In this essay, I will attempt to tell you everything I’ve learned about submitting and publishing in literary magazines. Here’s the first thing: When you publish a book of stories that were published in literary magazines, you have to pitch essays like this one. Here’s the second thing: “Write what you know” is horrible advice for fiction writing, but really good advice for essay-to-promote-a-book writing. And pretty much the only thing I know about is literary magazines.
I started seriously submitting my work 11 years ago. Since then, I’ve published somewhere around 50 stories, maybe two dozen poems, countless essays, and a fair number of humor pieces. I’ve been on the staff of a half-dozen lit mags over those years. In 2008, I co-founded Gigantic, a literary magazine of short prose and art, and I’m currently the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com. My first book, a collection of weird short stories called Upright Beasts, is out this month from Coffee House Press. An inordinate number of my friends are writers and editors.
I am not trying to brag, humble or otherwise, but merely establishing that perhaps the only thing I’m actually qualified to talk about in this world is literary magazine publication. Does the world need another submitting guide? Personally, I’ve found that far too many of these columns are long on vague clichés and short on real talk. I’m going to try to drop what serious lit subbing knowledge I have. Use at your peril.
The Ecology of the Slush Pile (or What Are You Competing Against?)
Let’s start with how lit mags submissions actually work, because the process can be somewhat — and probably intentionally — opaque.
When you submit to a literary magazine, your work gets thrown (either literally if submitted through the mail or figuratively if submitted electronically) into the “slush pile.” This isn’t the most inspiring name, and conjures an image of gigantic piles of dirty, half-melted snow flung carelessly out of the road by shovels and ploughs. This actually may be an accurate metaphor. The slush pile is a mess. Great stories absolutely come out of the slush pile, but they are hidden among the typo-ridden rants, third-rate Raymond Carver imitations, and haikus handwritten on hotel napkins. A good portion of the slush is filled with work that doesn’t fit even the basic parameters of the journal: fantasy novellas sent to Postmodern Poetry Review and LOTR fan fiction sent to Quiet Realism Monthly.
Most editors would probably consider at least 60% of the slush pile to be unpublishable, period. (Many have told me 80–90%, but I’ll be generous here.) Twenty percent shows promise but needs some work, and 10% is publishable but not in the journal being submitted to. That leaves 10% of work that might deserve real consideration.
Writers, this is actually good news!
Most good magazines accept around 1% of the work they get. But if you know you are writing work that is coherent, proofread, and in the vein of what the magazine publishes, then you’ve vaulted into the top 10% off the bat…and 1/10 is a lot better odds than 1/100.
Where Does the Rest of the Work Come From?
The non-slush pile work either comes from 1) solicitations — the editors actively emailing writers or their agents to request work, or 2) from submissions sent by agents or writers who have a connection to the magazine. If you’ve been published by a magazine or your submissions have come close, they may ask you to submit your next work to the non-slush reading pile. For solicited work, it is typically accepted unless the editor really doesn’t like it or it truly doesn’t fit…rejecting solicited work is basically considered bad etiquette. Non-slush pile submissions merely skip the “reader round” — more on that soon — and go straight to the editors. Still, the vast majority of those submissions will be rejected.
Do Lit Mags Actually Publish Unsolicited Work?
Yes. No. Well, it depends.
Literary magazines run the gamut from niche webzines to university-funded print mags to The New Yorker. The amount of slush published varies accordingly. I’d be surprised if The New Yorker has published even three stories from the unagented slush pile in the last decade, but many of the most respected literary magazines publish mostly from the slush. Outside of the few big glossy mags that still publish fiction, most lit mags publish somewhere between 20% and 100% from the slush. The myth that literary magazines don’t even read slush is persistent, but outside of the very top magazines it really is a myth. Speaking personally, many of my biggest publications came from the slush pile with no connections or help. It really does happen.
OK, But Do They Publish Previously Unpublished Authors?
Unpublished writers are, understandably, concerned about whether lit mags ever publish unpublished writers. The short answer is yes. Every writer started out unpublished, and I know plenty of people who had their first publications without any kind of connection. Even big mags will publish unpublished writers. The Paris Review pulled both Wells Tower and Yiyun Li out of the slush in a short span of time. Gigantic has had the luck of being the first publication for several talented writers.
