How to make your literary journal submission jump from the slush pile
By Meredith Allard
I’m the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, a literary journal for readers and writers of historical fiction. Since 2000, I’ve read thousands of submissions of historical short stories and history-based poems.
Despite what you might have heard, literary journals are still flourishing. While it’s true that many journals have closed, it’s also true that new journals spring up every day. Readers, particularly those who love short fiction and poetry, still read literary journals.
Writers, whether they are traditionally or independently published, still like to see their work published in literary journals as a great way to build a reputation and a career. If you love to write short fiction and poetry, and many writers do, then literary journals are still the best option for getting eyeballs on your work. Many beloved writers got their start publishing in literary journals.
If you’re looking to publish in literary journals, there’s one important fact to keep in mind: most of them receive far more submissions than they can publish, which means that many authors are vying for few available slots.
One little-known secret (or perhaps it’s not so little-known) is that editors are looking for easy reasons to turn down a piece as they weed through hundreds of submissions. If you want your submission to have the best chance of being published in a literary journal, here are six tips to consider.
Tip #1: Read the Submission Guidelines on the Journal’s Website
I know it’s tempting to go by the guidelines stated in literary journal listings like Duotrope or Writer’s Market, but editors’ needs can change suddenly so they will change their guidelines on their websites even though that change may not be reflected in the listings.
Literary journal listings are great places to find journals that look interesting, but writers should always check the guidelines on the journal’s website prior to submitting. Editors judge submissions on their current guidelines, not the guidelines in a year-old listing.
Tip #2: Send Your Most Polished Work
It takes discipline to keep reworking a piece until it’s polished and ready to submit, especially since the revising process can take weeks or even months. Still, you don’t want to rush the submitting process.
Learn about the elements of a short story. Run your work by a critique group if you have a group that you trust. Take writing classes. Read some great short stories and examine their greatness. Develop an ear for well-written dialogue. Wordy, unwieldy dialogue is a frequent problem we see in submissions at The Copperfield Review.
Give yourself time to grow into the writer you want to be. I know we live in the “I want it now” era, but there’s no rush. You’re on no one else’s timetable but your own. Make sure your story is the best it can be before you send it off to editors.
Tip #3: Proofread any Literary Journal Submission
One or two missed typos won’t ruin your chances for an acceptance — we all make mistakes — but an entire page of typos will result in a rejection.
Sometimes it’s hard to catch our own mistakes because our eyes see what they expect to see, and they expect to see what we meant to write. Maybe you meant to write ‘she’ instead of ‘the’ but your finger went to the right instead of the left and you know how it goes.
It’s helpful to have another set of eyes proofread your work. Whether it’s a friend with a firm grasp of language and spelling or you hire a professional editor, someone else will often catch those pesky typos before you do.
Tip #4: Check to See What Type of Stories the Journal Publishes
The Copperfield Review is a journal of historical fiction, yet we’ve received some sexy-time contemporary romances as submissions. There’s nothing wrong with that style of writing, but it’s not what we publish. That’s one rejection letter the writer wouldn’t have received if they had checked our website.
If you write science fiction, seek out science fiction journals. If you write mystery, humor, inspiration, sexy-time romances, poetry — whatever it is, more than likely there’s a journal out there that publishes it.
Tip #5: Read the Submission Guidelines
Did I say this already? Okay, yes, I’m repeating myself here, but I can’t stress enough how important it is to read the submission guidelines and follow them exactly as stated.
I understand that submission guidelines can seem petty, even vindictive — you know, a way to make writers miserable. What does it matter if the guidelines ask for a third-person bio and I send in a first-person bio or no bio at all? What does it matter if I send in three poems at a time instead of one? But those guidelines exist for a reason, and editors notice when writers don’t follow them.
Maybe the problem is the word guidelines, which sounds more like submission suggestions. They are not suggestions. Editors need some semblance of sanity, a method to our madness to help us sort through the submissions.
If the guidelines state that the word limit is 3000 words, then make sure your submission is 3000 words or less. Less is better. Trust me. I advise against emailing the editor and saying, “My piece is 3400 words. It’s not much over the submission guidelines. Will you consider it?”
The answer will be no. Many editors work with tiny staffs — tiny meaning one other person. Many editors also have other jobs, families, writing projects, and life obligations. We have to draw the line in the sand somewhere. The line in the sand is clearly stated in the submission guidelines.
Tip #6: Be Professional
Professionalism doesn’t refer to how many publications a writer has, or even if a writer has been previously published at all. Some of the most professional writers I’ve worked with were writers who had never been published before. They made sure their submission was right for our journal, they were a pleasure to work with, and we were proud to be their first published credit.
A writer who sends in a piece that follows our guidelines and sends and responds to emails with courtesy will always stand out in a good way. This should be a no-brainer, I know, but not all writers conduct themselves professionally.
Skip the Rude Emails
Demanding a response to a submission sent last week will not be received kindly by any editor I know. Especially when it states in the guidelines how long it should take to receive a response.
Rude emails about why that writer’s piece was right for the journal and how dare we turn it down, or rude emails about how we’ve published that writer before and how dare we turn them down this time, will be laughed at in a hearty, boisterous manner as our editor fingers hit the delete button as quickly as humanly possible.
We Know Rejection Stings
As a writer, I’ve felt it many times as I’ve received my fair share of rejections. If you don’t have the stomach for rejection letters, then reconsider a literary journal submission. It’s probably not for you. The key is to remember not to take it personally. Easy to say, I know, but not as easy to do.
Sometimes a piece is turned down because it isn’t right for the tone of the journal or it’s simply not to an editor’s taste. Sometimes it’s the timing. A piece we might have published at a different time ends up being turned down because we recently published something similar.
It’s not a reflection on your talent or that particular story. It just means that story wasn’t right for that editor at that time. Exhale, re-center yourself, and send your story off again. And again and again until you find the right home for it.
Remember those Submission Guidelines?
Submissions that follow the journal’s guidelines are the ones that editors consider for publication. Professional writers show that they take their writing seriously, they care about presentation, and they make the process easier by giving editors what they ask for.
It isn’t hard to send in a strong submission to a literary journal. Be professional, send your best work, and follow the guidelines. If you can do those things, the sky is the limit for your writing career.
by Meredith Allard, May 23, 2021
What about you, scriveners? Getting short pieces into literary journals is one of the best ways to establish yourself as a writer while you’re working on longer works. Have you sent out any literary journal submissions? Did you follow the guidelines? These tips also apply to submissions to blogs. Anybody who follows submission guidelines has a good chance of getting a guest spot here. But 99% of queriers don’t even bother to visit the blog. It gets old. So I know how Meredith feels. Do you have any questions to ask her?
Meredith Allard is the author of the bestselling paranormal historical Loving Husband Trilogy. Her sweet Victorian romance, When It Rained at Hembry Castle, was named a best historical novel by IndieReader. Her book Painting the Past: A Guide for Writing Historical Fiction was named a #1 New Release in Authorship and Creativity Self-Help on Amazon.
When she isn’t writing she’s teaching writing, and she has taught writing to students ages five to 75. Meredith received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from CSU Northridge and her Ph.D. from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She loves books, cats, and coffee, though not always in that order. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada. Her website is at MeredithAllard.com. Here’s her Amazon author page. You can also find her on Facebook.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
Painting the Past: A Guide for Writing Historical Fiction
Do you want to write historical fiction? Join Meredith Allard, the executive editor of The Copperfield Review, the award-winning literary journal for readers and writers of historical fiction, as she shares tips and tricks for creating believable historical worlds through targeted research and a vivid imagination.
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