What does it take to get published in a literary journal? We get a lot of questions along these lines from the writers in our workshops. Luck, talent and literary connections help, sure, but mostly what it takes is sustained effort. The writers we know who have been the most successful at getting their stuff in print are the ones who approached it like a job—submitting and submitting and papering their bathrooms with the rejection notices. That said, there are some basic things you can do (in addition to working to improve your writing) to tip the odds of an acceptance in your favour.
- Read the journals you’re considering submitting to. Editors are not just looking for good work, they’re looking for work that suits their taste, brand and readership, e.g. if their image is gritty and raw and you submit something subtle and lyrical, it’s going to be rejected no matter how good it is. Don’t waste your time and theirs, do your homework. Not sure where to start? Check out: the ‘Great Places to Submit’ posts on our blog; our Facebook page (we post new publishing opportunities every Saturday); sites such as Duotrope, The Review Review, Poets & Writers, and New Pages; and newsletters such as Literistic.
- Nail your opening—your story or poem may be amazing, but some editors will not read further if you don’t grab them in the first few lines. It’s as simple as that.
- Carefully follow the guidelines for submissions and proofread the hell out of your work. Unless the journal gives their own formatting guidelines, use the standard manuscript format (SMF). Don’t give editors a reason to reject. Use your word processing programme’s spelling and grammar checker or consider an app like Grammarly, and then have a sharp-eyed friend read it to make sure no typos slipped through.
- Include a cover letter and keep it brief. Address it to the appropriate editor and include the title of the piece or pieces you are submitting. It’s great if you can refer to a recent poem or story from their magazine that you particularly liked and that made you feel like your work would be a good fit. Also, not all journals request it, but it’s good practice to include a short bio written in the third person after your letter. Include: if you’ve been published before (don’t give a complete list, just name the three or four of the most prestigious journals), any relevant education or training (e.g., ‘I’ve studied with the International Writers’ Collective in Amsterdam’), and where you live. If you don’t want to include a bio, you can incorporate the information in your cover letter, but this is not the place to talk about your piece, your thoughts on writing or your ambitions. Let your work speak for itself. Don’t forget to proofread!
- Be persistent, methodical and polite. It’s not uncommon to receive 30 rejections on a piece before you get an acceptance. Keep track of what, where and when you submitted—you can use a basic spreadsheet or a platform like Duotrope—and try to always have a piece under consideration at a number of journals (while respecting simultaneous submissions policies). Most journals will let you know in their guidelines how much time to let elapse before it’s appropriate to query. When a piece is accepted, thank the editor and make sure to immediately inform any other journals that might be considering it. If you receive a personalised rejection with feedback on your work, it’s also nice to thank the editor.