A detailed guide on how to submit poetry and prose to literary magazines
You’ll probably find this information the most useful if you’ve never sent out work or you are just starting to get published. This guide is specific to literary magazines and journals and relates mainly to publishing short stories and poems.
Finding the right publication
The first step in publishing your work is to find a magazine or journal that you really admire. Getting familiar with a magazine by reading a few back issues greatly increases your chances of being able to publish your work there and also supports the magazine itself with your purchase. If you can’t afford to buy a copy of a magazine in which you're interested, you can usually read free extracts on the magazine's website or browse a copy at your local library. Most lit mags and journals are available online with or without a fee depending on the circulation size.
To help you discover the right magazine for your work, there are a number of good resources available.
(charges a fee but hosts a comprehensive database of 2,000+ magazines)
Understanding submission guidelines
Once you’ve found a magazine that publishes your type of work, look for their submission guidelines. These will usually have a page of their own on the magazine’s website or be printed inside of the issue itself.
Following a publisher's guidelines will significantly increase your odds of being reviewed and accepted for publication. The best way to ensure rejection is to ignore the submission guidelines altogether or in part due to formatting, several spelling errors, length or something as seemingly insignificant as font type or sentence spacing.
In reading the guidelines, you will usually find key requirements listed, such as maximum or minimum word counts and the format in which the editor would like to receive your work. Some of the language from guidelines pages might be a little unfamiliar. Here’s a glossary:
This refers to the practice of sending out the same story or poem to several magazines at once.
Many publishers are happy for you to do this because in general they support authors' efforts to become published and understand that time spent waiting for replies can extend out for months thereby delaying your chances of being picked up at all.
Some editors, however, will ask for no simultaneous submissions as a means to rule out any future conflicts with other publishers after having spent months in their reading period to curate their selections and finalize their magazine layout. If you send them your work with a no-simultaneous submissions guideline, then you should wait for a reply from them before sending it anywhere else.
If you do send your work to several magazines and journals at one time and it is eventually accepted by one of them, you will need to withdraw the accepted piece from all of the other markets immediately. This is usually done by sending a quick, polite email to the editorial email address or using the "Withdraw" feature within the online submissions platform.
This term refers to the practice of sending more than one poem or story (whether fiction or nonfiction) to the same magazine in the same open reading period. Some magazines actually want to receive more than one piece from an author, while others prefer to concentrate on one piece at a time and will not review multiple submissions from a writer even if in different categories.
Reprints are stories or poems that have already been published. Most magazines want unpublished work, but there are a few that will gladly accept previously published writing and will state this outright in their guidelines.
Explaining publisher rights
Often times the submission guidelines will state the particular rights that the magazine takes to your work. Rights are not the same thing as a copyright. As the creator of the work, you own the copyright by default. You can, however, give others the rights to do any number of things with your work.
Here’s a glossary of rights-related terminology:
This is the right to be the first publisher to publish the piece of writing in question.
This is the right to publish a piece of writing in printed form in a magazine.
This is the right to publish a piece of writing on a website or in an eBook.
These rights indicate the specific territory or region in which the piece will be published. If a publisher takes North American rights, it may only publish the piece in North America. It cannot then be passed on to the British arm of the organization and be published there as well.
This indicates that the right will only be exercised once. If the publisher wants to reprint the piece in a “best of” collection, it would have to seek your permission again.
This is the right to store your published work to be made available in the magazine archives. This means that even when the issue of the magazine in which your work appears is no longer current, it will still be readily available in the archives. Many authors do not mind this archiving feature, as they want their work to be easily found online as a way to further publicize their writing portfolio.
If publishers want exclusive online rights, this means they want to be the only ones to publish that piece online. If a publisher specifies that they take non-exclusive rights, then they are happy for the piece to appear elsewhere as well.
This is the right to print your writing piece in an anthology or collection. Publishers might ask for this right in addition to others if they are considering publishing a “best-of” collection at the end of the year which may further highlight your work.
Audio rights grant the publisher the right to publish an audio recording of the work. The same goes for film rights, but most literary magazines do not have the budget to make movie adaptations.
