Denise O’Hagan

How to submit your work to literary magazines

Denise O’Hagan, editor of the An Astráil column at The Blue Nib, explains what you need to consider when submitting to literary journals.

This article was originally posted on The Blue Nib.

Why do you want to be published?

The answer may sound obvious – for personal satisfaction, public recognition and hopefully some extra money – but are you trying to chalk up an impressive list of published works to boost your image in the eyes of others, or wanting to immerse yourself in the literary world, journals included, to be inspired by and learn from the best to ultimately improve your own writing?

Don’t be afraid to question your own motivation. By all means try to raise your professional profile, but if you’re serious about writing, don’t let the desire to be a ‘published writer’ – gratifying though its status may be – distract you from the actual process of writing and the development of your writing skills.

To this end, it may be helpful to set a certain time aside each week to tackle your submissions, because submitting effectively takes time (more on that later).

How do you choose where to submit?

There are so many journals and magazines, with new ones springing up all the time both in print and online or both, that the choice can be overwhelming.

First, get a feel for the range of publications by acquainting yourself with the material they publish, their preferred genres, and the tastes of their editors (read their editorials). If you subscribe to free online summaries of existing publications, you’ll receive regular updates on submission calls which cuts down on your time spent trawling the internet for publishing outlets.

Two such excellent resources are:

Authors Publish: Run by US-based Emily Harstone, this reviews literary journals open to fee-free submissions, as well as listing themed calls for submissions:

Angela T Carr: The blog ‘A Dreaming Skin’ by Dublin-based poet Angela Carr provides monthly updates of publishers open for submission, as well as details of competitions:

Second, narrow down a list of publications to submit to, making sure that they publish in your genre. This may sound blindingly obvious – if you write ekphrastic poetry, there is little point submitting to a journal that specialises in horror – but many a submission is mismatched in just this way.

Third, make sure that your work is complete and final, and contains no typos or grammatical errors. Edit it, read and re-read it until you are completely satisfied. If necessary, enlist the fresh eye of an appropriate other person, because it is amazing what the best of writers miss in their own writing.

Have you really followed those guidelines?

Read them, and follow them! Many of us put our energy into the creative side of writing, and in the rush to get our submission off are tempted to skim the guidelines – at our own cost.

Imagine for a moment that you’re the editor on the receiving end of a string of submissions. You’re busy, maybe a little tired after a day’s work, and then you find yourself needing to query ambiguities, correcting misspelled words, addressing inconsistent or incorrect punctuation as well as dropping text into the required format, imposing single line spacing, inserting page breaks, restructuring bios to make sure they’re clear, concise and factual, chasing up a good headshot of the author rather than their pet, then cropping it when it arrives. Yes, in addition to the core job of selecting work for publication, you’ll do all that and more!

In short, editors are busy, and often carry out their editorial role in a volunteering capacity on top of their day jobs, so it pays not to make their lives needlessly complicated.

So be pedantic when it comes to those guidelines. Read them properly, and follow them precisely. Typically, they cover these questions:

  • What is the genre of submissions elicited (e.g. short fiction, poetry, essays) and is a particular angle sought after (e.g. fiction which deals with life on the margins of society, poetry relating to COVID-19, essays on the emigration experience)?
  • Do submissions need to be unpublished (which often includes on social media platforms), and are simultaneous submissions acceptable?
  • Is there a maximum word count (in fiction and non-fiction) or number of lines (in poetry)?
  • Are there any formatting requirements (e.g. do you need to use a specific font and line spacing)?
  • Do submissions need to be presented blind (i.e. with no identification)?
  • How should the author bio be presented (e.g. have you kept it factual, used the third person, and observed the maximum number of words, typically 50)?
  • Does an author headshot need to be supplied and, if so, what are the requirements (e.g. resolution, shape)?
  • Is a cover letter required and, if so, what should it contain (e.g. title for your submission, a bio, author’s contact details)?

Have you kept track of your submissions?

Keep careful note of the journals to which you’ve submitted, what you submitted, when you submitted it, and when you can reasonably expect to hear a response.

Many publishers insist on accepted work being previously unpublished, and some expressly say they do not accept simultaneous submissions. Therefore, you need to regularly update your own records, making sure that, if necessary, you notify a publisher that your work has been accepted elsewhere and need to withdraw your submission.

What to do after submitting

Submitting is not for the faint-hearted. You may have to wait weeks, even months, to learn the fate of your submission. In some cases, you may not hear at all – some publishers simply state that those applicants who do not hear by a certain time are unsuccessful. If this default signal for unsuccessful submissions seems heartless to you, think back to the image of the busy editor described above!

An increasing number of publications use ‘Submittable’ – a submissions platform designed to facilitate submissions to journals, magazines, competitions and awards worldwide – which enables you to check in at any time to see the status of your submissions (but beware – its up-to-datedness depends on the input of each journal). If you have not heard after the time that the journal in question says it takes, a polite email should resolve the question.

If your submission is accepted for publication, congratulations! Be sure to share the news on your social media accounts, and remember to thank the publication in which it is published. Let this inspire you to keep writing and encourage others to do so too.

If your submission is rejected, don’t be discouraged, because the reasons are manifold and may have less to do with the quality of your submission than the sheer volume of submissions received by a publisher. The hard reality is that, especially if you are just starting out, most of your submissions will be rejected, so build up resilience, keep refining your art, and keep submitting. And remember, good work tends to get published, eventually!

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