I travel a lot.
In part because my day job requires it of me, but in part simply because it’s something I love to do—meeting new people, trying new foods, getting to see parts of the world I have only read about or seen on TV.
But every time I get on a plane and whisk myself off on some new adventure, there are still some things that I fret about when I’m leaving my house for a long period.
Did I lock the back door?
Did I turn my oven off?
Did that stranger behind me in the security line slip cocaine into my carry-on when I wasn’t looking?
No matter how many times you do a thing, all of your anxieties—even if irrational (who the heck gives away free cocaine as a prank?)—don’t just go away.
And submitting work for publishing is no different. Now that we’ve reached the end of our lit-mag publishing series, let’s talk about the hardest part: the wait.
You’ve polished up your piece of writing to the best it can possibly be, you’ve researched the market to decide where to submit to, and you’ve finally clicked that “submit” button to send it in. You think you’re going to feel a sense of relief or excitement, but often, it comes with trepidation:
Did I send the right file?
Did I mess up any of the submission guidelines?
Did I somehow accidentally tell the editor to go to hell?
There’s probably not much I can say to assuage your anxieties, except to advise you again to make sure you go over the manuscript and cover letter carefully before you finalize them. But as a seasoned traveller, I can tell you how to manage the weeks and months after submission, including what happens after you get rejected or accepted!
So, stow your bags beneath the seat in front of you, strap on your seat belt, and let’s get flying.
If you’ve only ever submitted one story to one journal, this isn’t that hard to do. But when you’ve got a lot of balls in the air—multiple pieces sent out to multiple magazines—you will forget which pieces you’ve sent to which markets very quickly.
Many writers keep a spreadsheet file with all the information they need. (You can also use Duotrope for this.) You can organize your file however you want, just make sure you record the important details: the name of the story/poem/essay you submitted, the lit mags you submitted it to, and the date and method (Submittable, email, etc.) of submission.
Eventually, you’ll get a response, which could be within a couple weeks or many months down the road. If the piece gets rejected, don’t delete the entry from your spreadsheet!
Instead, make a note that it was rejected, and submit the piece somewhere new. (See below for more on handling rejection.) That way, you won’t accidentally submit to the same market twice—believe me, the editors will not be pleased if you do that.
If your piece gets accepted (yay!), you’ll still need to know where else you’ve submitted it so that you can withdraw the piece from everywhere it’s out for consideration. (More on acceptance below, too!)
Here’s another reason to keep good track of all your submission dates: it helps you manage the waiting period by telling you when to expect a response.
If the journal’s submission guidelines state they strive to respond within four months, and you can see it’s been longer than that, then you can considering sending a quick, friendly follow-up.
Before sending the follow-up email, check their guidelines to see if they even welcome queries like this. If they say, “Don’t send a query to check on the status of your submission,” then don’t send a query to check on the status of your submission. You’re just going to have to wait.
If they do welcome queries, wait to send anything until after the usual response window has passed. Be very polite, not pushy. Send the query via email, and give them the name and date of your submission. Ask if the piece is still under consideration, and thank them for their time.
Also, be advised that many lit mags have been experiencing massive increases in submissions since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; people have been home more often, and they’re writing more often.
As a result, many lit mags currently have a massive backlog to go through, and you can probably assume it’s going to take even longer than usual to get a response. For the time being, I’d add a few months to their listed response time before you bother with a query.
Look, I won’t pretend otherwise: rejection hurts, and never stops hurting.
But it’s important to remember two key things about rejection:
1. It’s not necessarily about the quality of the piece.
You might have written the most brilliant poem the editors have ever seen, but it might just not be what they’re looking for right now.
Maybe the poem’s about cats, and they’ve already selected three cat poems for inclusion in the next issue, and they don’t want to over-cat the journal. Maybe the structure’s not the typical thing they go for. Maybe it’s even just a vague, indescribable “We like this, but it’s not for us” quality.
You’ll probably never know exactly why; just try not to take it personally, and submit it somewhere new.
2. All good—even great—writers get rejected.
Ray Bradbury got rejected. Sylvia Plath got rejected. Hemingway got rejected. Hey, I’ve even been rejected! #noshame
I've had stories and poems rejected at one magazine go on to win awards in other magazines. (This has happened to me multiple times.)
The point is, it doesn’t matter how good you are, rejection is part of the process, and it happens far, far more often than acceptance. Lit mags often have slush publication rates of 5% or less; that means they reject about 95% of what comes in.
Do you think every manuscript in that 95% is bad? Of course not—some of it is probably fantastic! But lit mags have limited pages or bandwidth to offer, and they simply can’t accept it all.
Just try not to take it personally, and submit it somewhere new.
Yep, I repeated that last sentence again. Because that’s really the key point here: rejection is never personal. Editors are rooting for you; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t accept unsolicited submissions at all.
If you’ve had a piece out for consideration for awhile, it’s probably a good idea to go back to it and revise it every once in awhile; after a certain number of rejections (three, or five, or whatever you think is best), take another look through the piece and see if it’s still as polished as you felt it was when you first sent it out.
