enough to get a sense of what the magazine likes. That way, you can use your time efficiently and be able to discover a lot of potential places to submit. If you need help finding new publications to read and submit to, I have a blog with reviews of lit mags: Litbloom.com and I also keep a Twitter list of lit journals that are free to read.
This is a time-consuming process, but it can also be enjoyable. After all, if you are a creative writer, you probably love literature, and reading what your contemporaries are writing can be entertaining and inspiring. This method also tends to pay off. It certainly saves you time because there’s no point in submitting a fantasy story to a journal that says it doesn’t publish genre fiction. Most of my own recent acceptances have been to journals whose content I was already excited about even before my writing was accepted to them.
2. Write a themed piece explicitly for a particular lit mag. Many journals, even if they publish “literary” writing, whether it’s fiction, or poetry, or nonfiction, have themes for some of their issues and encourage people to submit work that fits the theme. This doesn’t always work for me since I usually write stories well in advance of seeing these themed calls, but if you’re someone who gets inspired by writing prompts, this can be the motivation you need to produce something new with a publication venue in mind. Even if your piece gets rejected from the initial lit mag, you can still submit it to other publications later.
3. Keep track of encouraging rejections. One of my editor friends who runs a literary journal has reassured me several times that receiving an email that invites me to submit again, even if it is automated, is a sign that the editors liked what they saw, and really did mean that the piece just wasn’t a good fit for the magazine. If you receive an encouraging rejection, note down where you received it from. This can be a sign that the piece that you’re submitting is good enough to be accepted somewhere else, as long as you find the right place, and you should definitely submit other work to that lit mag again. Most of my acceptances have been pieces that received enough encouraging rejections to make me feel confident that they were worthy of publication. I also keep a list of magazines that I return to again and again with submissions, hoping that at some point the piece I send them will end up being a perfect fit.
4. Don’t submit until the piece is actually ready, and don’t be afraid to revise and resubmit somewhere else. Let’s face it. It’s really hard to know when a short story or a poem or an essay is really ready to be published. Sometimes we are so eager to send out our work into the world that we can’t view it an unbiased way. Other times, we get so discouraged by rejections that we are sure that something must be wrong with our work. Having a friend or community who you can turn to exchange writing is helpful for figuring out what you need to improve upon and when a piece feels “done.” But for some of us, writing never truly feels finished. At some point, you may have to just take a leap of faith. What I’ve noticed is that for some pieces, after I receive a rejection or two (or fifteen), I realize something fundamental about it needs to be revised, and I make that change. There’s nothing wrong with doing this. You just have to keep track of where you sent which version of the publication because most lit mags won’t accept resubmitted work, even if you’ve revised it.
5. Decide when it’s worth it to pay for submissions and when it’s not. In my personal experience, I have never received an acceptance for a journal that charged a submission fee. Not once. Maybe this is just a coincidence. However, it hasn’t stopped me from submitting to places that do charge for submissions, especially if those same places offer payment for publication. If you’re someone who objects to paying for submissions on principle or you simply can’t afford to submit to several lit mags a month, then just focus your attention on places with free submissions.
If, on the other hand, you have some spare change, it might be worth it to pay some submission fees. I am lucky to be able to afford to submit to places that charge for submissions, but I’m still intentional about how much I pay to submit. I set a budget for myself of $15 maximum each month in submission fees. Most places that do charge for submissions charge between $3-$5 per submission, so this means I can usually submit to 3-5 magazines per month that charge fees, as well as an unlimited number of journals with free submissions. Some contest fees can be even higher than $15, so submitting to a contest alone could wipe out my budget for a month or two.
To be cautious with your resources, only submit to venues or contests that charge fees if you feel confident that your work is worthy of publication and that it would be a good fit for the journal. I also recommend only paying for submissions if you think it’s worth giving money to that journal even if they don’t accept your work because at least that way you don’t feel like you’re throwing money down the drain.
6. Keep a lot of irons in the fire. This may be a personal preference, but I always work on several stories or personal essays at once. I like to have some stories out for submissions while I’m writing or revising others so I don’t feel as much disappointment when the inevitable rejections roll in. Instead of feeling frustrated that I have to once again revise the piece that was rejected, I can just shrug, send out new stories, and come back to revising that story eventually. This keeps my morale high because the greatest barrier to publication is becoming discouraged. If you lose hope that you will ever be published and give up on submitting, this will guarantee that you won’t be published! It’s better to pick yourself up, appreciate yourself for your hard work despite the rejections you received, and keep trying.
I hope you found these tips useful for your own writing and publication journey. If you liked my blog post, please subscribe to my blog and check out my other website, Litbloom.com, where I review online lit mags. You can also follow me on twitter at @mollywritesalot.