Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned and decisions I’ve made in the area of literary submissions. Some of these I consider hard and fast rules, others are more like guidelines, and finally some are my preferences representing decisions I’ve made about how to conduct my own writing business.
First, let’s go over some of the terms.
Submission – You decide that some of your work might be appropriate for a certain journal or “lit mag”. It may be one that goes to print or is entirely online. You submit work for the journal to consider.
Acceptance – They say yes and usually tell you when your work will be published and according to what terms.
Rejection – They say no. Usually, they say “No thank you” in a standard but polite email. You may get a personalized rejection, with some advice on the work or encouragement to submit to them again even though they are not taking this particular submission. Statistically, it’s most likely you will get a rejection when you submit. I don’t have hard numbers, but we writers talk among ourselves. Rejection is the norm; don’t take it personally.
Simultaneous submissions – You have a few poems, essays, or stories that you are submitting to multiple journals at the same time.
Multiple submissions – You submit some poems and then also a story to the same journal in the same reading period. Or you submit three to five poems as one submission and then also submit another three to five poems as another submission.
Submittable – An online submission portal. You set up an account for free and can use it to submit to any journals that request submissions through Submittable. You will be sent there by a link on the journal’s web page
Here’s the first hard and fast rule:
Read the guidelines. I can’t emphasize this enough and I suspect anyone who talks to you about this will say the same thing. I would add, though, don’t just read the guidelines.
Here’s the second hard and fast rule:
Follow the guidelines. Somewhere on their website, there will be a link marked “submissions” or “guidelines” or “submit to us”. There they will lay out what they want to consider and how they want it sent to them. Reading this information is important when you are considering submitting. Following the guidelines is critical when you submit. If they only take online submissions, don’t print out your poems and mail them in. If they say three to five poems, don’t send them six, even if that last one is really good and goes so well with the other five. If they take prose up to five thousand words, don’t send them a piece that is six thousand one hundred. Don’t even send them one that is five thousand one hundred. If they say no porn or politics, don’t decide on your own that your piece might fit anyway. Send that piece somewhere else. Read what they are publishing to see if your work is what they might consider.
The Guidelines: Each journal will have a place on their website that says what they publish and what submissions they want. Some have submission periods such as September 1 to March 1 or by the 15th of stated months a few times a year. Sometimes they’ll say they are currently closed for submissions.
They will also tell you how they want you to send in your work. If they have a Submittable account, there will be a link. Some, such as Agni at Boston University, have their own online portal. You sign up to submit, but usually have to do that only once.
You won’t have to pay to submit, in almost all cases, but that is changing. Some places are starting to charge a few dollars per submission to cover their costs. Some have a “tip jar” seeking an optional few dollars. They will mention if they pay for what they accept. Most don’t.
In the guidelines they will almost always mention their rules on simultaneous submissions and multiple submissions. Frequently you’ll read that simultaneous submissions are fine as long as you notify them if the work is accepted elsewhere. Take that seriously. You are not a good literary citizen unless you do that. It’s frustrating for a publication to send a piece of writing through their review channels only to find it is no longer available. Most places also have strong words about multiple submissions asking you to wait to hear back before submitting again, especially in the same genre. They may be less strict about multiple submissions in different genres though.
Sometimes journals will have themed issues - possibly one coming up about the anniversary of a major event such as Pearl Harbor or a topic such as mothers-in-law. Yes, stick to the topic if there is one. If you don’t, you’ll be rejected outright.
Most journals want previously unpublished work and they will often say what they mean by that. Be careful about posting your work on your website, your blog, or even any social media platform. That will make it published according to most journals.
You can expect to hear back in any time from right away to a few months. A few months is the most common. You normally will immediately get an email acknowledging receipt of your submission. My quickest rejection was overnight; my quickest acceptance was within a few minutes. A few weeks to a few months is common enough not to be of any concern. After six months you might inquire to see if your work is still under consideration. I usually don’t, although once I did and learned that my essay had been accepted, but the editor forgot to tell me.
Here are some of my rules for myself. First, I do not submit to places that do not take simultaneous submissions. My thought is, no, they don’t get the rights to my work while they think about it. Sometimes they say they don’t take simultaneous submissions, but they do make their decisions really quickly. In that case, I think they should see themselves in a position to accept simultaneous submissions. Also, if I get an acceptance for something that is also submitted elsewhere, I notify any other journals right away. It’s the least I can do if I consider myself a decent person and a good member of the writing community. An editor once said in an online conversation that they do not accept simultaneous submissions because it is too much of a pain to withdraw those pieces that are accepted. Fine, if it’s too much work for them, I have saved them the bother by not submitting there.
Here, please, learn from my mistakes. I once sent a fifty line poem to a journal that only accepts poems up to thirty five lines. My mistake. The poem was rejected for being too long, as it should have been. Sometimes a place will ask for submissions to be emailed to First Name Last Name, the poetry editor. You had better mention that poetry editor by name, exactly as it appears on their website. If their name is shown as Josephine, don’t call them Jo or Josie unless you know them personally. I once emailed a few poems to a journal in my state and got no acknowledgement; when I followed up to say two poems had been accepted elsewhere, I got no response; and when sometime later, I sent an email to say that I wanted to be clear I was now withdrawing the remaining poems – I still got no response. (I didn’t like having work out there, unacknowledged, in limbo.) They were still in business, publishing other stuff. I believe my mistake was that I did not mention the poetry editor specifically by name. The significance of that omission did not occur to me until later. I should have realized. Again, my mistake. I sent the submission to the correct email for that individual, but did not include their name in the body of the email.
On the other hand, I had a poem rejected for being too narrative for the editor’s taste. I didn’t even consider it a narrative poem, but it's not my place to argue. I have not sent anything else to that journal, though.
Contests: Submitting to contests could be a whole other blog post and may well be one time soon. Be prepared to pay anywhere from about $10 to upwards of $30. Sometimes it’s a contest for one short story, so you can send only one, but you can send two if you pay twice. It may be a for a chapbook of about twenty poems or a full manuscript of about eighty to ninety pages of poems. Some journals include a subscription as a part of a contest fee. That seems like a fair deal. If you decide to enter contests, the best brief advice is to read the guidelines carefully, follow the guidelines, and keep track of your spending. Those fees can stockpile.
Good luck out there!