3 Things I Wish I Knew When I Was First Submitting To Literary Journals

Written by Emily Harstone | October 9, 2014

When I was first submitting to literary journals, I would spend 15 minutes or more on their website tracking down any scrap or clue that might help help my work be accepted. I read their guidelines multiple times. Every time I received a rejection I read a lot into it.

Now, many years and at least a thousand submissions later, I have learned so much, and have become an efficient submitter of my work. More of my work is published each year. The first year I submitted I had three publications, this year I have had well over 20 publications.

1. What a journal says they are looking for and what they are actually looking for, are not the same thing.

Most journals have a statement on their submission page about what they are looking for and what you should submit to the journal. Some of these things are clear and true. If they say they are looking for poetry and flash fiction under 1,000 words in length, they most certainly mean it. Do not submit a 2,000 word story. Also if they say they are looking only for works of science fiction or some other genre, only submit works from that genre to them.

However many journals say things that are not actually helpful and can be misleading and waste your time if you focus on them too much. For example, a lot of journals say they are looking for experimental work. However few define what they mean by that. By reading these same journals I have concluded that experimental work appears to cover everything from a traditional haiku to a list of unrelated words. I spent a lot of time when I first submitting trying to match a journals style with my submission.

I know now that this was a waste of time, as what they said they wanted and what they actually wanted were two different things.

Another example is that most journals ask for you to only submit your best work. I have no clue what they mean by that. As far as I can tell, it usually means the journal is new and unestablished or the editors have not yet figured out what they are looking for at all. I as a general rule do not submit my ‘best work’ to these journals.

Focus on what the journal is looking for in terms of concrete statements about length and genre, ignore the other information for the most part.

2. Every Journal Wants You To Buy a Copy Before Submitting

Many literary journals need to sell copies to survive. Almost every single print journal I know and a lot of electronic journals try to encourage submitters to buy a copy of their journal before submitting. This is time consuming and expensive. It is not feasible and it is not advisable.

If you really like the look of a journal and it is really up your alley, you should subscribe because you want to. Not just to get a good feeling for the journal, but because you are interested in the work they are publishing and you want to support them.

If you want to get a feeling for the work they have published, many do have a few poems and short stories published online and it is worth spending a couple minutes to read one or two of these.

3. Don’t Take Rejection Seriously

This is the biggest lesson everyone should take away from this article, do not take rejection seriously. Your work can be rejected for any number of arbitrary or legitimate reasons. If you take each rejection seriously, that will take a lot of mental energy.

Instead, focus on submitting a lot. There are so many good journals out there. Take the opportunity of the numbers. Also, it is good to keep in mind that just because a journal rejects a piece of yours once, that does not mean they are not open to later submissions. Often pieces of mine have been accepted by a journal that previously rejected an earlier piece.