Of course, completely unpublished writers are increasingly rare to find in the submission queue, as the proliferation of web magazines, local mags, and college mags — all of which are good things! — mean that most writers get published somewhere small first.
I Know a Published Writer and She Never Submits to the Slush
It’s true that many writers don’t submit to the slush. Once you have some good publications under your belt, or make a lot of connections in the literary world — or the fantasy world if you write fantasy, etc. — you can get most of your work published through solicitations and/or connections. Still, most writers start out submitting and get most of their first publications that way.
How Is the Slush Pile Cleared?
Most magazines get many hundreds if not thousands of submissions a year. Here’s Brigid Hughes in 2004, former editor of The Paris Review and founder of A Public Space, saying that the former publication received around 15,000 to 20,000 submissions a year. I would presume that number has increased in the age of digital submissions.
Even a small magazine receives far more work that they can publish, and, let’s be blunt, far more work than the editors can read with any real time. Unless an editor is going to give up their day job — most lit mag editors do not get paid for editing — never read for pleasure, never perform any editorial duties other than submission reading, and acquire all nutrients through intravenous tubes…then they simply can’t read the slush themselves.
The vast majority of reading is done by “readers” who are mostly part-time volunteers but may also include interns and other staff members. If the magazine is attached to a graduate program, the readers are probably MFA students. If the mag is attached to a university generally, they are probably undergrads. The volunteers are aspiring writers or editors, or simply people who love literature and have the weird idea that reading random stories is fun. The standard but by no means universal policy is for every submission to get two reads. If both are “no” votes, the piece is rejected before the higher ups see. If it gets one or two yeses, it gets passed up to editors and assistant editors. If the editors like it, it gets published. Boom. Simple.
So My Story Gets Fully Read by Two People?
Err…probably not. Due, again, to how many hours there are in a day versus the size of the slush pile, even volunteer readers can’t read more than a couple pages of every submission. If there is nothing to grab the reader in the first page, it’s probably getting a “no” vote. Thems just the breaks. This is part of why writing teachers harp on the importance of the first page, first paragraph, and first line. That may be all that’s read.
That’s Unfair! My Story Is Genius, But Only Gets Good at the End!
If you are inclined to say how unfair the above is to young writers, ask yourself this: How many of the literary magazines you submit to do you subscribe to? If you’re like most writers, you probably subscribe to two literary magazines, tops. And that’s fine. I won’t berate you for not spending money on lit mags, although I personally find the best ones more enjoyable than most books. The point is just that if magazines aren’t getting money, then they don’t have money to pay their staff (much less their writers), which means they can’t afford to have experienced people reading every submission.
Also, if your story can’t grab a volunteer reader who is forced to at least glance at your work, what chance is there that a random reader will be grabbed? If it isn’t good until the end, maybe rewrite it starting at the end.
Well, at Least All Stories Have an Equal Chance, Right?
I’ve been on many panels about being published and read many essays on the subject. The party line that editors take is that it’s all about the work, not how famous the writer is, and that it doesn’t matter if you are unpublished or have an agent. Yet, whenever the audience asks questions about the cover letter, editors will say you should list about three of your best publications and whether you’ve been to an MFA or have any other writing credentials. And if you’ve got a connection to the journal, mention that too. “It all helps!”
There’s a pretty obvious contradiction here. Either these factors don’t influence the decision or they do. Either listing that stuff (or having an agent submit) helps, or it doesn’t. While I may get jumped in a back alley by my fellow editors for saying this, here’s how those things can help:
1) If your submission has some significant publications or has a connection to the magazine you list in the cover letter then your submission might bypass the reader level and go straight to the editors. That’s an advantage, since 95% of work is weeded out in the reader stage. It doesn’t mean that when you are in the editor’s hands that your story is any more likely to be accepted than a slush piece that is passed up though, especially at a good magazine where they get tons of submissions from agents or established writers. But you won’t be rejected in the early rounds. It’s like getting a bye in a sports tournament.