To sum up all of the above with an example, a publisher that asks for “First North American serial rights, electronic rights and audio rights” wants to be the first magazine in North America to print the work and also to be allowed to publish it online and in audio format. You would then still be permitted to have your work published in a printed serial in any other country or territory outside of North America.
Formatting your work
You should always adhere to submission guidelines when formatting your work.
If the magazine prefers a particular sentence spacing, font or type size, then use that specific spacing, font or type size even if you think it looks absolutely terrible. If the editors want your work to be pasted into the body of an email, do that. If they ask for email attachments, send an attachment. Most magazines utilize a formal submissions portal or platform which are easy to use and will be explained later.
On the other hand, if the guidelines provided by the magazine have nothing to say about how you should format your work, then you can use standard manuscript format.
Instead of giving a long description of standard manuscript format, I’ll refer you to the expert: William Shunn. He is the definitive source on manuscript preparation, and on his website you’ll find easy instructions on how to format your work:
It may seem like a lot of work getting your manuscript looking like the examples provided by Mr. Shunn, but it’s really worth the effort. This standard format makes life easier for an overworked editor who may have hundreds of submissions to read that week, and it makes you look that much more professional. Editors may trash manuscripts that deviate wildly from the formula, so it’s worth taking your time to get it right.
Submission managers, mailed submissions and fees
There is a wide range of ways for magazines to accept submissions. Here are some guidelines for a few situations which you might come across.
Submitting via email
A few magazines will ask you to simply paste your work into the main body of an email rather than sending it as an attachment. This is easy to do but may present some problems. Your perfectly-formatted manuscript can end up looking like a mess once you’ve transferred it to an email.
To prevent this from happening, copy and paste the text from your manuscript into Notepad (or any plain text editor). Then copy and paste it again from there into your email. This method takes away the unnecessary formatting, and it ensures a clean-looking result.
Submitting via postal mail
Magazines that take submissions only by mail are pretty rare, but some of the biggest magazines still require it. Here are some pointers for a clean, easy-to-manage mailed submission. (If the magazine has its own guidelines on how to send your submission via mail, follow those instead.)
Do not fold the manuscript. Buy an envelope large enough to accommodate it without folding.
Do not staple or bind your manuscript. Secure the pages together with a paperclip.
Include a self-addressed, stamped envelope. If you want your manuscript returned to you, the envelope must be big enough and have sufficient postage. If you don’t want your manuscript returned, state this in your cover letter. You can then include a smaller envelope for the editor’s response only.
Some publications charge a small “submission fee” or “reading fee” to review your work for consideration. You should think carefully about whether or not you want to submit your work to a magazine which charges a reading fee. In some cases, these fees are what allow the magazine to pay writers and magazines that charge fees are less competitive than those who don’t. However, would you be satisfied paying the fee requested just to have your work read with no guarantee of acceptance? Ask yourself why the magazine needs to charge a fee to submitters. Is it possibly not making enough money through subscriptions and sales? A magazine that relies on reading fees may not have that many readers.
There are a few common platforms and portals that magazines utilize to handle all of their submissions. Submittable is by far the most popular one for literary magazines. It is intuitive and user-friendly, and you only need to create one account to submit to all of the magazines that use it. Duosoma is another savvy submissions platform which is run by Duotrope. It requires you to create an account, but it's free. It has more filters available and provides statistics on response rates, which is a big plus if you're a new writer looking for a market to publish your stories. The CLMP Submission Manager is the third most common submissions handler in use currently. It appears less refined, but it’s actually very easy to use. (Note: You will need to create an account for each magazine where you want to submit.)
Writing a cover letter
Your cover letter to an editor should be short and concise. If you can, you should address the editor by name (found in the “Masthead” or in a list of the staff at a publication). State that you are including your work for consideration and include the title, word count, and if it is a reprint or previously unpublished. Mention if you are submitting it simultaneously. If you are submitting by mail, the cover letter should be on its own sheet of paper separate from the manuscript, and it should be laid out like a proper letter. If you’re sending by email, put the cover letter in the body of the email.
