How to Get Published: Literary Journals

Welcome to our “How to Get Published” series! After you’ve written it, revised it and let our Penmob editors at it, it’s time to get your writing out into the world. Every month we’ll give you tips for getting your work published. Need more advice? Feel free to email us.

Literary journals and magazines are an excellent place for your short stories, poems and personal essays to find a home. There are so many different types of literary magazines and journals, I genuinely believe that any writer that takes their craft seriously can get published in one. As a writer and an editor, I’m going to give you a step-by-step guide for sending your work to lit mags.

1. Read

Submission guidelines are your friend! They’ll tell you how your piece should be formatted, length limitations, deadlines and give you an idea of what the editor is into. You would be shocked by how many writers don’t actually read them. As the nonfiction sub-editor of Reservoir, it is so frustrating when I get submissions that don’t align with my submission guidelines. The writer has effectively wasted my time and theirs.

Now, ideally, you would be an avid reader of any publication you send your work to, but that’s not always realistic time wise. So, you should make an effort to read enough pieces that you have an idea of the type of work they like to publish. And at the very very very very least, you should read their submission guidelines.

2. Compile A List

Don’t let a rejection letter from a few of the big names in literature discourage you from sending your work to other publications. Look, it would be bomb to be that lucky duck that gets their first publication in the New Yorker. But most of us will never be published in the New Yorker, much less on our first time out the gate. So aim high, but also maintain realistic expectations when you put your list together.

Once you have your list together, break it into tiers. Tiers are important because if you send your piece out and it gets accepted by a so-so pub, and then, a week later a dream pub reaches out because they want it, you’ll be in a very awkward position.

Put the publications you admire most at the top and work your way down from there. Then, if the publications you’ve chosen accept multiple submissions – which should be in their submission guidelines – send your piece out to your top tier first. If they don’t accept multiple submissions, then you’ll need to send it to just one publication first and wait for your rejection before sending it elsewhere.

I know most of us became writers so we’d never have to deal with spreadsheets, but they can be useful for organizing your tiers, tracking acceptances and rejections, staying on top of deadlines and making you feel like you’re adulting real good.

3. Write a Letter of Introduction

Okay, this part of this process you need to spend the least amount of time on. No seriously, when it comes to lit mags, most editors are attempting to move through as many pieces as possible in as short a period of time as possible. So, in my experience, most of us don’t read your letter until after we’ve already decided we want to publish your piece. Previous publications don’t really matter all that much or whether or not you have an MFA. This might be different at some of the larger literary journals with more clout. Your credentials might get you read, but they won’t get you published if your writing isn’t strong. I know I’m always excited to be the first to publish a good writer like I was the one who discovered them. Be sure you mention in your letter if the outlet would be your first publication.

There are a few other things you should put in your letter. If possible, use the editor’s name; it’s more personal. Give a sentence or two about your background, a little bit about the piece and any credentials if you have them. If you’ve read anything the journal published that you enjoyed you can also throw a compliment there way. So for example:

Hi Minda,

My name is Sammy Jo. I’m a writer based in Limestone, TN. I really loved piece you published last season by Stephen King – I can’t wait to read more by that writer. Attached is a 2,500 word short story, Black Gold, about a family from the country that strikes it rich with oil and moves to Beverly Hills. I’m a graduate from Nowhere In Particular University. If selected by Penmob Magazine, this would be my first publication.

Thank you for your consideration,
Sammy Jo

Please notice what this letter does not do:

  • It doesn’t try to sell the piece. Don’t build your piece up with a bunch of adjectives or make claims about what is or isn’t accomplishing. The editor will form their opinion.
  • It doesn’t ramble or go on for several paragraphs. Keep it tight.
  • It doesn’t insult the editor. Use the editor’s name and thank them. If they reject your piece and you feel the need to respond, send them a simple thank you. If you send back an angry, rude message, they’ll just laugh, go on about their life and continue to not publish you.