2) While I don’t think many would admit this, I do believe that if you have an impressive bio you are more likely to get a close read from the readers. Readers are typically starting out in the lit world, or are merely undergraduates who like poetry and fiction, and thus are more likely to distrust their judgment or not want to lose a piece that an editor might like. What does this mean practically? As I explained above, readers may only read a page or two before passing on a submission. If they see the bio has some good publications, then they may read 10 pages of a story they’d otherwise only read one of. If the piece is borderline, they might be more likely to pass it up (if a bunch of other good magazines think the writer is good, maybe the reader is missing something?) But, again, this doesn’t mean that once it reaches the editors' hands it’s more likely to be accepted than any others that make the second round.
All Submissions Should Be Blind Since Merit Is All That Counts!
Writers, editors, and readers all love to say that merit is all that counts. But if we are being honest, that is not the case. For one thing, merit doesn’t entirely exist in a vacuum. A new story by a Nobel prize winner will have certain power and generate certain interest by virtue of who wrote it. Art is subjective, but even if you could assign some kind of “objective” score, a 6.2 story by David Foster Wallace or Flannery O’Connor may well be “worth” more than a 6.2 story by a complete unknown.
Perhaps more importantly, magazines want to be read, and readers are far more likely to read a magazine that has at least a couple familiar names. Hell, submitting writers are more likely to send their best work to magazines that publish writers whose names they know. Most good editors try to find a balance between promoting new and unpublished writers and including established writers who will attract readers, but there you go.
Bah, It’s All Nepotism Anyway!
Despite what I’ve said above, nepotism doesn’t necessarily work like most struggling writers think. There’s frequently a sense that magazines just help out their friends by publishing them, but I think the reverse might be more common: writers giving away work to their friend’s magazine that they could have sold to a bigger market.
That’s because, again, writers and readers are drawn to magazines that publish familiar names. If you want to start a new literary magazine, the best way to get attention is to beg (or pay) established writers to send you work.
Fine, Whatever — Just Get to the Part Telling Me How to Get Published
I will drop some real talk publishing science in just a sec, but here are a few things to keep in mind before submitting:
1. Magazines Don’t Exist for Submitting Writers
A lot of the anger I see directed at literary magazines (They don’t publish enough new writers! They don’t respond fast enough! They don’t include detailed workshopping notes with rejections! etc.) is predicated on the idea that literary magazines’ primary duty is to the submitting writers. That’s not really the case. Magazines have a duty to their readers and to the writers they publish. Readers pay for a magazine to exist, and the writers provide the work that makes up the magazine. Magazines have limited resources and can, and should, focus them on creating a great magazine that people will want to read as well as in getting exposure and hopefully money to their writers and artists. That’s a higher priority than responding to slush immediately or providing detailed notes to rejected writers (who mostly resent such criticism when they receive it anyway).
2. Quality Isn’t the Only Factor
Even outside of the question of famous writers, submitting writers should keep in mind that — despite what most people say — quality is not the only factor. As I just said, the editors’ goal should be to create a great and interesting literary magazine that their readers will like. They want a certain level of coherency, and a certain level of variation. Your story may be passed on because it is simply stylistically too similar to other stories in the issue, or feature some of the same subject matter. (This is good, but, man, what’s with all the magical realist stories about haunted Twitter accounts this submission cycle?) Maybe you’re submitting flash fiction and the magazine already has a dozen flash pieces, or maybe they really don’t want to publish flash at all. Maybe it is a great story that just feels too much like the kind of story that a different magazine would publish. Who knows?
3. Editors Read to Reject
Editors have so much writing to get through and so little time to shape pieces that they consciously or subconsciously look for a reason (bad ending, spelling errors, horrible title, failure to follow guidelines, etc.) to pass on a piece. As a writer, this means that you need to make your work as tight as you can make it. Never send a rough draft with the hope that an editor will be willing to do many rounds of edits with you to get the piece finished. Never send work that isn’t following the guidelines or standard of the industry. Sure, it might not be fair that a work of genius is passed over because it’s filled with typos and set in 8-point single-spaced Courier…actually, that’s fair. People who still use Courier are monsters.
