Submitting Short Fiction
If you want to make a successful career as an author of literary fiction, one of the best places to start is the short story. It can be a stepping stone. As Ray Bradbury said, “You can write a short story in two hours. Two hours a day, you have a novel in a year.” Many bestselling authors got their start writing short fiction and publishing in magazines.
What follows is a step-by-step guide for writers of realistic or “literary” short fiction. I refer to this genre as “realistic short fiction” because I’m not a fan of the idea that belonging to this category somehow makes a story more “literary” i.e. more truthful, more literate, or more serious. If you’re writing science fiction, fantasy, or other speculative genres, check out the genre edition of this article.
This is part of a series of articles for new writers who’ve never sent their work out before. While everyone’s process is different, I hope these tips and tricks can be a starting point for you to figure out your submissions process and start getting your work into the world.
1. Finish the Story
“A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”
— Flannery O’Connor
Okay, I know it sounds pretty simple. But the truth is many writers fail in their submissions because they didn’t complete the story. A piece of short fiction needs a lot of bones to hold it up — it needs a satisfying ending, a compelling voice, and a structure that’s unique. But the biggest thing it needs is to be complete.
What is a finished story?
A story is finished when you feel it’s ready to get out into the world. You may just be exhausted by it, completely tired of looking at it. Or, you may feel completely nervous about sending it out except for the fact that you’ve gotten a lot of feedback and your critique partners feel the story is finished. Every writer approaches this differently.
As an editor, a story is complete for me when there’s nothing stopping me in my tracks. The “stopping point” could be a lot of things — it could mean grammar or spelling. It could be a confusing line that makes me pause and wonder what the author means. It could be an ending that falls flat or a beginning that doesn’t draw me in.
Editors read hundreds of stories a day. A former slush reader at the now-defunct but once-powerhouse Tin House journal reported that their average number of submissions in a month was over a thousand. Crazy Horse reports 500–600 submissions a month. Your story needs to grab the editor and keep them reading, or you’ll never stand out in the slush pile (a term used to describe the current submissions in the queue at a journal).
The truth is, you have about three paragraphs in a short story . . . to capture that editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story.
— Nancy Kress
A finished story has been through critique or been read by a trusted writer friend (not a family member or someone who loves your work, but someone who is not emotionally invested in the work) or a freelance editor. It’s been through the drafting, revising, and critique phase. It’s ready to go out in the world and be seen.
How do I know when a story is ready?
“I went for years not finishing anything. Because, of course, when you finish something you can be judged.”
— Erica Jong
You may not know this, not in the satisfying, deep-in-your-bones kind of way. The truth is, you shouldn’t sit too long on stories or spend too much time revising them. They will lose any punch they might have had if you overpolish them. The best kinds of stories are a little imperfect — by which I mean the reader doesn’t want to be shown how hard the writer worked on them. They should feel natural and have a bit of life about them.
I’ll describe it this way. If you look at your story and think “I’ve done my best here, and I can’t do any more,” then it’s done. Send it out. Now. Not tomorrow, not next week. Right now.
Because someone out there needs to read your work, and they need it today, not in a year, or when you finally feel you are ready. It’s a bit like having a kid — you’re never going to be fully ready emotionally, but you can still editor-proof the heck of out that story.
2. Format Your Manuscript
“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
— Octavia Butler, Bloodchild and Other Stories
If you’re writing literary fiction, I am dismayed to tell you that formatting is not quite as simple as it sounds. My experience is that while genre magazines generally use something called Standard Manuscript Format, literary fiction journals tend to have their own whacky set of rules.
That is why I’m going to reiterate point #5 in this list: Always follow the guidelines.
The majority of literary journals use some spin on Standard MS Format. They will usually ask for:
- 12-point Times New Roman font
- 1" margins
- Double spacing
- Numbered pages
Most literary journals want something called anonymized submissions or anonymous submissions. This means they want no identifying information (your name, address, email, etc.) anywhere in the file, including in the NAME of the document. (Always use Word .doc, .docx, .rtf, or .pdf depending on what the journal wants. Again — read the guidelines.)
Also, you’ll notice I suggest formatting a manuscript as an early step, not later on (i.e. right before submitting.) This is because I find if you have to stop and format a manuscript, you’ll get distracted and forget to submit. The key here is to make formatting part of your habit. The story is done, the final polish is to format.