4. Give Your Submission One More Pass

I always tell writers you need to have an attention catching first paragraph. Literary journal editors are busy and most of us are unpaid. When I was the editor-in-chief of Santa Ana River Review, the UC Riverside grad student lit journal, we had hundreds of submissions to get through while also being full-time students and teaching assistants with students’ work we had to read and grade. Due to these time constraints, most editors are going to reject you after reading the first paragraph, maybe first page if they’re feeling generous. So, open strong.

I’ve also seen pieces that weren’t formatted correctly or the writer attached the wrong document. In one case it was her tier list and let’s just say we weren’t her top pick. Some of these things can get you rejected off top and none of them will endear you to the editor.

5. Follow Up

Usually in the submission guidelines, the lit mag will tell you when you should expect to hear back from them. It tends to be some time between their deadline and their publication date. You might hear back sooner, but you shouldn’t panic if you don’t get a response from them right away. If their guidelines don’t make it clear, you should feel free to follow up with the journal after a couple of weeks. You should also follow up if your piece has been accepted elsewhere or if you’ve changed your mind about publishing it.

Other Advice & Info About Literary Journals

  • The size of the journal determines how many people will read your writing before it gets final acceptance from the editor. Some lit mags will have a team of readers who will read your piece and then vote on whether or not to pass it along to the sub-editor, some will have one reader who makes that call. At other publications, your work might be read directly by the sub-editor who will publish it with the editor-in-chief’s blessing.
  • Most of them don’t pay. I’ll probably write a whole post in the future that goes into this more, but for now, just know that most don’t pay – and some might even charge you a small reader’s fee. The places that do pay tend to be the most competitive.
  • They don’t accept submissions year round. Most journals have specific windows of time each year that they will accept your work. For some that’s just twice a year, with many journals not accepting work over the summer. Although, there are journals that have rolling submissions. So, check deadlines and plan accordingly. Like if you want to publish a Father’s Day piece, you probably want to submit to a journal’s spring issue and not their winter issue. Be strategic.
  • There’s print and then there’s online. The majority of journals are online publications these days, but there’s still a few left that are print. Print journals are generally more competitive and can have a months longer submission cycle, so you’ll have to be more patient with them.
  • No really, YOU can get published. I have read some writing so awful, I actually looked at the introduction letter to learn more about the writer. And more times than not, that person will have a whole list of places they’ve been published. When I was editor of Santa Ana River Review, I’d had one sizeable publication and a few blog posts I’d written, and it really made me feel like, Well dang! If this dude that just sent me 20,000 words about the conflicted soul of his chia pet has been published in 10 different places, surely I can do it too! So, if you take your craft seriously, undoubtedly there’s an editor out there who will take it seriously too.
  • Promote your work. If a journal does decide to publish you, be sure to follow them on social media and share the link to your piece when it debuts.
  • You can say no. If an editor accepts your piece, but asks you to make changes you aren’t comfortable with, it’s ok to say so. It’s helpful if you suggest an alternative solution. There’s usually some middle ground between as-is and whatever the editor is asking you to do. The editor-writer relationship is a partnership and works like a conversation. If you can’t find that ground, it’s ok to pull your piece and choose to work with an editor who can better help you execute your vision.
  • Be open. That being said, do recognize it’s likely the editor will have some edits they’d like made before they publish your piece. Do your best to see it from their and their audience’s perspective. The editor just wants to help you publish the best piece possible.
  • The editor is not your enemy. It’s easy to feel like it’s writers versus editors, but trust me when I say editors want to publish your work. We do what we do because we want to give writers a platform. Many of us are also writers ourselves, so we know what it’s like to have a stranger judge something we care deeply about.

Go Submit!

I think that about covers it. Now, get out there and submit your work! Getting an acceptance email from a publication is one of the most magical feelings in the world. It’s absolutely worth all the hard work you put into your piece and all the anxious feelings you endured waiting to hear back from the publication.