4. But Editors Also Read to Accept
At the same time, I see many emerging writers fret over details of their submissions that are probably irrelevant. Recently I was on a panel about submitting and a majority of the questions ended up being about what should go in a cover letter. (Do you address to the Fiction Editor or by name? Should I resubmit if I forgot to include page numbers? etc.)
Despite point 2, writers should keep in mind that editors rarely find work they love. When they do, they want to accept it. Few editors find themselves with an excess of work they think is great. It is far more common to be desperately ploughing a week from sending the issue to printers trying to find enough good work to fill it. If you have a piece that the editors like, it isn’t going to matter at all if you aren’t previously published, listed the wrong fiction editor, or have a typo in your first sentence. If an editor loves it, they are going to take it.
5. (Most) Editors Are Writers Too
A lot of struggling writers develop an us-vs.-them mindset, complaining about how editors squash talent and hate innovation and are ruining everything about fiction and if they all died in a fire literature could finally be free!!! It’s worth keeping in mind that most people working at literary magazines consider themselves writers first and foremost. (This isn’t universally true. The handful of magazines with real budgets employ editors who are primarily or entirely editors, and some magazines are run by people who only dabble in their own creative work.) These editors know the thrill of acceptance and pain of rejection as well as anyone else. They are on the writers’ side.
6. Good Work Wins Out in the End… Emphasis on End
Grumbling is every writer's favorite pastime. There is always a crappy story in the latest lit mag or mediocre writer winning a grant. We all know great work is passed over while E.L. James and Dan Brown help destroy acres of the Amazon rainforest each year.
At the same time, we love to say that the cream rises to the top, that good work will get recognized eventually. And both of these things can be true.
You should consider submitting as something like poker. There is a giant amount of luck in a single hand, or even a single game. One night, the worst player in your regular game can bleed everyone dry. Another night, the player who has been raking it in every night will go bust. But over the course of many hands and many nights, the good poker players win the money. Similarly, mediocre work may win out over great work in the short term (and lord knows it can even win major awards or become a best-seller), but in the long run if you write good work and you submit consistently you will find a home for it. (Even the E.L. Jameses and Dan Browns of the world are likely to lose out to the actually great writers as the decades pass. If you don’t believe me, go look at a list of best-sellers from 100 years ago and see how many names you recognize.) But for this to happen, you do have to sit at the table and play the game.
What’s the Most Important Quality to Have to Get Published?
Obviously, you need to write great work, and cultivate whatever habits and attributes allow you to create great work. But this essay can’t help you with that. What I can tell you is that the most important part of submitting is persistence.
Before I ever submitted a story, I took a creative writing class where we studied that year’s Best American Short Stories. In the back of the anthology, each author talked about how they got published. One writer said her story was rejected 30 times before being picked up by Tin House. Let the first part of that sink in: 30 times. Thirty.
But let the second part sink in too: The piece was published by Tin House and selected by Best American Short Stories! Her persistence paid off not just any old publication, but by publication in one of the best literary magazines and selection in one of the three big year-end anthologies.
Similarly, I’ve seen many writers talk about how they submitted work to this or that magazine 20 times before they ever got something accepted. If you bombard editors with nonstop submissions, they may stop reading you. But if you are following the guidelines and submitting good work, you can eventually crack through.
Does That Mean I Should Submit Each Story to 500 Places at Once?
“Carpet bombing,” as this is frequently called, is a pretty common tactic. I don’t think it works that well. It’s pretty obvious when a writer is doing it and it clogs up the system, making more slush and causing more delays in responses. I’ve also found personally that more targeted submissions work much better. Magazines all have their individual tastes and styles, and figuring out which journal is most likely to take a piece is a better use of time than copying and pasting your submission into a hundred different Submittable queues.
The common advice for beginners is to rank the magazines you want to be in into tiers, and submit to four to eight of them at a time (per story). This way, you won’t get your New Yorker acceptance the day after you already gave the OK to the Farting Catfish Poetry Webzine.
So Where Should I Submit To?