The average number of stories rejected because of improper formatting is around 6%, and 10% for not following the guidelines. It would be a shame to join that number with a story you worked hard on.
3. Research Publications
If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
— Albert Einstein
Okay. You’ve written this gorgeous, mind-blowing story, and now you’re ready to send it out.
Choosing where to send your story is a subtle art. Here are a few things to think about:
- Does my story fit a certain audience? (Children, teens, LGBTQIA+)
- Does my story fit certain themes? (Many anthologies are themed, and magazines often host “theme” issues. These can range from the simple, “Divorce” to the more ephemeral, “Bodies and Borders.” Make a short list of possible themes in your story. This is also a great revision technique to help you understand your work better.)
- What are my dream publications? (Submit to those first.)
- Who publishes work I like to read?
Other factors include word count (some markets don’t take stories under 1,000 words or over 5,000 words, for example) and pay (I suggest submitting to paying markets first).
Resources for Submissions
Great resources abound for researching publications and calls for submissions. Duotrope is a $50/year subscription service that allows you to keep track of your submissions to journals, magazines, and agents (now in beta mode) and also offers a wealth of useful tools, such as an upcoming deadline calendar, Stats on publication responses such as who has the slowest response rate (I’m looking at you, Ecotone) or who is the hardest to get into (currently held by Clarkesworld). I’ve found Duotrope to be immensely useful for finding out how long a journal normally takes to respond, when to query about a submission, finding journals that don’t charge fees, and searching for new contests or anthologies.
Submission Grinder is a similar website for writers on a budget. It’s entirely free to use and tends to skew heavily towards speculative markets. Recently, the Grinder added poetry markets, but I’ve found that because this is a new feature, the numbers are less accurate than Duotrope.
Query Tracker is similar to the Grinder and Duotrope, but for writers of novels who are seeking representation from an agent.
All of these services are user-generated, so you may find errors or discrepancies, but they’re still a great way to track your submissions.
My favorite free resource is Submittable. It’s a tool that magazines use to receive incoming submissions. When you read the guidelines, you’ll see a big “submit here” button that takes you to a place where you can register for a free account. While most magazines are using Submittable these days, some still use email or paper submissions so it’s a good idea to still keep track of your submissions in some other way.
What I love about Submittable is its “Discover” feature. This is another great tool for finding upcoming deadlines and contests.
Tools for Evaluating and Finding Magazines
Clifford Garstang’s Literary Magazine Rankings is a great resource for tiering your submissions, i.e., creating a list of award-winning magazines to target. This website lists the magazines who received the most Pushcart Prizes.
New Pages provides listings of upcoming calls for submissions, contests, reviews of magazines, book reviews, bookstores, and other useful tips for writers. They also have a fairly robust e-mail newsletter.
The Review Review can help you figure out where to send a piece. Check out their reviews of literary journals and magazines. This can be helpful for writers who want to send their work out but don’t have time to sit down and read every back issue of a journal.
Calls for Submissions
I love Entropy Magazine’s Where to Submit simple listing of upcoming submission calls, posted every other month. They also list residencies, fellowships, conferences, and other opportunities.
Follow Aerogramme Writers’ Studio on Facebook and Twitter to receive updates on upcoming calls for submissions, residencies, conferences, contests, and other writer resources.
Another fantastic list of submission calls, Literary Mama’s Blog has a monthly listing of upcoming deadlines.
If you like to get your market fix in print, subscribe to Poets & Writers magazine. Each issue contains a listing of upcoming opportunities for writers. The website is also a valuable source with many useful lists and databases.
Evaluating a Magazine’s Quality & Fit
I want to say that my caveat is quality is highly subjective. What you enjoy in a magazine may be different than the next person. But here are a few basic things to look for:
- Check the publication’s website. Has it been updated recently? Are the guidelines clear about payment and response time? Do you recognize any of the names they’ve published? How’s the visual aesthetic? (I usually steer clear of magazines that look like their website was last updated in the 90s, with the exception of a few major mags that seem to have stuck with that vibe for continuity.)
- Read a few stories. Each publication has its own vibe. If YOU don’t like the work they publish, it’s unlikely they’ll like your work in return.
- It’s useful to get on Twitter/Facebook and look at a publication’s feed: Are they posting regularly? Do they engage with readers and authors? Follow the editors of the publication if you want, but do so politely. (Don’t contact editors randomly and ask what they’re looking for!)
- Look at your favorite author’s publication credits. Who do you like to read? Where are they getting published? It may feel daunting to think of putting your own work on that level, but your story deserves it.
