8 Tips on Submitting to Literary Journals

Studying_Scott_AckermanBy Cecilia Lewis

During my time as an editorial assistant at a literary journal, I read dozens of manuscript submissions. Overwhelmingly, the submissions we rejected often made some of the same mistakes. Make sure your materials are professional and ready for submission by following these tips. 

  1. Follow submission guidelines.

If you remember anything about submitting your work, remember to follow the guidelines. Most literary journals list their submission guidelines very clearly on their website. Following them not only saves the editors time but also helps you figure out which journals or publications are the best fit for your work. After all, it doesn’t matter how good your nonfiction essay is if it’s ten thousand words too long or if the journal only publishes poetry. And always keep in mind that different journals have different guidelines. I’ve seen journals whose requirements varied wildly from the ones where I worked.

Guidelines are there for a reason. They’re not, as I witnessed one writer say, “suggestions.” Doing something drastically different with your manuscript will make it stand out, but not in a good way. Don’t risk having your manuscript tossed because you didn’t follow instructions.

  1. Include an SASE with print submissions.

Obviously, if you’re only sending electronic submissions, this step won’t apply to you. But some journals still accept snail-mail submissions exclusively, including the one where I worked. If you’re sending out any print submissions, make sure to include a self-addressed stamped envelope so that the staff can mail you a response. The SASE doesn’t have to be as large as the submission envelope (unless you’re requesting that your materials be sent back to you), but it does need to be large enough to fit a folded full-size piece of paper, should we send you an acceptance letter or personalized rejection. A standard-sized envelope is usually sufficient.

Why is an SASE important? When I sorted through submissions each day, the very first thing I did was mark whether it included one. Submissions that didn’t were still read, and an effort was made to contact the author if the work was exceptional. But when it came time to send out rejection slips, submissions without an SASE were simply thrown out. There were times when I wanted to send an author a personalized rejection discussing their work but couldn’t send them any note at all. No SASE = no response.

  1. Write a professional cover letter.

A cover letter is often the best way to make a good first impression on the editor who reads your work. Cover letters should be brief, professional, and error-free. Often a simple paragraph or two with the name and word count of your piece and a brief bio is all you need. Don’t include a summary of your story or any “attention grabbers.” As with following submission guidelines, don’t do something drastically different in the hopes of making your manuscript stand out. The most impressive cover letters are simple and straightforward. Always proofread your letter for spelling/grammar errors or typos.

Want a professional evaluation of your cover letter or submission before you send it out? Check out my critique services.

  1. Keep track of your submissions.

If you’re sending out simultaneous submissions, it’s important to keep track of where your work has been sent and what the response was. You don’t want to send the same piece to a publication that has already rejected it or not yet responded to your last submission. If your piece is picked up by a journal, you must alert all other journals you submitted it to. No one wants to accept a piece only to find out that it’s already been published elsewhere.

  1. Format your manuscript professionally.

As with your cover letter, you want to make the best possible impression on the editors reading your work. Format may seem like a small thing, but having a professional-looking manuscript will allow the editor to focus on your work instead of its format. Flashy fonts, bright colors, unusual scene breaks, or other nonstandard formats will only serve as a distraction from your writing. Let your work shine on its own.

  1. Address your submission to the right person.

It’s not always possible to know who will be reading your work, but try to address your submission the right person whenever possible. Look at the staff information on the journal’s website. Some journals even include this information in their submission guidelines. This is a small detail, but it’s crucial in making a good impression before the editor even reads your work. I’ve seen submissions addressed to editors who hadn’t worked there in more than ten years or to people who had never worked there at all. While those submissions were still read, I went into the manuscript expecting more unprofessional work, because the writer hadn’t done their research.

  1. Don’t send out your only copy.

This one pretty much goes without saying, especially since you should have an electronic copy of your manuscript. But it’s always a good idea to have additional copies of your work and to keep in mind that most journals will not send your materials back to you. Some journals, like mine, are willing to return materials, but only upon request. If this is important to you, make sure to specify that in your cover letter and check the journal’s submission guidelines beforehand to make sure they’re willing to return your materials.

  1. Consider feedback carefully, and don’t be discouraged by rejection.

When you get a rejection from a journal with personalized feedback, it may seem discouraging. After all, a rejection is a rejection. The editor might also provide critique of your manuscript that makes you question its quality. Don’t be too discouraged by this! Getting a personalized rejection is actually a sign that you’re doing something right. I only took the time to write personalized rejections for writers whose work I felt strongly about. Consider any feedback that you’re given carefully and remember that most writers don’t receive any feedback from editors at all.

And don’t be discouraged if you get an impersonal rejection, either. A rejection isn’t always a reflection of the manuscript’s quality; sometimes a work just isn’t the right fit for that journal or editor. Keep sending out your work until you find the perfect home for it. Keep revising based on feedback you receive.

Keep writing.

What do you think? Are there any submission tips I missed? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of my Submission Tips series. For information about submitting to publishing houses, literary agencies, and more, check out the other posts in the series here, and follow the blog to see future posts!

Need help preparing your work for submission? Looking for professional editorial services? Check out my Services page for more info.

Related Links:

-Query Letters 101: Links and Resources

-7 Tips for Writing a Professional Cover Letter

-10 Tips for Writing a Query Letter

-10 Tips for Querying Agents


3 thoughts on “8 Tips on Submitting to Literary Journals

    • ceciliajlewis says:

      No, I wouldn’t say second person is an instant turn-off, but it would make me skeptical unless it was really, really well done. Second person is difficult to use effectively.

      I don’t think there’s anything that would make me instantly stop reading, but there are definitely some red flags that always make me wary: infodumps, cliches, weak voice, excessive grammar/spelling errors, awkward syntax, etc. If there are too many of these issues within a page or two, I likely won’t continue reading.


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