10 Tips for Submitting to Literary Journals

Submitting prose to literary journals is a long game for most of us. Success doesn’t come overnight or easily, and it’s easy to get discouraged. I speak from personal experience. But you don’t have to close your eyes, cross your fingers, and leave things to chance. There are some things you can do to increase the odds of having your work published in literary journals and magazines.

1. Read them!

If you’re a writer, you should be reading literary journals and magazines, whether or not you are submitting to them. I encourage writers to be true to themselves–don’t “write to the market” because (a) the market is constantly shifting and you’ll never be able to keep up; and (b) your best work isn’t going to come from trying to gauge what’s trending in the moment. That isn’t the way to find your voice. But you should be aware, not only of what’s out there, but of where the tastes of specific literary markets lay. For example, you’re not going to get very far by submitting your mystery story to a sci-fi journal.

2. Choose Wisely.

Research the literary journals or magazines you’re thinking of submitting to, to make sure your work is a good fit for them, yes, but also to make sure they’re a good fit for you and for your work. Too often, we are so anxious to be published that we fail to consider whether a particular market is reputable, offers equitable publishing terms, or will help us achieve our writing goals.

3. Start at the Top.

Why not? Sure, it’s faster and easier to get published in a lesser quality journal, and if your only goal is to see your story in print, then that may be the way to go. But don’t sell yourself short. If you want your work to get noticed by potential agents, for example, taking your time and striving toward getting your work published in a well-respected literary journal is the way to go. So start at the top, and then work your way down your list. And never submit to a journal you wouldn’t be proud to have your work published in.

4. Consider Your Goals.

This goes back to the last point: Do you want to see your name and your work in print? Do you want to get make money? Do you want your work to be noticed by literary agents? Do you want to see your work in a print publication or online? Or does it matter? Take your goals into account when choosing where to submit your work. For example, if your goal is to snag a literary agent, then you may want a few publication credits to list in your query letter. Toward that goal, you’ll probably want to submit to fairly recognizable markets, but you probably won’t want to enter a contest that offers publication of your book as the grand prize, skipping over the agent step entirely.

5. Read Submission Guidelines Carefully and Follow Them.

This is one of the most important tips I can give you. I’ve volunteered as an editor for several literary journals, and I can tell you this counts. The guidelines are there for a reason–they make our jobs easier and help tailor the submissions we receive to our publication. When a writer clearly hasn’t read the guidelines, or worse, chooses to disregard them, the writer-editor relationship is off to a bad start.

6. Pay Special Attention to Contest Rules.

Rules and guidelines for contests are often different than regular submission guidelines. For example, it is common for contests to require that writers take their names off their submissions, so the journal’s readers can read the submissions “blind,” without knowing who wrote them. In fact, I’m a little wary of contests that don’t read submissions blind. Make sure your name is removed from all the places: remove it from underneath the title of your piece, take your last name out of the standard header, and delete the address block that normally goes in the upper left corner of the first page of your submission.

You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.
–Octavia E. Butler

7. Watch Your Word Count.

Word count limits for literary journals are all over the place. Some journals are into flash fiction and have word count limits between 50 and 1,500 words. Many journals cap a short story submission at 3,500 words. Some journals accept fiction up to 7,500 words or even 10,000. But the most common word count limits for prose are 5,000 to 6,000 words. Oftentimes, stories and essays that are longer could be much tighter. Space is at a premium in literary journals, and if your pieces fall into that sweet spot of 6,000 words or less, your odds of finding someone to publish your work go up.

8. Send Your Best Work.

You’ll hear me say this again and again: Polish your work until it shines before you submit it to a literary journal or magazine. Markets get many more submissions than they are able to publish. It’s already a challenge for a piece to stand out amount hundreds or thousands of submissions. Readers are eagerly searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack–a sparkling gem that catches their eyes and stands out among the rest. At the same time, they’re overwhelmed with submissions, and they’re looking for a reason to reject yours. If the work is sloppy, or amateurish, or replete with misspellings or errors in punctuation and grammar, it makes it easy for a reader or editor to decline the piece and move on to the next. Besides, once your piece is published, it’s out there in print or online forever, for all practical purposes. Make sure you’re proud that’s the case.

9. Pick a Dream Journal.

A “dream journal” is a shoot-for-the-moon literary journal or magazine you’d love to have your work published in, but that perhaps seems out of reach. Think the Paris ReviewPloughshares, Kenyon Review, or Zyzzyva. Having a dream journal (or a half dozen dream journals) is motivating. It gives a writer something to shoot for and to celebrate. But dream journals don’t have to be the most well-known or the most difficult-to-get-published-in journals. The journals I listed above are some of mine, but so was Kelp JournalKelp Journal is a relatively new literary journal, but I fell in love with it because of its aesthetic and its quality. My short story “The Jetty” was published in Kelp Journal‘s fifth issue. I will never forget the feeling of reading the email from one of my dream journals that began, “I’m delighted to inform you ….” After that, I took my love of Kelp Journal to the next level and applied to be a fiction editor. I’ve since edited fiction for two issues. We are currently accepting submissions for Issue No. 8, so send us something! And remember, no dream journal is out of reach if you follow Tip #10.

10. Persist.

This is the best tip I can give you: Don’t give up. The odds may be stacked against you, but that only means the odds get better each and every time you submit. And your writing is getting better and better too! It’s not uncommon for a piece to get upwards of 30 rejections before it finds its home. It doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the story or essay, but that it didn’t suit a particular market at a particular point in time. If you’re sure you’ve followed all the other tips and submitted your best work, it’s a matter of being tenacious until you find the literary journal or magazine that’s meant to publish your piece.

Bonus tips:

  • Don’t bombard your dream journal with submissions–guidelines often request that writers submit no more than once per submission period, and annoying them isn’t going to win you any points.
  • If a journal says they’d love to see more of your work, believe them. Send them something even better and/or more suitable than the piece they praised.
  • Once a piece is accepted, be sure to withdraw it from any other markets to which you’ve submitted it for the sake of the journal’s readers and editors, as well as your reputation as a writer.