- Does the journal have a hard sell list? This is a list of content/subject matter that the journal won’t necessarily reject but will rarely accept. (For a great example of this, see Clarkesworld’s submissions.)
It’s useful to create a list of your “top tier” publications. These may be magazines that pay extremely well, like The Sun Magazine, which pays a whopping $300–2,000 for fiction, or magazines that regularly perform well in awards like Ploughshares. These are your “send to first” publications. Then, you can make a second or even third tier of places to send after you’ve hit your top contenders. Tiering helps make your life easier — you send one story out and when it gets back to you, send it to the next place on your list that’s open.
Here is my list of top-tier publications for realistic fiction:
- The New Yorker
- One Story
- McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern
- A Public Space
- Electric Literature
- Smoke Long Quarterly
- Paris Review
This is just my own personal list. It changes based on which magazines are open for submissions and as new markets appear. For more help with tiering, Clifford Garstang has a fantastic yearly run-down of which magazines won the most Pushcart Prize Nominations, Erika Krouse has a list of ranked journals on her website that’s very useful, and The Review Review has a list of other ranking resources.
Look, you could go mad trying to read every magazine that is out there. We’ll go into this more later, but essentially making yourself a list helps cut out the feeling that there are just TOO MANY magazines. Tier and save your sanity.
4. Create a Cover Letter — And Don’t Overdo It
The first thing I’ll tell you is relax. Cover letters shouldn’t stress you out, because they’re relatively simple to write. An effective cover letter is mostly professional, a little personal, and concise.
Let me preface this section by saying once again, read the guidelines. The majority of literary journal editors do not even read cover letters. Most journals have their own requirements for what they want in your cover letter. Some will ask you to NOT include a cover letter. When in doubt, follow these simple rules.
Your cover letter SHOULD include:
- Your name, address, email address, and phone number (although editors rarely use this last anymore.)
- The name of your story and word count.
- Your top three publications, if any, in a short bio. This can include awards, if they are relevant.
Some journals may ask for a description of the story. Only include additional information if the guidelines ask for it. Address your letter to the editor of the publication by name, if that information is available. Otherwise, “Dear Editors” is fine. If you’ve met the editor recently, it’s okay to say something like, “Thanks for chatting with me at x event…” but most editors might not even read that.
Your cover letter should absolutely not include any of the following:
- Boasts about how you’ve followed the guidelines perfectly
- Irrelevant information or wordy screeds about why you wrote the story
- Too many publication credits
Carve Magazine has a fantastic guide to cover letters over on their website if you’re looking for further guidance.
Here is a sample cover letter:
Dear Editor Name,
Please see attached my story, “Title.” This piece is x,xxx words. My work has appeared in x, x, and x publication. I won the x year award for x.
Thank you for your consideration,
Writing a Bio
Writing a bio for the purposes of a submission is quite easy. The point is just to say, “here’s what I’ve written.”
The format should be: “My writing has appeared in x, x, and x publication. I’m a recipient of x award. I attended x workshop.”
But there’s also a second bio for the purposes of publication. That bio can list your achievements, past publications, where you live, and your education. Here are a few of my favorites from successful authors:
Jericho Brown won the American Book Award for his first book, Please. He also received the Whiting Writers’ Award and a Radcliffe Fellowship at Harvard University. His poems have appeared in the American Poetry Review, jubilat, and A Public Space.
Saeed Jones, a 2010 Pushcart Prize Nominee, received his MFA in Creative Writing at Rutgers University–Newark. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in publications like Hayden’s Ferry Review, storySouth, Jubilat, West Branch, Weave, The Collagist, and Linebreak. His chapbook, When the Only Light Is Fire, is forthcoming from Sibling Rivalry Press. His blog For Southern Boys Who Consider Poetry is dedicated to emerging queer poets of color.
Vi Khi Nao won the 2014 Nightboat Poetry Prize for her poetry collection The Old Philosopher. Coffee House Press just published her novel Fish in Exile.
Kathryn Schulz joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2015. In 2016, she won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing and a National Magazine Award for “The Really Big One,” her story on the seismic risk in the Pacific Northwest. Previously, she was the book critic for New York, the editor of the environmental magazine Grist, and a reporter and editor at the Santiago Times. She was a 2004 recipient of the Pew Fellowship in International Journalism and has reported from Central and South America, Japan, and the Middle East. She is the author of “Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error” (2010).
