8 Reasons Your Submission Strategy Sucks (And What You Can Do About It)
By Becky Tuch
It's a new year, friends, which means time for some serious resolution-ising. If you've been writing and submitting up a storm lately, good for you. Please ignore everything below and get back to whatever you were doing before.
If, though, you feel like something is wrong, like your strategy for submitting to lit mags is not quite working, if you want to be published more frequently and in more venues you love and lust after, then perhaps some of what's below applies to you.
1. You hold on to your writing too long.
In "Yes, Your Submission Phobia is Holding You Back," Michelle Seaton says, "In 12 years of teaching at Grub Street, I’ve learned [some] truths about students: 1. They don’t submit enough, especially the most talented ones. Read that sentence again and then ask yourself how many times you’ve submitted something in the past year. Yeah, I thought so. 2. Many of my most talented students never submit anything. This makes me crazy."
Wouldn't it be nice if, in addition to all the amazing work editors do with reading submissions, contacting writers, designing issues, balancing budgets and so on, they also had x-ray vision and could see through the walls of your home and inside your desk and know at once all the great work that's hidden there? And would then call you up and ask you to submit it? And would even put that submission into the mail for you?
But they don't. They won't. It's up to you to get your work out of the desk (or your computer files, as it were) and into that Submittable database, or whatever other mode of transport required for an editor to see it.
Says Seaton, "We writers are expert liars. Here [is one lie] we tell ourselves. I will submit this story soon, when it feels finished. No you won’t. For most stories and essays there is no moment when it will feel good enough. Submit before you feel ready. Like, today."
What is the worst that can happen?
2. You send your work out too quickly.
Yes, some of us hold too tight to our own work, ensuring that it will never see the light of day. Then there are others of us. Or maybe at different times you are different types of writers.
For those of you who get trigger-happy with submissions, whew, deep breath. Let's make 2015 the Year of Chill. In "Just Wait, or, How a Little Patience Can Get You Published," writer Cam Terwilliger says, "I think many writers undercut themselves by stopping a little too early. The impulse to send your story off for consideration at literary magazines is so strong...But we have to be careful. If we submit too quickly, our efforts to gain recognition might actually be selling us short in the long run."
What should you do? Terwilliger says, "Learning to put a story away, waiting to submit it until later, has been a big lesson in recent years. Even when I’m absolutely certain that a piece is done, I still wait now. It works unexpected magic. I’ll come back to a piece, simply expecting to tidy up its commas, and then I’ll discover the thing I’ve been subconsciously overlooking. I’ll discover the problem that must be righted...As I read, it’s as though I’ve come across my story in the slush pile. Almost always, I find it wanting. Except, in this scenario, I can do something about it. "
So, should you send your work out before you feel ready or wait awhile longer and come back to it? The answer lies in what kind of writer you are, and what you know to be realistic. If "in the drawer for awhile" means permanently forgotten, if "taking a break" means "I will never send this out," don't let that happen!
If, on the other hand, you know you are capable of coming back to a work at a later date, and you're not just bullshitting yourself about getting to it later, then a bit of patience will undoubtedly serve you well. Especially if you have other work that you're sending out in the meantime.
Remember the ABC's of Lit Mag Submission: Always be Circulating.
3. You aim too high...and then give up.
Yes, you're a genius. I know it and you know it. But do the editors of The New Yorker know it? Probably not, nor do they care. But guess what. That shouldn't be your concern. If you are repeatedly submitting to places like The New Yorker and other elite, super duper competitive literary magazines, and those are the only places you're submitting to, your success rate may be low.
I had a student recently ask me whether one of her stories would be a good fit for Glimmer Train. I said I thought it might, but just to keep expectations realistic I informed her that Glimmer Train was one of the most competitive magazines in the country. "Oh," she said. She sounded bereft. From what I could tell, she didn't have a back-up plan.
This is not a good strategy. Glimmer Train is a wonderful magazine. But it is only one magazine. There are literally thousands of others. Aiming too high and not considering other magazines can lead to early discouragement. It can also guarantee that you miss some of the most incredible magazines out there today.
As writer Lynne Barrett writes in "What Editors Want; a Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines," "To go straight from The Paris Review to your school literary magazine is to miss the area you most need to explore."
Indeed, there many beautiful, reputable, interesting, sexy lit mags out there besides the ten or so that just about ever writer in the world is already submitting to. Learn about those. Learn to love them. Find places that are the right fit for the kind of writing you do, not just the places every writer is dying to break into.
4. You don't believe editors when they say they want to see more of your work.
It's not the norm for most editors to comment on rejections. They're busy and, as some editors report, the effort doesn't pay off when writers occasionally get pissy about comments on their stuff. Most editors send a simple rejection letter that falls into one of three categories. This first is standard rejection, "This isn't right for us. Good luck." The second is, "This particular piece isn't right for us, but we like your style and we hope you will send us more work in the future." The third may be a rejection with more specific notes about how your piece could be improved upon, and/or why the editors didn't accept the piece. Usually, like in option 2, there will be an invitation to please submit more in the future.
In the latter two cases, believe the editors when they say they want to see more. They mean it. They wouldn't say it if they didn't. You don't need to send them something right away, particularly if you don't have something that's ready to go. (See item #2.) But when you do have something, this venue is certainly one you should keep in mind.
