A Life of Submission

You didn’t think this was that kind of site, did you? Well, it is the Internet…

At the UCLA Writers Faire, Lou Mathews gives a talk about getting your short stories published. He points out the different verbs by which we designate how various professions seek work. Most people apply for jobs. Contractors bid, politicians campaign, actors audition, hell even screenwriters get to pitch. Writers, of course, submit. And that’s what it feels like. The odds are hellacious: up to a 99% rejection rate. Even a small (and often mediocre) journal receives hundreds of submissions for a handful of slots. It is not unusual for a writer to have to send even a really good story out 20, 30, 50 times before it finds a home. Your likely reward for all that hard work: two copies of the journal when it comes out. Oh, yeah, and a certain immortality. And the knowledge you got something right, and that someone you’ve never met might sit down with your story and get lost in it and nod their head in affirmation.

There’s nothing wrong with writing for a hobby, writing mainly for yourself and maybe a small group of peers. But if you feel a real calling for it and want strangers curling up with your words, you have to make friends with the kissing cousins of submission and rejection. I logged over 150 submissions before getting my first acceptance at an established journal. The 100th rejection stings a lot less than the 3rd. Once in a while, if you’re any good, you’ll get an encouraging note from an editor, something beyond the standard rejection slip. And you press on.

Submitting & Writing

One of the reasons to make submitting part of your routine is it changes the way you write. You look at a story differently as you get ready to send it out. And if you’ve got, say, two stories you really believe in, and you’ve sent them each out to five journals (which should be your minimum), then what do you do? If you hadn’t sent them out, you’d feel a small satisfaction in knowing you’ve got two decent stories in the can. But if you do submit them, now they’re out there; in a sense they’re not even yours anymore; and maybe they’re not half as good as you thought. So you do the only thing you can do: write more, and write better.

Submitting & Re-Writing

Submitting also establishes a natural rhythm for revision. Typically I’ll send a story out to 5-10 journals, wait a couple months, send off another round. Usually after that second round, I’ll take a fresh look at the story and see ways of making it better. If this goes on for a while, I’ll either put it into a workshop to get some new ideas, or I’ll put it completely on ice for an extended period, come back to it in a year when I’m a better writer. Everyone establishes their own rhythm. But the point is, as the rejections trickle in, it’s a reminder: the story has not yet found a home, maybe it’s not even finished. You won’t get that kind of reminder from your file cabinet.


There are a lot of markets out there. Like brands of toothpaste, too many. Here are some resources for narrowing the search:

  • The Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market put out by Writer’s Digest (I don’t particularly recommend the magazine), available at any bookstore. Lists print journals, on-line ‘zines, helpful notes from editors, other features. It’s a monster but will give you a flavor for the market. You do not need to get this every year. You should always go to the journal’s website to confirm contact information anyway.
  • NewPages – a fantastic website with comprehensive listings of literary journals, info on writing contests, MFA programs, etc.
  • Duotrope – another great website, with a searchable database of journals; sign up for their free weekly newsletter; contribute what you can.
  • Council of Literary Magazines & Presses (CLMP) – of which most legitimate journals are a member.
  • Poets & WritersDon’t let the name scare you away if you’re not a poet. This is essential for the serious writer. Good interviews and features. Most important, contest listings and submission deadlines. Don’t miss the Classifieds at the back, with the “Call for Manuscripts” which includes more contests, theme issues, etc. Some info on the website, but it is worthwhile to subscribe.

Print or Electronic?

While I tend to be old-school and prefer a journal I can hold and dog-ear and scribble in, the times they are a-changin’. Certainly, prestige tilts overwhelmingly towards print. Whether venerable (Missouri Review, Ploughshares) or up-and-coming (Tin House, A Public Space), these are the places we dream of listing on our cover letter, our book jacket. As recently as a few years ago, the on-line ‘zine scene was mixed at best. It’s still uneven but now there are some high-quality players in virtual publishing. Like Failbetter, which is starting to get Pushcart and other nominations; Barcelona Review; Blackbird; elimae. Print journals like Night Train that have gone completely virtual. Print journals like Narrative that now feature an on-line component with its own personality.

Obviously there are cost savings in printing and postage. There’s also potential for a greater and different kind of access to readers. Many traditional journals have a print run of 1,000. With some the readership is largely regional. A popular on-line journal attracts many times more readers. From all over the world. Who are they, how much are they reading? We don’t know. But how many of us have stacks of un-read New Yorkers lying around? And it changes the way we (literally) spread the word. When I was published in Night Train I didn’t have to photo-copy the story or encourage friends to buy a magazine they might not get around to buying, might not find on their newsstand–I simply sent an e-mail with a link. And that story will be there, forever a click away.

Making Sense of It All

Whether you favor print or electronic or both, the number of options is overwhelming–and keeps many young writers from getting serious about sending out their work. The answer is to break up this sprawling market into manageable chunks. Spend an afternoon with the Writer’s Market. Check off the ones that strike you the most. Then go through with a highlighter and pick twenty of those. Start there.

Prize issues are a great resource, not only for reading great stories and finding new writers, but for researching the market. Best American Short Stories and O. Henry Prize Stories are the most prestigious, and probably a must for every serious writer’s reading list. But they tend to be dominated by a handful of journals. Better is the annual Pushcart Prize Anthology drawn exclusively from the ranks of the small presses. Read it, see who’s publishing the stories you like.