You can see that these bios range from short to wordy. If you don’t have a lot of publication credits yet, it’s okay. You may even want to say, “I have never been published.” Editors want to discover the next new amazing voice. In my experience, they are happy to hear from new writers.
5. Follow the Guidelines
The easiest way to irritate an editor is to not follow the guidelines. Most publications will list these under “submissions” on their website. Read the guidelines! Then, follow them. Easy peasy, right?
If you’re new to this, you may need some guidance in what guidelines mean. Here are the guidelines for the venerable magazine The New Yorker, broken down:
Please send your submissions (as PDF attachments) to email@example.com, or by mail to Fiction Editor, The New Yorker, 1 World Trade Center, New York, NY 10007. (This tells you where to send your work. Most editors prefer to receive electronic submissions.)
We read all submissions within ninety days, and will contact you if we’re interested in publishing your material. We regret that, owing to the volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to call or e-mail unless a story is accepted for publication. If you have not heard from us within ninety days, please assume that we will not be able to publish your manuscript. (This means that the editors will NOT send you a rejection letter. If you haven’t heard after 90 days, assume you have been rejected.)
Submissions sent by regular mail will not be returned, so please do not send original copies of your work. (You wouldn’t do that, would you lovely author? Always keep backups of your writing!)
These guidelines are pretty slim. They don’t tell you whether simultaneous submissions are accepted (generally literary mags are okay with this), or any info on how to format your submission (use the above guidelines if you aren’t sure). Let’s look at a better example from Granta Magazine:
When we moved from a paper system to an electronic one, the level of submissions to Granta increased exponentially. After long discussions, we have decided to trial a service fee of £3/$4, equivalent to printing and postage, for prose submissions only. We will not be charging for poetry or art and photography submissions. (Many literary magazines are now charging submission fees. These are small fees that supposedly cover the cost of using Submittable. I could have a whole ‘nother article ranting about this, but just keep in mind: Can you afford multiple submission fees? If you can’t, it’s fine to just not submit here. There are plenty of other journal-fish in the sea.)
We will be open for non-fiction and fiction submissions during the following periods: 21 January until 21 February 2019, 28 April until 28 May 2019. Due to the unprecedented number of poetry submissions received in October 2018, we will not be opening again for poetry until 28 April 2019. Thank you for your understanding. (These are the date they are open for submission. Don’t send outside these dates or your submission will probably be ignored.)
Please submit only one complete story or essay, or up to three poems at a time. Multiple submissions will not be read. (Multiple submissions are when you send more than one story to a journal. Most journals don’t like this.)
Fiction, non-fiction, poetry and art will be considered for both our print and online editions, unless you specifically state otherwise in your cover letter. (So, some writers are finicky about wanting their work to appear only in print publications. That’s fine, but I see it as limiting the scope of reach and impact your work can have. It’s up to you, but I always choose to be considered for either print or online publications.)
We only publish original material, i.e. first-ever publication. (Don’t send something you had published elsewhere.)
We cannot run a piece that has already appeared on the web or elsewhere in print. (Yes, this includes your blog, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.)
Please include a cover letter stating where your work has been published before, if relevant. Please do not submit book manuscripts, academic essays or reviews. Please only submit work written in English. Please use double-spacing. (You’ll notice this is the only note on formatting. Again, when in doubt use the above guidelines.)
Please note that we are not in a position to comment on your work. (Don’t expect a personal response.)
6. Decide on a Submission Tracking System
There are a thousand and one ways to track submissions, and it’s quite easy to get carried away with them. My absolute favorite #1 method for writers of realistic fiction is Duotrope. I know, it costs moolah. But Duotrope has the best range of resources and data on submissions out there for lit fic writers. It allows you to file your submission, add story title, word count, and any other information you can think of.
But wait! You’re probably thinking, “Why do I need to track a story if I’m only sending it to one place at a time?”
Well, my dear new writer, the truth is that publication in literary markets is intensely competitive. The most successful writers are out there submitting multiple pieces at once, to multiple journals at once. That lovely term “simultaneous submissions” is your new best friend. If you’re doing this writing thing well, you should have at any point several stories that could feasibly be publication-ready. So, a tracker is a great system for following the multiple stories you have out at any given time.
As with any writing advice, this is dependent on your own personal style. I know writers who send out one story only at a time until it is published, and then they start on the next one. I know writers who have any number of stories, up to ten or twenty or even thirty out on submission at once. Do what works for you and do it well.
