Jun 20 2018
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How to submit to literary magazines, part 1: 10 things to know about editors and guidelines

If you’re a writer who is considering sending your first literary magazine submission, we have some advice for you, for what it’s worth.

First, congratulations! Sharing your work with the world for the first time is a big step.

Second…where do you even begin?

There are thousands upon thousands of publishing markets for creative writers. Your very first step–once you’ve polished and completed some writing, of course–should be to familiarize yourself with some of them. Check out Duotrope, Newpages, the Classifieds section of Poets & Writers Magazine, and Writer’s Digest, click around, and read widely!

Now that you’ve done so, point your mouse to the submission guidelines of a magazine that catches your eye. Even a newbie can make sense of directives like “Send up to six poems at a time” and “Email your short fiction under 1,500 words to [email address] by [deadline,” but what about the rest of these guidelines? What does all of that mean?

Here are (sometimes snarky) translations of 10 common phrases you’ll see in submission guidelines and statements from editors about what they want:

  1. “We are seeking writing that lights the cosmos on fire, that challenges and defies readers’ expectations with molten insights, that raises the bar for lyrical virtuosity higher than the sun-side span of golden eagle wings etc. etc.” Translation: We have no earthly idea. Long-winded explanations about a journal’s particular editorial bent are, with few exceptions, moderately frustrating because, well, did you read the above, exclaim, “AHA, I have just the poem/story/essay!” and run to your laptop? No. The editors are being fancy with language, which is their way of saying they want you to be, too. They want to be wowed. They want you to send them your best, most polished work. Every time. That’s what editors want. On the flip side…
  2. …“We are seeking essays about motherhood.” Translation: the editors want essays about motherhood. Don’t send poems about motherhood, or essays about being an only child.
  3. “Previously published writing is not accepted.” Translation: We do not publish anything that has appeared elsewhere in print or online. The typical exception is if it has appeared on your personal blog, but even some journals are picky about blogs. However, most journals that consider your blogged writing “self-published” — and therefore previously published — will specifically mention personal blogs with their policy on previously published work. And you can always inquire if you aren’t clear.
  4. “Simultaneous submissions are accepted.” Translation: It’s OK if you’re sending us writing you already sent or are planning to send to another journal. Usually followed by the phrase “Please notify us if a piece become unavailable.” Translation: Let us know if another journal offers to publish one of the pieces you simultaneously submitted to us so that we don’t waste time in an in-house editorial debate over a poem/story/essay we can’t publish anyway because it’s going to be published somewhere else and we don’t accept previously published poems.
  5. “Simultaneous submissions (SSs) are not accepted.” Sarcastic translation: We’re going to tie up your poems/stories/essays for months and months, during which time you won’t be able to send them anywhere else. (There are precious few exceptions, but journals with lightning fast turnaround can, we suppose, justify a policy of not accepting SSs. We suppose.)
  6. “Multiple submissions are accepted.” Translation: You can send us more than one submission at a time. Simultaneous = more than one journal; multiple = more than one submission to just one journal. Confused? Often, a journal’s guidelines will address their policy on multiple submissions not by using the phrase “multiple submissions,” but by saying something like, “Please wait to hear back from us before submitting again.”
  7. “Please include a brief bio.” Translation: Tell us a little—a little—about yourself, and please include some details about your activity in a literary community, including any previous publications, participation in writing groups, etc. In next month’s part two of this series, you’ll learn how to craft a good biographical statement.
  8. “Please include a brief cover letter.” Translation: Please include a brief cover letter. For first-time submitters, perhaps no phrase instills more anxiety. A letter? Isn’t that why we have email/tweeting? What do I say to someone I’ve never met? How do I not sound as new as I feel? Don’t worry. In next month’s part two of this series, you’ll learn how to write a brief but informative cover letter.
  9. “We acquire first time North American rights upon publication.” Translation: Copyright reverts back to you, the author, when we publish your poem/story/essay, and we ask that you cite us as the original publisher if the work is reprinted in a book or republished elsewhere. This is standard operating procedure.
  10. “Response time is three months.” Translation: We’ll either accept or reject the submission you sent us within three months. Sarcastic translation: We’ll either accept or reject the submission you sent us within nine months. Kidding! Sort of. Kudos to the journals that live up to the response times they advertise. Most journal editors will at least field (kind and understanding!) inquiries once that posted response time passes without an actual response. Look for that in the guidelines as well, because sometimes editors accept inquiries at a different email address than submissions.

Was this post helpful in terms of translating some common submission guidelines? Will you or have you sent any submissions to literary publications? Share with us in the comments!

Stay tuned for part 2 of this series: Submissions logistics (like writing a bio and cover letter)

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Comments on ... How to submit to literary magazines, part 1: 10 things to know about editors and guidelines

  1. Sharon Greenlee says:

    Thanks so much for the 10 tips… I have had work published but I haven’t submitted anything recently. Your words felt like a fine update and build confidence to ‘try it again’.

    I wrote a self-help book that won a children’s library award and was in print for a number of years. The illustrations need a multi-cultural update. My dream would be to also make it available in Spanish. This feels like an enormous undertaking but I’ve been encouraged by many (readers) to ‘get it out there’ again! Any thoughts are appreciated. Sharon (I can’t send each submission with a copy of the original book. Do I simply submit my original manuscript and hope they can ‘visualize’ the possible outcome? Thanks again. You may hear my frustration. :)

  2. Ed says:

    Thanks for this. I was particularly taken with #1 which I always found intimidating. Also the tease for part 2 has me looking forward to the second part of this series.