Here’s an example of an ideal cover letter: Dear [Mr. /Ms. /MX] [EDITOR’S NAME], Please find attached for your consideration my previously-unpublished, [WORD COUNT]-word short story “[STORY TITLE]”. This is a simultaneous submission, but I will let you know immediately if it is accepted elsewhere. Thanks in advance for your time. I look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, [YOUR SIGNATURE]
That's it! Short, polite and straightforward. Aim for a relatively plain cover letter. Don’t try to sell your writing (let it sell itself), and deter from using fancy fonts or silly gimmicks. If you like, you can include a few words about how you discovered the magazine or what you like about it in your cover letter. Avoid flattery or false compliments, as most editors will be able to detect these from a mile away.
Most magazines ask for a brief author's biography to accompany your work. You can include this in your cover letter. A few magazines have guidelines about what they want in your bio, but most leave it entirely up to you. Generally speaking, a bio should be around 50 to 150 words long. It should be written in the third person. You can include information about where you are from, if you’ve ever had work published in literary magazines, journals, anthologies or chapbooks, where you have studied, or what you do for a living. If you’re really stuck for ideas, find a copy of the literary magazine to which you’re submitting and take a look at the biographies of the current set of writers for inspiration.
Finally, send your submission!
Once you’ve gathered the various parts of your submission – manuscript, cover letter, biography, etc. - all you have left to do is take a deep breath and send it out. Some writers submit their work to between 5 and 30 different magazines in a given reading period. Wait for the responses to come in and then send them out again to another batch of lit mags until you get a positive result. It's an arduous process getting published, not for the faint of heart.
Stay Organized Once you’ve submitted your work, make a note of where you sent it, when you sent it, and when you expect to hear back with a reply. Keeping records is essential to staying organized if you plan on sending out a lot of work. It means that you won’t end up sending duplicate submissions and will be able to follow up whenever necessary. One great way of tracking submissions is to use a Microsoft Excel or Mac Numbers spreadsheet. It might take a little time to learn how to filter or sort your entries, but once you’ve gotten used to the software, you’ll be surprised by how efficient it is.
Handling submission responses
Here are a few of the different outcomes you can expect when you’re trying to get published: Acceptance Congratulations! The editor liked your work, and you’ve been accepted for publication. You will likely be asked to sign a contract or some form of agreement to formally agree on terms. At some point after publication, you'll probably receive a copy of the magazine in which your work appears or maybe even payment depending on the magazine's situation. Rejection Unfortunately, on this occasion your work wasn’t right for the magazine for whatever reason. It does not bear any reflection on the quality of your work which could be quite outstanding! But rather, the editors of that magazine, for instance, may have already received and accepted three other amazing nonfiction items written about surviving the pandemic and they do not need another one. A lot of it is in the timing of submissions. Get them in early, not on the last date of the reading period if at all possible. Do not be discouraged. Keep writing and sending out your work. Persistence is the key to success here. No Response If you don’t hear anything back from a magazine, don’t take it personally. They receive a huge number of submissions every day, and some can’t respond to them all. If the magazine specifies an average response time within their guidelines, then you should wait until that time has passed before sending a friendly email to check on the status of your submission.
Staying positive about submissions
Lastly, a few general pieces of advice to help keep you sane as you strive to get published...
Don’t give up It can be discouraging to receive rejections after previous rejections, but keep going. If you stop sending out your work, then you will definitely never be published.
Don’t get mad A rejection doesn’t mean that your work isn't any good, only that it wasn’t the right fit at the right time for that particular magazine. Don’t get all wound up when your work is turned down, and don’t burn any bridges by firing off an an angry response. Try sending your story or poem to another magazine instead or resubmit to the same magazine with new material later.
Take criticism If an editor offers you some feedback when they respond to your submission, you should probably take note. The fact that they took the time to respond to you personally is a very good sign, and their suggestions may help in the future. Critiques are not meant to chip away at you but to gain new insights and ramp up your skills.
Keep writing Above all, keep writing! Keep improving on the pieces you’ve already written. Keep coming up with new ideas and outlines as you traverse down life's road and engage in new events and experiences that inspire or affect you. The joy of eventually being published will feel that much sweeter!
I hope this guide has helped you in your journey to get published. It's a hard-fought battle trying to capture the attention of an editor or reader. Your work will indeed strike a chord with someone who will surely feel and appreciate your words and get you the recognition that you ultimately deserve.