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.

5 Reasons Not to Enter Writing Contests

Writing contests are fun. I love them, and I enter them often, although I’ve yet to make it past the “finalist” level. But I don’t care! During those weeks or months of waiting for the winners to be announced, it’s exciting thinking that one of the winning stories might be mine. I recently read an article encouraging writers to enter contests and listing all the reasons they should do so, with the premise that, “you have nothing to lose.” Yes, there are many reasons writers should be entering writing contests. But depending on the contest, writers may have something to lose.

I was sadly reminded of this recently. I’m a fiction editor for a literary journal, and I was working with an emerging author on a short story that I’d fallen in love with. They’d submitted it to our journal, we’d accepted it for publication, and I’d worked with the author on developmental edits. We’d just received copyedits back from the copyeditor and were going over a couple of final details prior to publication of the story. I was trying to help the author resolve an issue with the story’s title, and during my research that last morning, I came across the story published on a business’s website.

The author had entered a writing prompt contest offering a prize of $250. The author didn’t win, but what they didn’t realize or understand was that the business had published their story on its website anyway, under the terms and conditions of its contest, and so the story had already been published.

We had to decline the story, for several reasons:

    1. The journal I edit for only accepts submissions of “previously unpublished” work. This is the case for most journals.
    2. The journal takes “first publication rights,” which means the journal publishes the story and pays the author in return for the right to be the first to publish the story. Again, this is common. The author’s story had already been published online, so the journal had lost the chance to be the first to publish it.
    3. Even if we’d wanted to go ahead with publishing the story (which we strongly considered because it was a beautiful story by a talented writer), there was another problem. The business’s contest rules required that, if we were to publish the story, we had to (a) give the business credit for the writing prompt that had prompted the author’s story (the idea); (b) credit the business for being the first to publish the story; and (3) link to the business’s writing contest. These are things we couldn’t bring ourselves to do, for reasons I’ll discuss below.

I was devastated, but the author was even more devastated. This would have been their first short story publication in a literary journal, and their polished story would have appeared online and in print. They would have been paid for the publication of their work. The story needed work on things like structure, tense, and point of view, and we’d worked really hard together on those things and to make the story shine. Now, instead of being published in a quality literary journal, it’s out there on a business website with its early-draft flaws intact, and it will be forever, for all practical purposes.

Before you enter a writing contest, ask yourself these questions:

1. What will you get out of it? If you’re considering entering writing contests, think first about what you want to get out of entering a contest, and then make sure the writing contest you’re considering will give you that. For example, the author I mentioned would have won $250 had they won the business’s contest.  If your goal is a cash prize, then this contest might be for you, but there are a lot of other contests out there that offer a cash prize and don’t take first publication rights to your story even if you don’t win. If your goal is to begin publishing stories and building your reputation as a short story writer, this contest is probably not a good stepping stone toward that goal.

I enter short story contests often. I’m looking for recognition for some of the stories in my book-length manuscript, which may help me find an agent. So I enter contests that are considered noteworthy by agents, or that will result in publication in a respected journal, or that may earn me a meeting with an agent. I consider contests that may result in my book being published by a respected indie press–for my book, which is a more difficult pitch to agents, this may be a good result. But I would not enter a contest that would result in an exploitative book contract, and there are many of those out there.

2. What will the contest organizers get out of it? As I mentioned above, the business running the writing prompt contest likely has other motives for running its weekly contests besides supporting emerging writers. The business is a service company–it matches writers with editors, copyeditors, book cover designers, etc., and earns a fee for doing so. Their weekly writing contest appears to me to be a brilliant piece of marketing. They get about 250 entries every week, all short stories of 1,000 to 3,000 words, and they publish all of the entries on their website. This means 250 new pages of content on their website every week, which is incredible for their website’s search-engine optimization. And they’re pulling writers into these contests–writers who may buy their services. In fact, if they choose any runners-up in their weekly contest, the runners-up receive coupons toward these services.

The best contests for emerging writers to enter are generally those contests that are organized for the purpose of discovering emerging writers and supporting writers. Their prizes and contest rules will reflect this.

3. Is the contest entry fee fair? Whether an entry fee is fair depends on the contest’s motivation, the prizes it offers, and the writer’s motivation for entering. The writing prompt contest charges a $5 entry fee, for example. It appears they get about 250 entries every week, so after paying one winner $250, they’re making about $4,500 a month from this contest, getting free content for their website, gathering the email addresses of aspiring writers, and likely adding them to an email list and marketing their services to them. In return, they’ll publish each entrant’s story, whether or not it’s ready for publication, will award one story $250, and may award gift certificates toward services. Normally, I’d say a $5 entry fee is fair, but in this case, I’d say it’s not. Naïve, hopeful writers are essentially paying $5 to have their stories published.

Another contest I’m aware of charges a high $25 entry fee and runs multiple contests year-round. The contests are organized by a nonprofit organization, and the publication is a quality one and well-known, which made the entry fee feel acceptable to me. Since the organization is a nonprofit, I assumed the money was going toward contest administration fees, marketing, prizes, etc. But after doing some research, I learned that the organization’s board members are paid exorbitant annual salaries. Although the organization isn’t technically making money from the contests, its board members are.

Some higher entry fees make sense. Literary journals will always be struggling. Most of them are staffed by volunteers and charge reasonable or no submission fees. When journals do charge entry fees for contests, the money goes toward prizes and costs and helps them meet their annual budgets. But something to keep in mind is that higher entry fees also contribute to keeping out marginalized writers. Look for contests that offer waivers of fees for writers who can’t afford the entry fee or that allow more privileged writers to pay extra so that others can enter, too.

4. What’s in the fine print? Before you enter a contest, read the rules, terms, and conditions carefully, word by word, and make sure you understand them. The young author I worked with didn’t understand that their story would be published on the business website and didn’t know anything about publication rights or what future publishers would be required to do in order to republish their story.

In a writing group I belong to, I’ve heard more than one writer complain that, after winning a certain organization’s contest and having their story published, they realized that the terms and conditions of the contest allowed the publisher the exclusive right to publish their story anytime, anywhere, forever, and also gave the publisher the  right to option the story for film and reap most of the benefits of that, while giving the author no say and paying the author relatively little.

Know what you’re getting into.

5. Is your piece ready to publish? Writers want their work to be seen. We write for ourselves, but we write for our readers, too. It’s our way of connecting with other human beings. But our desire to have our work published can work against us–if we are too anxious and our work isn’t ready, then having it published can damage our reputations as writers early on in our careers. And in the modern era of internet technology, once something is published online, we have to assume it could be out there forever. So don’t enter a piece of writing in a contest that you may someday regret having published.

Fortunately, if your work isn’t ready, then your chances of winning a contest and having your story published in a quality literary journal are low. But your goal is to win, so make sure your story is polished, run it through spellcheck, and get notes from beta readers or a writing group. Don’t be in a rush–enter your very best work, so that whatever the results, you can be proud of your effort.

Good luck!