[Pulls on old man mask] Back in my day, this was a hard question to answer. We had to walk uphill both ways to an independent bookstore to see what literary magazines existed and where their addresses where. You whippersnapper scribblers have it easy! Now every magazine has their submission guidelines online, and it’s easy to find lists of magazines. An excellent place to start for literary fiction is Clifford Garstang’s Pushcart Rankings.
(Note: Please do not take the Pushcart rankings as any kind of gospel. They are heavily weighted toward print magazines, despite some web magazines publishing as high quality work as any print journal, and are also weighted toward magazines that publish a lot of fiction in a calendar year. That said, the Pushcart is a fantastic anthology and you can be assured that any magazine that’s won a few is worth its salt.)
Lists like the Pushcart Ranking can be used as starting points, but should be narrowed down depending on your style and the story in question. A story that is right for a great experimental magazine like Conjunctions may not be right for a more traditional magazine.
No, But Come On, What Are the Best Magazines?
It may sound corny, but the best magazine is the one that publishes work you love. Money is nice, but outside of the very top magazines you are talking happy hour beer money at best. Prestige is also nice, but outside of maybe The New Yorker and a few others, a few story pubs isn’t going to land you a book deal.
Real talk: It’s much more satisfying to appear in a journal you read and love, next to authors you read and love, than it is to be in a slightly more prestigious journal among writers that make your skin slough off in boredom.
What About Online Vs. Print?
The short answer is: both!
Whatever stigma was attached to online publication is pretty much gone now. If anything, there’s a lot of people who will tell you that you should only publish online and that online magazines get far more readers, and isn’t that what you want?
I disagree with that logic, though. It’s true that, as a general rule, websites get far more hits than print magazines sell copies. That doesn’t let us know if more people actually read the pieces though, and I believe there can be a risk of having the same readers over and over again if you only publish online (e.g., the people who follow you on social media) whereas you might have access to different readers if some of your work is in print. Also, for better or worse, the biggest print magazines still carry more weight with editors, agents, and year-end anthologies than online magazines do. Assuming you don’t only want to have stories read, but want to find an agent, sell a book to publisher, and build a career, then you ignore print magazines at your (career’s) peril.
A Slight Warning for Emerging Writers Publishing Online
Emerging writers should keep in mind that online is forever. If you publish your early work in a print magazine, a few years down the line it will basically disappear unless you choose to include it in a future collection. If you get to be an established writer, only someone willing to go plough through the stacks of a university’s library archives is going to see it.
But online publications can be the first thing that comes up when someone googles your name. For a long time, the front page of my Google results was filled with stories that I’d published years prior. It’s not just that online is forever, but that online is ever present. By that I mean, no one notices the date a piece was published. They do not take into account that it might be really old work when reading it (unlike the university-archive-slumming super fan).
$hould I Only $ubmit to Pla¢es That Pay?
Getting paid for writing is every writer’s dream, and certainly in general the magazines that pay a lot of money are the magazines that will also get you the most attention. However, outside of contests (more on that in a second), you should know that most magazines cannot afford to pay substantial amounts. You can get a few thousand at top glossy magazines, and there are probably a dozen good places that will pay between $100 and $300. After that, you are mostly talking about being paid $15–50.
Now, even 15 bucks is nothing to sneeze at! But I see some writers who believe you should never ever publish your work for free, and I don’t think that is the best advice for emerging writers. The fact is, most lit mags don’t have any money. Most are operating with no budget or draining their editors' bank accounts. I firmly believe that any magazine that makes money off its writers is exploiting them if they are not paying them. Never write for free for corporations or corporate-backed publications offering “exposure.” But if the magazine is losing money, that’s a different scenario.
Even if a magazine can’t pay, they may be widely read by readers/agents/editors/prize anthologies. One could (and many have) built careers from unpaid magazine publications. In a better world, we’d all be paid with giant sacks of gold coins, but that doesn’t mean a contributor-copy-only magazine is ripping you off.
I’m Just Going to Submit to Contests and Rake it in
I’ve never been a contest submittter. I think it’s just as easy to be published from the slush (since you have many more slots each issue). And I can tell you most people I know don’t find it more impressive to be a winner of Journal X’s 2015 Flash Realism Contest — Family Theme than just being published in Journal X. It isn’t any less impressive, but the quality of journal is the biggest factor in either case.
