I have been actively submitting to literary journals since 1986 and have spent nearly three years editing my own, so over the last two decades I have learned a thing or two about the submission process. Knowing the members of Scribophile as I do, I don’t expect any of this to be news, but hopefully it will serve as a helpful reminder of what works best.
Read the journal. Start by reading samples of the work published by the journal to which you’re interested in submitting. Is the work like yours in tone? Length? Genre? It seems so simple, but so many of us ignore this fact or just don’t do it out of sheer laziness (I’m painting myself with the guilty brush here as well). We see a clever journal name, or a pretty cover, or a list of contributors we’d like to join and we fire off our submission and end up costing ourselves more time because of continued rejections that might have been avoided had we given the journal a once over.
Read and follow the guidelines. Most journals—both print and on-line—have clearly stated submission guidelines. Follow them. Because of the focus and philosophy of LITNSACK, for example, my submission guidelines stated that poems had to be under 35 lines. Any poems that were submitted that were over that specification were instantly rejected—not because they weren’t good poems, but because they didn’t fit the magazine. Some writers say, “But if it’s good writing, they should publish it anyway.” Not so. It would be kind of like applying to your local Starbucks and handing them your resume to be a chemical engineer. You may be the best chemical engineer on the face of the planet, but unless you know how to make a latte, you’re useless to them.
Address editors by name. Editors are people and they like to feel special. They like to feel as if the writers who submit are familiar with the magazine and have done their homework. Getting a submission whose salutation says, “Dear Editor” is not awful but, being human, my interest is always more piqued when I see my name (spelled correctly, and that ain’t easy, folks. . .). Your work is important enough for you to take the time to find out to whom you are sending it. Be courteous and professional. Publishing (even if you don’t get paid for it as writer or editor) is a business and you should always act in a professional manner when dealing with submissions. If you’ve developed a relationship with an editor, it might be okay to converse in an informal tone but, otherwise, all correspondence should be formal and business-like. And on those rare occasions when the editor has not acted in a professional manner or sent you a rejection that seems rude or insulting, just thank them for their time and move on or, better yet, ignore it. Choose a different market. It’s not worth your time or energy to fire off an angry missive telling them what they can do with their inbox.
Be open to feedback and follow it. If, however, you are lucky enough to find an editor who will take the time to give you feedback, then listen to it. This doesn’t mean you have to agree with everything the editor says. Just understand that the editor has limited time and resources and he or she spent some of each to give you personalized, specific feedback on your work. That’s worth a listen. And although different people’s opinions are worth different levels of respect, most editors are doing what they do because they have an eye for what makes good writing, and they just may be trying to help you.
In the old days (long before the Interwebs), I would ask for my copy of Poet’s Market every Christmas and spend most of the beginning of the New Year doing my homework and planning which magazines might be receptive to my work. Today, however, the World Wide Web (and sites like Duotrope, a favorite watering hole among Scribbers, I know) makes it so much easier to find out what a publication wants or whether or not our work is appropriate.
Just remember: If you’re not going to do everything you can to increase of your chances of publishing, who will?