Revision never truly ends, and a fresh look after a few weeks or months of ignoring the piece can sometimes help you see problems you missed before. Pay special attention to the intro and conclusion, and make sure the first page and final paragraph (or stanza) are as tight as they can be.
Then send ’er on out again, again, again!
First—go ahead and scream!
You’ve probably got so much pent-up anxiety and doubt about your submissions, especially if you’ve received a lot of rejections, and the odds are, you have—hardly anyone will land an acceptance on the first try.
When that first acceptance comes through, it’s time to release your anxiety and celebrate!
Tell your partner, your friends, your family, your writing community, anyone else that will share in your joy and celebrate with you.
And as soon as you can, make sure to withdraw the piece from anywhere you’ve simultaneously submitted it. Remember when I told you to keep diligent track of your submissions, including the date and method of submission? That’s REALLY important now.
Go to your spreadsheet or wherever it is that you’ve been recording submissions and see all the journals that haven’t responded yet to this piece.
For anything you’ve sent in via Submittable, the process is easy; simply log into your account, view your active submissions, and withdraw the relevant pieces. You’ll be prompted to send a message with your withdrawal; keep it short and sweet and let the editor know the piece has been accepted elsewhere.
If you didn’t submit via Submittable or similar software, then check the magazine’s submissions guidelines to see if they have a preferred method of withdrawal, but if they don’t, email is usually the way to go.
Send a friendly email to the editor saying that you submitted X piece on X date via email/snail mail/etc, and you are now withdrawing the piece from consideration because it has been accepted elsewhere.
Many editors also appreciate if you can let them know which journal picked it up—if they were considering the piece themselves, they’ll want to know who beat them to the punch!
When it comes to poetry and flash fiction — which is usually defined as prose under 1000 words — it’s common for magazines to accept submission of multiple poems, stories, or essays in one batch.
So, what do you do if you’ve submitted the same five poems to a bunch of lit mags, and one magazine has just accepted two of them, but the other three are still available?
Again, it’s always best to defer to the journal’s individual guidelines, but most of them are going to be more or less the same: don’t click the “withdraw” button on the whole lot. Instead, send a message to the journal, either via Submittable or email, letting them know that X magazine has just accepted “Whisker Tea” and “Ghazal for My Cat,” but the other three are still available for consideration.
Some lit mags will just send a simple message saying, “We’ll publish the piece on X date,” but others have a more formal process, wherein you sign a publication agreement.
If there is a contract involved, pay attention to things like payment—not all lit mags pay for pieces, but many do—and what sort of rights they’re buying. The contract might stipulate how long you have to wait before you can republish the same piece elsewhere.
This doesn’t mean they’re buying copyright, of course—copyright should always remain with the author. You own your words.
The editor might also want to see some edits. Sometimes this will just be correcting a typo or two, but sometimes the edits might be more substantial; lit mags generally won’t accept a piece if it needs heavy developmental editing, but they might have some stylistic suggestions or ask for clarification on certain parts.
If you’ve never been edited before, this experience can be a bit unnerving, and leave you feeling vulnerable. You’ve poured your blood, sweat, and tears into this piece, and now someone’s gutting your hard work with a rusty knife. So, remember three things about editing:
1. The editor is on your side.
The editor’s not suggesting changes because they think they your choices were stupid. (If they thought that, they wouldn’t have accepted the piece!) They’re just trying to make your writing shine, and let it be the best it can be.
2. You’re allowed to say no to changes (but try to be flexible).
Usually, edits will be sent to you with the changes tracked, so you can easily see every one. You don’t have to blindly accept everything, but try to at least consider them; it’s usually worth it to suck it up and accept the small stuff you can live with and save the debates for the stuff you care most about.
Usually if there’s an edit you really don’t like, you can offer an alternate change instead or try to reach a compromise.
Remember: it’s worth it to defend your words, but it’s also worth it to be open to an expert opinion. It will only help you grow as a writer.
3. Everyone gets edited.
Everyone! Ever take a look at the “acknowledgements” section at the back of a book? The editor’s usually the first person the author thanks. Just because you’re being edited doesn’t mean the work isn't any good — it means you’re human.
And while writing is a very solitary activity, publishing is not; anytime you’ve read a book you really loved, it’s because the writing was strong to begin with, and because an editor helped to bring it to that really polished place.
So, push those fears to the aside and step right on that plane—you’ll never know what adventures you could miss out on if you don’t try!
Literary Magazines, Demystified
This is the sixth, and final, blog in a series on publication in Literary Magazines. Whether this is the first blog you’ve read as part of the series or you’ve been following the whole thing, I hope you’ve learned something new about the big, exciting world of lit-mag publishing; it can be intimidating at first, but with care and persistence, publishing IS a prospect that can be open to anyone, including you.
Here are the previous blog posts in this series -- these links open onto my previous site at the moment:
And if you’re able to join me on Fridays at 5pm Eastern, I’ll be going Live each week on my Facebook page to talk about all things writing. Would love to see you there!