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Ins and Outs of Becoming A Literary Journal Writer

By Posted on 9 min read 92 views

Every literary journal writer might relate to this…

When you first submitted to literary journals, you probably spent fifteen minutes or more on their websites tracking down any scrap or clue that might help your work be accepted. You read their guidelines multiple times. Every time you received a rejection, you read a lot into it.

But ask any experienced literary journal writer and they will tell you how things are a little different on the surface and after years of writing for the literary journals, they are finally starting to see patterns that they could not when they started out.

The following are things that you as a beginner literary journal writer might wish to know.

The difference between what journals say and what they mean

 Most journals have a statement on their submission page about what they are looking for and what you should submit. Some of these things are clear and true. If they say they are looking for poetry and flash fiction under 1,000 words in length, they most certainly mean it. Do not submit a 2,000-word story.

literary journal writing

Also, if they say they are looking only for works of science fiction or some other genre, only submit works from that genre to them.

However, many submission guidelines list things that are not helpful. They could even be misleading and waste your time if you focus on them too much.

For example, a lot of journals indicate they are looking for experimental work, but few define what they mean by that.

By reading these same journals, you might conclude that experimental work appears to cover everything from a traditional haiku to a list of unrelated words. (It might turn out to be a big mistake!)

Don’t spend  lot of time, when you are first submitting, trying to match a journal’s style with my submission.

This is a waste of time, as what they said they wanted and at times, they can be vague and what they actually wanted were two different things.

Another example is that many journals ask for you to only submit your best work. I have no clue what they mean by that. After all, what you think is your best work and what others think is your best work might be completely different things.

The poems I often think of as my best are the ones I struggle the most to get published. The poems I think of as OK are often the ones that get snapped up right away by literary journals.

I am not alone in this. Many of my friends have had similar experiences.

Focus on what the journal is looking for in terms of concrete statements about length and genre, and ignore the other information for the most part.

writing for literary journals

Buying before submitting

 Many literary journals need to sell copies to survive.

Almost every single print journal I know and a lot of electronic journals try to encourage submitters to buy a copy of their journal before submitting. This is time-consuming.

It is also an expensive proposition for a writer, who might be submitting a single piece or a few pieces of work to ten or twenty journals.

If you like the look of a journal and it is really up your alley, you should subscribe because you want to. Because you are interested in the work they are publishing, and want to support them.

If you want to get a better idea of the work they have published, many do have a few poems and short stories published online. It is worth spending a few minutes to read one or two of these.

On taking rejections seriously

Don’t. When I receive a rejection email, I am not upset. I just update my submission tracker to reflect the rejection. Your work can be rejected for any number of arbitrary or legitimate reasons. If you take each rejection seriously, that will consume a lot of mental energy.

Imagine an average editor gets over 1,000 poem submissions for the next literary journal issue. He or she accepted seven poems out of the over 1,000 submitted.

It is not uncommon for the editor to get simply overwhelmed and not be able to give the poem the amount of time and more importantly, the mental energy, it deserved. That is not even taking his or her personal preferences as a reader into consideration. Do you see?

Instead of thinking about the rejections you have received, focus on submitting as much as possible.

There are so many good literary journals. Take the opportunity the numbers offer. Also, it is good to keep in mind that just because a journal rejects a piece of yours once, that does not mean they are not open to later submissions.

Often, your pieces might be accepted by a journal that previously rejected an earlier piece.

(I know a writer who once submitted to the same journal seven times before they accepted a piece of hers.)

Just keep writing fast and submitting. You will do it.

Below are six steps that will help you submitting your work  to literary journals in the best way possible.

If you have never sent your creative writing out to a literary journal before, the experience can be intimidating. Many productive writers avoid submitting. However, there is no real way around it if you want to get your work out into the world.

Even if you have sent out work before, you may find them helpful. For experienced literary journal writers, these tips are still a touchstone they can rely upon…keeping them on their track.

Set a submission goal for yourself

 Set it at a number that seems reasonable to you—perhaps five submissions to different magazines per month.

A classic human psychology is, you will often exceed your per-month goal, because once you reach that point, you will want the feeling of accomplishment to linger. Soon those submissions will really start to add up.

The more experience you have submitting, the faster you will get; as you progress, it becomes easier to submit your work.

Three of the most respected authors I know suggested that this was one of the ways that they became successful.

Create submission packets

 If you are a short story writer you don’t need to do this, since most journals only consider one short story at a time.

Some publishers of flash fiction (fiction under 1,000 words in length) allow authors to submit up to three stories at a time.

However, if you are a poet, journals generally want three to five of your poems to consider at a time. I have five packets that each contain between four and five poems.

Reserve one packet to submit to a journal that does not accept simultaneous submissions (work that is submitted to other journals at the same time). It is becoming more common for journals to accept simultaneous submissions, though (almost 95 percent!).