However, other writers and editors have assured me that contest submissions often get a closer read and that agents pay attention to who wins. It’s probably true that the competition is less fierce because most established writers consider it bad form to submit to contests, thus you are mostly competing against other emerging writers. For the top-level journals that almost never publish from the slush, contests may be your only real shot.
So…I dunno. Make of that what you will.
The main upside of contests is that you can actually win serious money. The downside is that you probably need to treat contests like you treat all submissions: Expect to submit 20 times before you win one. This means you are paying 20 contest fees, which can be serious money in itself.
I’m Freaking Out About My Cover Letter! What Do I Put In??
Emerging writers seem to fret over cover letters more than anything else. Don’t. Cover letters are not that important. Hell, in the Submittable era, lots of editors — myself included! — do not even look at cover letters until after they’ve already read the piece and made up their mind.
The common advice is correct: short and sweet. Dear [genre editor], my work appears in [names of three to five journals] and I [attend this MFA/work at this journal/have this experience]. Thank you for your consideration! [Your name]
Perhaps you can add a line about how you enjoyed a story in their previous issue if you’ve read it. Definitely add a line about how you received a personalized rejection the last time you submitted if that indeed happened. Otherwise, keep it simple and never summarize your story. The reader is going to decide what they think of your story, and you telling them upfront that it’s “a gut-wrenching story of hope and redemption about two snapping turtles who have cancer that will fit perfectly into your Summer Sadness issue” is just going to make them roll their eyes.
Quick Cover Letter No-Nos
Don’t summarize your story.
Don’t list 100 publications (just your three to five best if you have some).
Don’t address the letter to another magazine. (Check your form letter copy and pasting!)
Don’t try to be clever unless you are super clever.
Don’t relay your life story.
Don’t describe the psychology behind how or why you write.
OK, Cool, but Now I’m Freaking Out About the Formatting!
The main thing is follow the guidelines! Really, you’ll save yourself and the editors time by quickly reading the guidelines before your submit.
Otherwise, common sense applies: Proofread your work and format it in a standard way (12-point font, double spaced, page numbers, contact info in the header or footer). If you slightly messed up the format, don’t worry. Few editors will reject a story they like because the author contact info is in the footer instead of the header.
Gah! Why Haven’t I Gotten a Response Yet? It’s Been a Week!
[Pulls out old man mask again] When I was first submitting, you never knew if your piece was lost in the mail! You sweated in bed each night trying to decide if the magazine was taking forever because it was close or because they never even saw it!
Not so for you spoiled, lucky kids. Today, most magazines use a system like Submittable that shows the status of your submission. Submissions really don’t get lost — unless something really weird happens, or you accidentally send to the wrong category and it never gets corrected. As elaborated in Part I, lit mags have a gigantic pile of submissions to level out and it simply just takes a long time. Three to six months is standard, but it’s not remotely uncommon for it to take up to a year or more.
It’s extremely frustrating, but the solutions (like very short windows for open submissions to limit the slush pile) are frustrating too. Again, magazines are simply flooded with work and it takes a long time to get through. The best advice is to do your best to not think about it. Finish a story, submit it to a few places, and move on to something else.
I Followed All Your Advice and Got Rejected, Ya Jerk!
First, remember rejection is the name of the game and even great stories by acclaimed writers can be rejected many times before finding a home. Second, resist the urge to attack the editors. Every editor gets a few emails/messages/tweets a year from hurt writers that say something like, “Why would I want to be published in your idiotic rag of drivel written by idiots for drooling simpletons anyway!!!” A few times I’ve had writers write me months later with “well, this story you rejected last August just got picked up by Can I Keep My Kumquat? Flash Fiction Newsletter so joke’s on you!”
Rejection hurts, and it may be human nature to want to hurt back. But the thing is these comments never hurt editors (which shouldn’t be your goal anyway). If you hate the journal so much, why would you want to be published there? That makes you look bad, and makes you look like a liar when you inevitably submit a new story a week later. Editors will notice.
