The Savvy Writer’s Guide to Simultaneous Submissions
By Becky Tuch
I took my first adult writing workshop when I was 23. Our group met once a week in the dining room of an elderly ex-alcoholic notorious for her tough love. When a fellow student asked whether it was okay to submit a story to many journals at once, our teacher replied, “You must!” When the student then asked what she ought to do if two different journals both wanted to publish her work, our teacher narrowed her eyes and glared.
“Hmph,” she said. “You should be so lucky.”
That was years ago. This instructor has long since moved on to the great writing workshop in the sky. And that other writer, just starting out then, grew into an incredible writer whose work is now indeed sought by various publications.
This will be the case for you too, if you keep writing and submitting and if you don’t let anyone’s discouragement stand in your way.
So, for the writer who wishes to be a savvy simultaneous submitter, here are some questions answered:
Are simultaneous submissions okay?
For most journals, yes. But this is not always the case. Be sure to read a journal’s guidelines (usually on their website). Be sure, too, to keep a list of where you submit, so that if you do get accepted somewhere, you can immediately withdraw your story from all the other places.
A word about etiquette.
Imagine: You are the editor of a magazine. You like a piece. You show it to another editor. She reads it. You and this other editor then discuss the piece at length. You weigh it against other pieces that might go into a forthcoming issue. You decide to accept it. Then, you contact the author and the author says, “Oh, can I tell you in a month? I’m still waiting to hear from Big Hot Prestigious Journal.” Or worse: “Sorry! That piece has been accepted elsewhere! I meant to tell you and I forgot!” This is unacceptable, people. Once you submit to a journal, you should brace yourself for rejection, but also, you should always be in a position to embrace acceptance, should it come your way.
Aim high for your first round, and aim high only.
By now you likely have a list of journals you would love to break into. You should submit to them! But as you do, you’ll want to be sure that an acceptance from any magazine in this first round will tickle your fancy. If your dream journal takes six months to get back to writers, and your not-quite-dream journal gets back to writers within two weeks, then you might find yourself in a pickle when the not-quite journal says yes and you’re still holding out for the other mag. So, for your first round of submissions, be sure that you’d be equally happy with a “yes” from any journal among the several you submit to at one time.
Your second round of submissions: the competitive, honorable, prestigious, but not-quite-so exclusive magazines.
There is a wealth of literary magazines that fall into this category. These are the journals that might not be available on the shelf of your local bookstore. But they are highly respected in the literary community, they have a stable readership, and they look darn good on your resume. Many of the works from these journals routinely make it into Pushcart Prize, O’Henry, and Best American anthologies. Here again, you’ll want to make sure that all the journals you submit to fall in the same place on your Scale of Personal Happiness. Would you be equally delighted to get an acceptance from Antioch Review as you would from Missouri Review? Would you do the happy dance to Cimarron Review as you would to Prairie Schooner? If so, then go ahead and send your work to several of these journals in one batch. (For advice on how to identify journals that are a good fit for you, see "The Submitter's Dilemma: Choosing the Right Literary Magazine for Your Work.")
Don’t forget contests!
Many contests offer money as a prize, but do not publish your work. Some contests also might not care if your work has been published elsewhere. If you want to submit to multiple places at once, but also keep the doors open on multiple opportunities, try submitting to contests and grants that don’t publish your work at the same time that you submit to the journals of your choice. This way your work won’t grow dusty inside your desk drawer, and you’re also not risking missing potentially good opportunities.
Your third, fourth, fifth, sixth…hundredth round of submissions.
Getting discouraged about rejections would be like playing basketball and getting upset about every missed jump shot. Okay, it doesn’t feel great. But the clock’s still running so you’ve got to keep your head in the game. If your work has been rejected from your top thirty dream journals, don’t sweat it. There are hundreds upon hundreds of other journals for your work. And guess what? Getting published, no matter how as-yet-unknown the journal, enlivens your little writer’s heart, gives you the stamina to keep going, and gives your resume a boost. Plus you never know how big-time that journal will one day become, who will read that journal and notice your work, or what will become of the connection you make with an editor. So after you get rejected by your first round of submissions, keep going! And be sure to read Lynne Barrett's incredibly helpful article, "What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines."
How do you know which tier a journal falls into?
Ever notice how when you read an author’s bio on the back of a book, she never mentions every single place she’s ever been published? If literary magazines are mentioned, you’ll see a handful—One Story, Glimmer Train, Tin House, Granta. An author’s bio will never say “So-and-so has been published in West Brunswick Quarterly, Left Field Review, Bumblebee Weekly, the 42nd Street Gazette, e-pub Digest, Mungfish Letters…” This doesn’t mean that Ms. Big Cheese did not, in fact, get her start in Mungfish Letters or by writing for the 4nd Street Gazette. It just means that since then she has broken into more competitive and therefore more impressive publications. If you want to find out which journals belong in this higher tier of lit mags, you should:
* Read author bios on published books. Which journals get mentioned?
* Look at the editor notes in anthologies-- the Best American series, Pushcart and O’Henry Prizes, and other collections. Many lesser-known journals make it into these anthologies, but you’ll likely see a lot of repeated journals. The more often a journal is mentioned, the more competitive the journal is likely to be. (To see an incredibly helpful breakdown of journals featured in the Pushcart Prize, visit Clifford Garstang's Perpetual Folly blog.)
* Read the journals’ submission guidelines on their websites. Sometimes the journal will tell you directly: “We are very competitive” or “We are extremely difficult to get into” or “Only Martians with six eyes and nine fingers on their left hand ever have a chance of being published here.” Take those insights to heart.
* Look at the contributors of various journals. See a lot of Joyce Carol Oates? See Lydia Davis, Jennifer Egan, Russell Banks? If you see a lot of heavyweight writers, that journal is most likely a top tier journal.
* Look at the contributor bios within the journals. Where else have these writers been published? Do they mention big journals that you recognize? Or is there a mix of well known as well as lesser known journals?
A word about tiers.
Before you get too wowed by a journal’s reputation, it’s important to read these journals and think about your work in relation to them. Is your work very experimental? Is it political? Is it sexy? Is it conservative? It’s easy to get caught up trying to get a notch on your belt from a very prestigious journal. But is this journal truly the best fit for your work? Are there other journals that are more suitable, where the editors might promote you and support you and get truly excited about your writing? Just because a journal looks good on paper does not mean it’s the right fit for you. So spend some time reading journals, reviews of journals, interviews with editors. Follow journals on Twitter and friend them on Facebook. Learn about what they do and what they look for in submissions. Being informed will make it more likely for you to get published, but it will also help you eliminate journals that are simply not right for you.
Of course, all that said, you truly should aim high.
And if and when your work gets accepted for publication? Well, friends, you all should be so lucky.
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review.