Keep track of what you submit and where

Many keep a Word document that tracks which journals they have submitted to, what poems or stories they have submitted to them, and when.

Write down which poems or stories have been accepted and where…which journals have rejected certain poems or stories. Update this “submission tracker” every time you submit; otherwise, you might send the same poems to the same journal twice, or submit poems that have been accepted elsewhere, or any similar minor disaster.

Make sure you regularly update this document, or it will get out of control. I have included a sample of a very small submission tracker.

Sample literary journal submission tracker:


The New Yorker, Submitted September 28th, The Living (short story).

The Adroit Review, Submitted September 28th, My Teeth, Superman, Pumpkin Bread (poems).


Neon, Submitted January 14th, Ham, Companion, Uma Thurman (poems).

Conium Review, Submitted January 25th, Ready (short story).


Threepenny Review, Submitted January 7, 2012. Timer (short story).

The Book Review, submitted January 7, Pancakes for Dinner (short story).

You can also use an Excel spread sheet to track submissions and if you have a Duotrope subscription, there is a built-in submission tracker that is fairly intuitive to use. Electronic trackers are not for everyone, though.

Submittable also has a built-in tracking system, but it only tracks submissions you make using Submittable.

There is no way to manually update it to include submissions you made via email or other submission managers. Because of that, it does not work as a personal submission tracker.

Just make sure you are consistent. At first, tracking doesn’t seem that essential, but over time it becomes more and more important.

If you don’t track submissions, you could end up accidentally sending the same piece to the same publication repeatedly, which will get you remembered by the editors for the wrong reasons.

More importantly, when you are simultaneously submitting, if a piece gets accepted one place, you have to withdraw it from all the other places it is out at.

If you don’t do that, it can reflect poorly on you and even lead to a journal not considering your work in the future.

Create a couple of biographical statements

 When you read submission guidelines—which vary from site to site—almost all of them will require that you include a brief biographical statement and a cover letter. Most submission guidelines are quite similar, so as long as you have a biographical statement and a cover letter on standby, it should take you very little time to submit.

One of your biographical statements should be under fifty words and the other should be under one hundred words in length.

Biographical statements should always be in third person.

Once your work has been published in various literary journals, you should include some of the most recent or prestigious journals in your biographical statement.

However, you should not include all of them; that would just be overwhelming and would come off as unprofessional. Below are examples of biographical statements of less than fifty words.

One contains journal names, one does not.

Sample bio 1:

Maria Smith resides in the rural Pacific Northwest. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous places, including: Tin House, The Liner, Echolocation, and the anthology Tidelines. Her second chapbook, Pancakes for Dinner, is forthcoming in 2017 from Hawthorne Press.

Sample bio 2:

Joshua Thomas is a poet, editor, and recovering New Yorker who now lives in Idaho. Joshua once wrote a sonnet every hour for twenty-four hours straight. He loves to hike, cook, and read.

Create a standard cover letter for all the journals you are submitting to

A cover letter should be as simple as possible; an editor does not have a lot of time and does not want to be bogged down by the details.

If you are submitting to a journal you particularly like, you might include a note about why you like their journal. Sometimes journals will request that you include additional information such as titles and word count in my cover letter and I will cut and paste that information in. Otherwise, my cover letter is almost identical to the sample letter.

Sample cover letter for literary journal submission:

Dear Editors,

The following poems are for your consideration. Thank you for your time,

Katharine Hathaway

Always read the submission guidelines

Now this might seem like common sense, but many writers figure if they have read one submission guideline, they have read them all. This is not the case.

For many literary journals, up to fifteen percent of the work they receive is rejected because it is not what they publish, and not due to stylistic preferences.

For example, a literary journal that explicitly states they do not accept genre work will receive a fair amount of science fiction short stories. Or a journal that publishes poetry may receive hundreds of short story submissions a month.

Krishan Coupland, the editor of Neon, phrased it well when he said:

Neon publishes dark slipstream and magical realist fiction and poetry. A 600-page hard-boiled noir detective novel isn’t likely to find a place in its pages. Neither is a feature-length documentary film, or any number of hobby articles or fashion pieces. And yet these are all things that I’ve been offered in the past year.”

You can read Krishan Coupland’s full article, “6 Cover Letter Mistakes That Can Ruin the Chance of Publication,” here.

Also, many people who don’t read the submission guidelines will end up being automatically rejected, either by a filter on the email the editor has set up, or by the editor themselves because the submitter has not followed one guideline or another.

For example, if the journal’s guidelines say they only accept submissions where the work is cut and pasted into the body of the email, and you send that work as an attachment, they will likely reject your work without ever reading it.

That might sound callous, but many editors read hundreds of submissions every month, and they set up their submission guidelines in a certain way for a reason.

For emailed submissions, the subject line guidelines (if there are any) are particularly important to follow because many email accounts are set up so that they automatically filter out your email if the subject heading is incorrect.



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