Yet another argument for Poets & Writers and the Duotrope newsletter. Manageable chunks. And an organized rhythm to your life of submission. P&W arrives in the mail: you spend an hour going over the deadlines and the classifieds, add a few journals and dates to your list. The Duotrope Weekly Wire arrives in your in-box: you spend thirty minutes doing the same.

Finally, there are a variety of lists and tiers, the criteria of which you can well debate, but which at the least offer you some manageable chunks, a place to start: a ranking of journals by their Pushcart nominations; someone’s opinion of the best on-line magazines; another on-line list;’s ranking of journals with a circulation over 5,000; the same, under than 5,000; Slate’s listing of best mags by state; UCLA instructor Paul Mandelbaum’s list of journals according to how hard it is to get in (click on the typewriter in the upper right).

How much time to spend researching the market?

I probably spend too much time. But I like digging, like finding the small journal I’ve never heard of that turns out to be a real gem. The first priority is always writing. And then reading and studying the great writers past and present that have something to teach you. There are gems out there in the current marketplace but there’s also an incredible amount of mediocre writing. You’ll have to make your own choices here.

I do think it’s a good idea to have some familiarity with the journals you’re submitting to. Editors frequently complain they get a lot of submissions that aren’t so much bad as a bad fit for them. Most journals have some samples on-line. Most offer sample back-issues for as little as $5. If you have a PayPal account you can speedily sample a handful of journals for $20. Most people can spare that once in a while. And these journals do provide a home for our stories, however modest; we should support them when we can. After you’ve done whatever research you have time and money for, spring for a couple of subscriptions.


  • numbers – Especially as a beginning writer, there is no point in sending off a story to only one journal. When you get the rejection, as you most surely will, it carries too much weight. Think of yourself as a juggler, always keeping a ball or two in the air. If a story is good enough to send to one place, it’s good enough to send to 5 or 10. Sometimes I will make 10 copies of a story first and plop the stack on my desk: now I have to get rid of them.
  • electronic submission – Some journals accept stories only through the mail; some offer a choice; a number have switched over entirely to electronic. Which can mean different things: sometimes sending an e-mail with attachment; sometimes pasting a story in the body of an e-mail–read the guidelines carefully. The new thing is to upload the story directly through the website by means of an electronic submissions manager. It’s easy, I figured it out; and it allows you to track the status of your submission on-line.
  • cover letters – Vastly overrated in importance. Many editors ignore them or at best skim them. Keep it simple: “Dear Editor, Please find enclosed my story, ‘-‘ (- words), for your consideration.” List publications or awards. Do not get cute. Do not explain your story. The only reasons for going beyond the bare minimum are: 1) you’ve recently met the editor at an event; 2) the editor sent you a personal note about a past submission (“Thank you for your encouraging note regarding my last submission…”); 3) you can indicate you’re familiar with the journal (“I am enjoying the most recent issue, particularly…”)
  • simultaneous submissions – Industry lingo for sending the same story out to more than one journal at the same time. Some journals actively discourage this; most actively encourage it. I simply don’t bother with journals that do not allow SS: it tells me they don’t understand or appreciate where the average writer is coming from. An exception is a journal like Zyzzyva (West Coast writers only) that promises a response time of less than a month and sticks to it. Important: note in a journal’s guidelines whether they want you to notify them upfront if a story is out to more than one place, and if so simply add the line, “This is a simultaneous submission” to your cover letter. And of course should you be accepted somewhere, send everyone else a nice note letting them know the story is no longer available.
  • records – Very important once you move beyond having, say, one story out to just two or three places. Duotrope offers an on-line submissions tracker which some people swear by. I like doing things by hand. I have a journal where I list submissions chronologically by date; and separately by story (so I don’t accidentally send the same story twice to one journal). I also have a card catalogue for journals so I can easily see if it’s been a while since I’ve submitted to a given place, and on this card I also write down submission periods, upcoming theme issues, etc., and also note the names of editors who may have sent a personal response.


A final note on rejection from the great Irish comic Dylan Moran:

Bernard’s Letter

Published on May 25, 2008 at 1:36 pm  Comments (6)  

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Bernard’s Letter is fine, but film. I prefer Mozart’s shorter and written response to a critic: “I am in the smallest room in my house. Your review is in front of me. Shortly, it will be behind me.”

  2. I just loved Bernard’s Letter … written by a true writer. I am inspired to start writing my own rejection replies. But could they ever match the quality cynicism of Bernard?

    Enjoyed your site quite a bit and found it very informative. Will be checking back frequently. Please feel free to visit my blog (and leave any comments you like.) I can be found here on Blog Catalog at “EmsEnd.”

  3. Terrific site. So glad I found it. I’m so encouraged when I find like-minded writers/readers. Thanks again. Check it out:

    Lisa H.

  4. This is a very definitive post, but I came back to see what’s new, on your mind, and your obvious evolving sense of the writer’s infinite quest for readership. You have been a huge help to me. I want more! Hey, what’s your take on all the contests out there? Pay or not to pay. Isn’t it largely a case (if you’re a decent writer) of getting your name out there and known? is this wishful thinking? What’s your take on the MFA discussion? Now, there’s at least 3 more posts…Be assured, I’m encouraged that a tar and pitch shack on the shores of the Everglades isn’t an inevitable destination for a frustrated writer!

  5. Good website and good posts. I too have no patience for mags that don’t accept SS. The online thing is changing rapidly. If I can get enough traffic to my site, I’ll post my own short stories. I can create an audience. One mag editor told me he mainly selects writers based on online material he has read.

  6. So glad I stumbled onto your site. Great posts. Keep ’em coming.

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