There are other methods that work well for submission tracking too. Here are some I’ve used or seen others use to success:
- Create a submission tracking spreadsheet. Customize as needed.
- Use a simple Word document. Type the details of each submission and add to it as you go.
- Use a notebook and a pen. Cross out stories with notes from rejections as you go.
- Throw stories into the void and then weep. (Just kidding. This is not a good method. The void has been known to steal stories and submit them under its own pseudonym.)
I’ve even seen writers who exchange submissions. They give their work to another writer to submit and they return the favor with that person’s stories! There’s no wrong way to track submissions. Just remember to track them so you don’t accidentally break guidelines.
The above image is a snapshot from my current Duotrope submissions, with titles scrubbed out. I won’t go into too much detail, but you can see it includes the date submitted, the current status (a “P” means pending), How many days it’s been out, and stats on return times for that magazine.
It can be a lot of fun to track submission details and data but just remember not to get too carried away. The focus of your time should be on writing and revision!
Thoughts on Submission Volume
If you write a lot, you may have a huge backlog of stories. This means you’ll be sending more out. If you’re keen on getting published and eventually making a career of writing, I’d say you should send out things as much as you can. Submissions are a numbers game.
For example, here is my rate of submissions vs. acceptance on Duotrope:
These numbers are inflated because I send out a lot of poetry, which is a whole different beast. Look at fiction specifically. In the past 12 months, I sent out 100 submissions. Only 7.5% of those were accepted. Yet, this is still higher than the average acceptance ratio on Duotrope. I can tell you those 100 submissions are only a small quotient of the stories I write in a year. That’s because I tend to write in larger volumes. But my rate would be higher if I wrote less, but spent more time on those stories.
I know writers who aim for 100 or 200 rejections a year, while there are others who send out a smaller number and have a higher acceptance rate. So much of this is personal to you and your volume.
I will say your odds for acceptances go up the more you submit and the more you write. It makes sense because you’re growing at the skills of being a writer. I don’t mean you have to write 100 stories a year, but that the more time you spend on your craft the more you will grow and get better. So you could be working on only 10 stories a year, but those 10 stories end up teaching you just as much as the person who wrote 100.
Think about your goals as a writer. Does submitting serve those goals? How much do you need to be submitting to achieve them? What can you reasonably expect out of yourself? Your own process should be the guiding light here.
At this point in the process, you may be wondering: Is this even worth the work? Yes, submitting is hard. Writing is hard. Rejection sucks. But the end goal — getting your work into the hands of readers — is very satisfying. You will have moments where you can’t deal with submissions, heck, I’ve had months where I don’t submit, some people have years.
In the end, the most you can do is write the best story possible, then send it to the best publication for that story. How you get there is up to you.
7. Don’t Self-Reject
“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.”
— Neil Gaiman, from The View from the Cheap Seats
I am going to tell you something important now. Your voice matters. Your story matters. You matter. You are literally made up of matter — the stuff that drives the universe.
So if you for a second think you’re not worthy, I want to tell you how much that breaks my heart.
Every writer starts out with a story they want to tell. That story is shaped by who we are as people, what we care about, the people in our lives, our own histories and myths wrapped up in this strange skinsuit we call human. When we write, we transmit a universe of ideas out to other humans. And sometimes, they really really need them. Like in a life or death way.
Have you ever read something that changed your life? Or made you see the world in a new way?
That’s why what we do as writers matters. We’re a lifeline for seekers and dreamers. So when you self-reject, you break that tether.
Self-rejection is the act of saying, “I’m not good enough.” It’s not sending a story out to a theme issue because you think it won’t be “enough,” even when the call fits the story. It’s seeing others succeed and feeling deflated or jealous, so you stop sending your own work out. It’s worrying an editor won’t value your work or will ask you to change it, so you don’t send it.
The discussion around self-rejection has focused on marginalized writers, for the most part. The world has taught marginalized people their voices don’t matter, and that is devastating. There is no easy solution to the paradigm we live in where the most vulnerable voices are not heard. Many editors in SFF are trying very hard to reach those writers and change this. Author and poet Rose Lemberg wrote a stellar essay about this topic on Patreon I suggest you read if you struggle with self-rejection. It breaks down why this happens and how to combat it in your submissions process.