Wait, It Wasn’t a Form Rejection; What Does That Mean?
You really should consider anything other than a standard form rejection to be a compliment. I say a “standard” form rejection, because lots of magazines have multiple form rejections — one for the mass of rejections and another one or two for “close calls.” Remember what I said in Part I about how only 10% of slush (at best) merits serious consideration from a journal? You are probably in that 10% if you have gotten anything beyond a form rejection. If you get a personal note, you were likely on the long list. You should definitely submit there again and definitely mention the note.
I Totally Rewrote That Story While it Was In Submission! Can I Just Send the New Version Back?
I’m afraid not. Unless the editor specifically asked for a revision, they do not want to see another version of the story they just rejected. If they thought it only needed a little revision, they would have made the edits themselves or told you what to change. At best, asking to send a new version comes off as unprofessional. You are essentially admitting that you send work out before it is finished.
Should I Immediately Send a New Submission Then?
There is no rush here. If you get a nice rejection on Monday and rush to send a new submission on Tuesday, I hate to break it to you but the editor is not going to read that on Wednesday. Like any slush submission, it’s going to go into the queue and probably won’t be looked at for three to six months. Point being: Don’t worry about “capitalizing” on your nice rejection. There is no rush. Send the next story when it’s ready, no sooner.
If I Get Accepted, How Much Will the Editor Edit?
As with many things in the lit world, this is all over the map. Of the all the work I’ve had published, I’d estimate that 50% were accepted with either no edits or only the most basic of copyedits for typos and grammar. Twenty percent had a couple copyedits. Fifteen percent had a small amount of real editing (sentences cut or reworded, structure tweaked, etc.). Ten percent had a medium level of editing (a tweak a paragraph, say, or a suggestion to cut a whole paragraph). Maybe 5%, tops, had serious editing that truly altered the piece.
As such, you should never expect to send an unfinished story with the hopes that an editor will labor over it and fix it for you. Send your most polished and finished work possible, and if an editor wants to take it to an even higher level that’s a bonus.
Could You Wrap This Up So I Can Get Back to Writing?
Will do. Here are some final thoughts:
There Is No Rush
Most young writers — myself included back in the day — rush to publish. They want to feel validated and get some assurance that their work is publishable. But there are no extra points in literature for publishing young. Lit mag editors don’t know or care about the age of their submitters. Book buyers don’t care about how quickly you published your first story. If your work isn’t ready, wait until it is.
Your Work Is Ready When Someone Publishes it
At the same time, perfectionism can be a writer’s worst enemy. I’ve known too many writers who never submit, avoiding rejection by pretending they just need to polish a little more. Work is ready when someone you trust publishes it. If an editor at The Paris Review wants your story, then trust them to know that it is ready. This, again, is why it is much better to submit to magazines that publish writing you admire and want to read.
Quality Counts Way More Than Quantity
It’s nice to get a lot of publishing credits, but honestly, after a couple, they don’t really matter unless the work is good. I’ve seen some writers who published seemingly 50 pieces a year in decent journals, yet who took forever to sell a book because the work was rushed and uneven. I’d be lying if I said quantity doesn’t count at all. The more you publish, the more likely you are to catch the attention of other editors and agents, and the more likely you are to “build a platform” and “establish a brand” and all those other gross corporate phrases that have been imported into the lit world. Still, a fantastic story that gets people talking is worth much more than a dozen boring stories that people click on then quickly forget.
Write the Work You Want to Read
At the end of the day, the world doesn’t really need more creative writing. There is an insurmountable pile of it submitted every day to hundreds of magazines. Probably an entire Library of Congress worth of self-published e-books comes out each year. No one is dying because of a lack of creative writing in the world, and while you can get published following the trends, publication doesn’t mean much itself. If you don’t love the work, publication is unlikely to bring you riches or happiness or even Twitter followers. What is going to count is having work that you believe in.
Once you have that, send it out, assume rejection, and start on the next piece while you wait.
Lincoln Michel is the author of Upright Beasts. He is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. His work has appears in Granta, Vice, The Believer, Tin House, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.