Not trusting people when they say they like your work gets old fast. If people express belief in you as a writer, own it. You are working so hard at this craft. You deserve every ounce of recognition that comes your way. If an editor says they like your work, trust them. Feel good. Remember editors' names. Perhaps even introduce yourself if you meet at a conference. Above all else, submit to that journal again.
5. You give up too easily on the mags you love.
Somewhere out there is a magazine you love and admire. You’ve likely submitted to them. Perhaps they have rejected your work. And so you’ve…stopped submitting to them. Why?
The deal is, if there’s a magazine out there you love and admire, chances are lots of other writers feel the same. Your work is being read among dozens or hundreds, maybe thousands of other submissions. A piece might not make the cut one time around for any number of reasons. (It’s not ready for publication, it is ready for publication but isn’t what the editors want for a particular issue, the editors already have a similar piece for that issue, the editors are having a bad day and didn't give your piece a close read...) Don’t stop submitting to that journal!
Celeste Ng, who was recently 2nd place winner for Glimmer Train's Open Fiction Contest, told me, “I literally submitted to Glimmer Train 10 times--over a full decade--before I was selected as a finalist in their Fiction Open in early 2014. Put that way, it sounds amazingly foolhardy, and if I'd realized I was doing that I'd probably have been scared off--but I admire that journal so much I just kept on trying.”
Okla Elliot says something similar: “The Cincinnati Review is one of my favorite journals, a place I have submitted to every year for maybe seven or eight years now, and only today did I finally get an acceptance. It was well worth the wait."
It takes a long time to break in. You have to be persistent.
Don't let a rejection steel your heart against a magazine you love. You’re stronger than that.
6. You don't target specific journals.
Yes, there are loads and loads of literary magazines out there. This is perhaps all the more reason for you to at least try to be specific in where you send your submissions. If you just scroll through the list of lit mags that begin with the letter "C" and submit to all 100 of those at once, you'll be submitting to many magazines that simply aren't right for your work.
These days, it's so easy to do just a modicum of homework in order to have a better idea of what's out there. Barrett writes, "When I was starting out...I spent at least one day each month in a library, reading literary magazines and taking notes on index cards. Yes, those were ancient times. It’s easier now, but you still need to read magazines and I still advocate having a set time to do this research, keeping it apart from your writing. And then you’ll be ready to send your work out."
Of course, we all know you can't read every magazine out there. But you can certainly read some. Definitely check out their websites. In most cases, you have to do so in order to submit, so why not read a story or poem while you're there anyway? You can also read reviews on this site and on on NewPages. On both of these sites, be sure to also check out the calls for submissions. These magazines are actively seeking work.
Also, if you’re looking for lit mags that focus on specific topics or looking for certain kinds of writers, did you know that The Review Review sorts lit mags by categories? You know now.
7. You don't submit to enough magazines.
There are thousands of lit mags out there. Thousands. If you stop sending your work out after submitting to, say, twenty journals, you are missing some serious opportunities.
Sure, not all of the magazines out there are "top tier." But you never know where a submission might lead. The magazine could grow. The editors could nominate your piece for an anthology. Someone could read your work and reach out to you as a professional or personal contact, and that could lead somewhere productive or else personally meaningful. You could be invited to do a reading or to guest-edit an issue. Hell, you might just fall in love with a magazine you didn't even know about before.
Through the process of finding more magazines to submit to, you might even find that "top tier" isn't so top after all. What you want are magazines that are beautiful to you, that publish the work you love, magazines where you would be proud and honored to showcase your work alongside the other writers and artists featured there. Start building your list of these sorts of magazines now. It will serve you well to have in your back pocket a list of many, many magazines that you admire.
In "Publishing Advice: The Best and the Worst," Stace Budkzo writes, "[N]o matter how brilliant our stories may be, in the end the effort to publish is often left to stupid luck. So, try we must. With thought. Relentlessly."
Yes. Relentlessly. Start discovering magazines beyond the ones that everyone has heard of. Start sending them your work.
8. You don't follow up with editors.
You go to AWP and talk to an editor at her table. Later, you run into that editor at a party and the two of you get along like gang-busters. The editor encourages you to submit to her magazine.
Or, a teacher of yours tips you off to an editor who's looking for work related to your area of interest. The teacher encourages you to submit. You have a good shot with this one, the teacher says.
Or, your friend is the editor of a literary magazine. He's just started it. Or he's just begun working at an established one. He's read your work and likes how you write. He asks if you'll send something in.
Or, you are in the wonderful position of having an editor reach out to you and ask you for work. She has seen other writing of yours and she likes what you do. She wants you to consider sending something to her journal. She has made the effort to find you and she believes your writing would be a great fit for her magazine.
And yet...you don't do anything.
It can be a weird mind-trip, this writing biz. We yearn for recognition and yet often don't recognize the recognition when it comes our way. Perhaps we think we're too good for an opportunity. "Should I really waste this story on them?" Or we think we're not worthy at all. "I'll only disappoint him when he sees my work." Or we think like some weird egomaniac with an unshakeable inferiority complex: "If they want me, they can't really be a very good magazine."
We tell ourselves we're too busy or we don't have anything that's ready right now or we want to wait until a better opportunity comes along. All this does is hold us back.
Come on, people. It's time to get your submit on. If an editor asks you to send them something, do! Don't let shyness or fear or modesty shape your career. Someone believes in you, and that's a very special thing.
This is your chance--take it.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.