I also see new writers struggling a great deal with self-rejection. Many writers start out writing for themselves. After a while, they begin to feel they can share their work with others and they get involved in workshops or critique groups. Forming a community can be a fantastic way to battle self-rejection. When you hear an established author say, “I was afraid to send this story out,” or “I didn’t know how it would be received,” you realize every writer struggles in some way with these worries.
I cannot tell you whether a story will get accepted. I cannot tell you whether you’ll reach success, that ambiguous, flighty dream. But I can tell you, you are not alone. I believe the act of submitting your work can be transformative. By putting your words in someone else’s hands, you are made vulnerable but very often that person is made stronger. So it matters that you get your words out in the world. They are needed.
Create it. Send it. Create more. It is hard. It is painful. It is scary. Acceptance is never guaranteed and might be harder to obtain. But — we need these voices. We need our own voices. Don’t self-reject.
8. Go Do Something Else
Okay. You’ve polished, primped, and perfected your manuscript. You’ve formatted it to the guidelines. You’ve sent it off to your favorite publication.
I suggest you go take a nap. Go for a walk. Ride a bike. Start a new book. Meet a friend for coffee. Now, after you’ve done something else, literally anything else, your mind has sufficiently relaxed from the near-panic state it entered while you were hitting “send” on that submission.
Now, go write another story.
The best cure for rejectomancy malaise is to write something new. Resist the urge to check your submission tracker or the submissions portal. Do not stalk the editor on Twitter. Do not second-guess yourself and rewrite the story! Go do something else.
I’ve found that many successful authors excel at one thing: Forgetting to worry. They send work off and then they go write the next thing, and this is how one builds a career in short fiction. Successful authors are always juggling at least three things at once.
You have noticed on my Duotrope screenshot that a lot of my submissions have been out for a long time. Yes, those numbers are correct. Submitting to publishers of realistic fiction is a slow and arduous task. That’s because the reality of publishing is that it’s slow. Like, excruciatingly slow. There are many markets who don’t bother to send rejection letters. The average turnaround time at most markets is 90+ days. Many markets take an average of a year to respond. I don’t have a good response to why this is the case, other than to say, I’m sorry. By contrast, most science fiction and fantasy markets have super-fast turnarounds.
But if you sit around waiting, you will likely begin to worry. And that worry will gnaw at you until you have to open your manuscript, just to see that it still exists. And then you’ll begin to get anxious and start rereading the manuscript that you know you worked hard on. Then you’ll find one teeny-weeny, insubstantial typo and you’ll think, “I have to withdraw now!”
Trust me, it’s easier to just go do something else!
(In the event that you really do want to withdraw something, like say you realize your story has a glaring error, you can. But editors notoriously HATE this, so please be careful with your submissions. Double and triple check them so you don’t have to get to this point. Don’t submit work that isn’t truly ready.)
9. Be Prepared for a Lot of Rejection, and Some Acceptances
“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don’t consider it rejected. Consider that you’ve addressed it ‘to the editor who can appreciate my work’ and it has simply come back stamped ‘Not at this address’. Just keep looking for the right address.”
— Barbara Kingsolver
If you’re going to submit your work, you’re going to get rejected. Let me put that another way:
You will fail.
But what matters is how you fail. This is going to get hokey before it gets wise. Failure is a necessary part of writing and submissions. You were with me up there when I showed you my acceptance rate, right? Well, that means that every other story I sent was rejected.
I have received 353 rejections in my time as a short story writer. 112 of those were personal (They had notes on why they liked my story) or “please send us something again!” rejections. That’s a whole lot of rejection.
But let me back up. Maybe we need to establish what a rejection IS first. A rejection is a “no” from the publication you submitted to. Many publications use “tiered” rejections, which means that they send a standard, form letter to most writers who submit and are rejected. Then, they send a more personal letter to writers whose work they enjoyed.
Here are the rejection letters for Black Warrior Review, tiered:
Thank you for giving us at Black Warrior Review the opportunity to consider your work. The editors have read your submission and regret that it does not meet our present needs.
We wish you the best of luck placing your manuscript elsewhere.
The Editors of Black Warrior Review
Thank you for your interest in Black Warrior Review, and for taking the time to send us your work. Unfortunately, after careful review, we have decided the submission isn’t a good fit for us at this time.
That said, I want to note that we read this with interest, and we encourage you to try us again in the future.
Black Warrior Review
(These are taken from the Rejection Wiki website, a fantastic resource for submitters.)
Pay close attention to your rejection letters. Even a small change in wording can mean that you were very close to the top of the slush pile. Track which publications like your work, but don’t be too worried if you don’t get a lot of personal responses right away. It takes time to build relationships with editors. As you get better, they will notice that in your submissions.
Revise & Resubmit
Sometimes, you will receive what is called an R&R or Revise & Resubmit. This is when a publication likes your piece but feels it’s not quite ready for publication. The editor will send you an email with feedback, sometimes from other members of the editorial team, asking you to make revisions and then resubmit the piece.
This can vary greatly by publication. There are some editors who feel that they only want to accept pieces that they feel need no changes. But the best editors are the ones who are willing to work with writers to achieve the best story possible.
If you receive an R&R, these are some things to consider:
- Sit on the revisions for a few days. (Let the editor know you’re considering the edits and then take a break.)
- Re-read your piece and think about the suggested changes. Do they fit your goals for the story? Do the changes make it a better story?
- Ask a friend or critique partner to read the edits. It helps to have an outside perspective.
- Ask questions. Editors are happy to give more insight if something in their edits doesn’t quite add up.
- It’s okay to push back. If you don’t agree with an edit, explain to the editor why. This is a conversation with give and take.
- It’s okay to say no. This can be heartbreaking. Yes, publishing a story would be really great! But if the edits don’t fit your vision for the work, ultimately it’s your name on the piece.
Dealing with Rejection
There are days when I could care less that I got a rejection letter. I’ll mark it in my tracker, archive the email into a folder, and then send the story out again. But some stories are special to me and it hurts when they get rejected. Some days I feel exhausted by the whole process above, the work involved in submitting, and the mere fact that I am a small drop of water in a big pond.
On those days, I often treat myself to a frozen yogurt. Everyone has their own process for dealing. Commiserating on Twitter is a common pastime. However you push past the rejection blues, it’s just important that you keep going. Writing is about perseverance. No one is going to submit that story again for you. Processes are just that — a way to keep yourself organized and motivated. But they don’t fix the internal struggle of “Am I good enough?” and “Will I ever get an acceptance?”
There were whole years where I was submitting and getting no acceptances. I kept telling myself, “If I just get one pro acceptance, I’ll be happy.” I kept sending work out, writing new stories, trying to stay focused and motivated. I went to local writing events and talked to other writers. I listened to podcasts and read books about writing. I threw myself into it hardcore. I got more and more personal responses and hold requests. I just needed that one acceptance, if I could get that, I’d be happy.
Then, dear reader, I did.
The Elusive Acceptance
Before I get into the question of “Now what?” I’d like to break down the process of what happens after you get an acceptance.
1. An editor will send you an email saying your piece has been accepted. Here is a sample email showing what that might look like:
Thank you for submitting to x magazine! We were moved by “TITLE” and would like to publish it in an upcoming issue. Please contact us to let us know if this work is still available to us. We hope to add your work to our magazine.
2. The email will likely include steps for what you need to do next. Sometimes this involves sending a new or updated bio. Sometimes they will ask you to send a headshot/photo. Often, there will be a contract to sign. (I am planning a separate article on contracts for short fiction. If you’re interested in seeing a model contract, SFWA has a good example.) The editor may ask for your Paypal info or address to send payment.
3. The email will hopefully include a planned date of publication. If not, it’s fine to ask the editor when they think the story might come out. If there are changes to the production schedule, the editor will let you know.
4. The editor may provide you with suggested edits for your piece. Generally, after you receive an acceptance, the edits made will be small. But there are editors who tend to lean toward making line edits that can be substantial. When you receive edits on a piece that’s planned for publication, read them carefully. Make sure that you agree with the edits. It’s perfectly fine to push back on them if you’re not sure or you have questions.
5. The story will go live online or else appear in print! Woohoo! Victory whiskey ensues! (Or cake.)
6. You will, hopefully, get paid. Most publications send out payment either on publication or up to 30 days afterward. If this isn’t clear in the acceptance email, it’s fine to ask the editor.
In my experience, the difference between “literary” journals and genre publications as far as acceptances is two-fold:
- “Literary” magazines rarely pay writers. If they do, it is more often a token or small payment. This is not always true but very common.
- “Literary” magazines are notorious for not providing terms for rights, payment, and contracts. It’s always fine to ask about these things. You might ask, “Will there be a contract for this publication?” or “What rights do you take when you publish my work?”
It’s a fantastic feeling to get an acceptance. You may find yourself dancing around the room like a circus bear. After the contract has been signed and you’ve told all your friends, you may find yourself thinking, “Now what?” By which I mean, the first acceptance is the best one. It’s the one that you’ll look back on fondly for years, even if it wasn’t your dream market, and feel a bit of sweet nostalgia for. But afterward, you may find yourself wondering what to do next.
The goal here is not one acceptance. If you want to make your short fiction something worthwhile, to be successful, to have people know your work, one acceptance is never enough. It’s a stepping stone to the next acceptance, and the one after that, and the one after that.
Promote Your Story
One way to boost your work as a short story writer in the genre community is to market your stories. Here is a short list of tips for marketing your work:
- Put a link to the story on your website. (You have a website, right dear new writer?) If it’s a print story, try to link to where people can buy that issue.
- Shout it to the rooftops on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms.
- Create a blog post about how you got the idea for your story.
- Share your story again when award season comes in January.
- Send your story to reprint markets (some journals will accept previously published works.) This is a great way to get your story in front of a new audience.
10. Don’t be a Jerk
Look, I know rejection is hard. It sucks when you’ve put a lot of work into a thing and then you get this form letter that feels…almost callous. It’s so short and it just says in plain terms, “no.” No matter how kind the rejection, the truth is it’s still a rejection.
But you have to look at the other side. Editors receive so many submissions a day, they cannot give a personal reply to everyone. A form reply is not a personal attack on your work. Reading is subjective. Editors are human beings who sift through hundreds of stories a day. They may be tired, hungry, or just in a bad mood. They might be in the mood for a story that’s uplifting or has a bit of bite to it, or maybe a mournful, haunting tale. As a writer, it’s really difficult to come to grips with the fact that an editor’s response to your work depends on their mood, tastes, and personal interests.
The next editor who reads your story may love it. Getting acceptances is mercurial — it’s like you’re trying to find the perfect person to adopt your story. You wouldn’t want it to be in the hands of someone who doesn’t love it as much as you. Not only do you need to write a good story, but it has to find the right editor who will love it and care for it.
Despite all of the harsh truths of publishing, it’s never okay to be a jerk. Your momma’s golden rule applies here. Treat editors as you’d like them to treat you. Be nice to them. Be polite, be professional. If you think they won’t tell other editors or remember your name just because it’s email, trust me, you are mistaken. The writing community is small. Writers talk to each other, and editors talk to each other.
This article has mostly focused on Things You Should Do to get your work published. But just in case you need more clarity, here is a list of things you should never do while submitting your short fiction:
- Don’t submit a story that’s not ready.
- Don’t submit a genre the publication does not publish.
- Don’t be annoying — don’t email a publication several times to ask about your submission or bother the editor on Twitter.
- Don’t harass editors. Don’t stalk them or follow them around at cons.
- Don’t respond to rejections, just don’t do it. (You don’t need to say “thanks anyway,” either. Editors are busy. No reply is necessary.)
- Don’t ignore the guidelines (if a publication says “no simultaneous submissions” then you need to be courteous and follow those rules.)
- For the love of Pete, I cannot believe I have to say this, Do Not Send Dick Pics. You will be publicly shamed.
- Don’t send stories that include hate speech, images (most SFF publications don’t take work that includes images anyhow), child molestation, explicit rape, explicit sex (unless it’s an erotica publication), excessive violence, bestiality, necrophilia, animal harm, racist, sexist, or other harmful stories. Really, no one wants to read that.
We all make mistakes sometimes. If you’ve done one of the above by accident or unintentionally, the simplest fix is a well-worded apology. But doing these things intentionally only leads to the dark side. There are so many other writers out there and they all want your spot. But writing is not a competition. If you are hard to work with, some nicer, more professional writer will come along. So it’s just easier to be kind.
That’s it! This article is meant to be a primer on submissions for new writers, so if you have additional thoughts or questions, leave them in the responses and I’ll update as I go. These thoughts are gathered from my experience as a writer and freelance editor, so they may vary based on different publications. Best of luck to you, submitters of strange things!
The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.
— Ursula K. Le Guin
Holly Lyn Walrath is a freelance editor based out of Houston, Texas. She holds a B.A. in English from The University of Texas and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Denver. She provides editing services for writers and organizations of all genres, experiences, and backgrounds, but enjoys working with new writers best. Find her on Twitter or visit her website.