The most helpful sentence in a rejection letter I’ve ever received is:
“Though it’s not right for us, you have a great story here, and I’m certain it will find a home soon.”
It’s that one word—“home”—that got me to really understand how submitting your work for publication isn’t about finding a journal that likes you, but rather finding the right place for your words to live. Publishing is about your writing moving into the pages of one specific space, and then living out the rest of its life there.
“Submitting your work for publication isn’t about finding a journal that likes you, but rather finding the right place for your words to live.”
There are a number of ways to go about house hunting for your words. Here are five of them:
- Get recommendations for where to submit from knowledgeable writer friends, mentors, or even a professional submissions consultant (like Chelsey Clammer because this parenthetical is an act of shameless self-promotion; check out how cheap it is to get some professional suggestions and advice!).
- Research every literary journal that currently exists to see which one you think would best fit your writing.
- Paper the world with your submissions because surely one of them will eventually land in the correct editor’s inbox.
- Check out upcoming deadlines for journal or contest submissions that are on a specific theme you obsessively write about.
- Submit to the journals who have published the writers whose work inspires your own.
Really, though, we can dwindle that list down to two main approaches to submitting:
Find vs Fling
Find = geeky writer research!
Fling = why the hell not?!?
Many editors tell writers—if not insist—that they must not fling, which is to say we should be familiar with their journal before submitting. In fact, as a prospective contributor, you are expected to read at least one issue of the journal prior to even considering submitting to them. That way, you’ll have a better sense of what they are looking for and will save everyone a lot of time by understanding, say, Creative Nonfiction magazine does not publish sci-fi trilogies about vampire llamas.
Reading journals before you submit to them is an excellent practice. It is also a relatively rare practice. The excuse we often hear is: “I don’t have a lot of time to read other people’s work because I’m writing my own.” Know that this is a valid excuse, but also remember that without readers, writers wouldn’t exist.
“Reading journals before you submit to them is an excellent practice. It is also a relatively rare practice.”
And yet, the reality is: being picky about where you send your work doesn’t guarantee an editor will pick it for publication.
When I first started submitting to journals, my super-accomplished and widely published writer-friend instructed me to paper the world with my submissions. So I did. I did this because I just wanted to see my work published, to have something shareable with the public, and to get some publishing credits to put in my author bio. With exactly zero publications to my name, I slathered, papered, wheat-pasted, blanketed, drowned, and smothered the lit journal housing market with my potential essay tenants. This approach is what I call The Fling Method.
The four steps of The Fling Method:
- See what sticks
Note: Flinging one essay to dozens of journals you’ve never actually read will undoubtedly increase the number of your submissions that boomerang back to you with a thunderous, “Uh. No.” But maybe that’s okay. It was okay for me for a while as I just wanted to gain some publication credits and knowledge of the lit mag world.
That said, it’s advisable not to employ the wet noodle strategy every time you submit. As writers, we shouldn’t just fling our pages at lit journals and see what sticks. Every wall is different; and so even if your story-noodle is well-cooked and ready to serve, flinging it at a bunch of different walls (without knowing what those walls are made of) will result in more rejected noodles slathered in a depressing heap on the floor than stuck to the wall and ready to be consumed by others.
Odd metaphor aside, just know that if you do some research and submit to more appropriate journals for your work, you will have a better shot at an acceptance than if you flung it to whatever five journals pop up first on Newpages.
It’s a great place to engage with the other type of submitting approach: The Find Method.
Newpages, Duotrope, Poets & Writers, et al., are websites that post calls for submissions, provide information on different journals, and have a filterable database, so you can quickly narrow in on the possible location of your writing’s home. The Review Review is another great resource. It’s a website dedicated to reviewing literary journals and magazines. You can search through their reviews; or if you really want to commit yourself to knowing more about different journals, you can volunteer to be a reviewer, which forces you to read at least one lit journal a month.
“The main difference between The Fling and Find Methods is the concept of research.”
The main difference between The Fling and Find Methods is the concept of research. Though you still don’t need to read every lit journal that came out this past year to find which one you think would be good to submit to, spending a little bit of time online reading journals’ About Page, Masthead, and even a few reviews of them will help to navigate what to submit and where. When you first research publications, the process might feel a little overwhelming because the copious amount of journals and websites to search through is indeed daunting. But just remember to go about it in the 12-step program way—one journal at a time.
Before you jump into researching journals, it’s good to know what, exactly, you should be researching.
- The journal’s overall tone
- Are you looking for funny and sarcastic? Poetic and dark? Figure out the journal’s tone by its visual appearance and by scrolling through/actually reading some of what they have published.
- The type of work they are looking for
- Do they have themed issues? Do they want weird stuff? Do they veer towards chronological reportage? Do they specifically want stories that are exactly 100 words long? Do they even publish the genre of your piece? (You’d be surprised by the number of journals that don’t publish nonfiction.)
- If their website is pretty/intriguing/kind-to-the-eyes
- Don’t submit to a journal that you personally think is ugly. Because although any publication is awesome, if you find the website’s aesthetic to be embarrassingly gross or bland or hard to read, you won’t be too excited to share the link to your publication with everyone you know.
Let’s get real. The number of lit journals out there is a little ridiculous. All it takes to have a lit journal is a website and someone who knows how to read. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t submit to the smaller mags. Every journal and magazine—even the New Yorker—had its first issue, just like every famous writer at one point had her first publication. Basically, don’t feel like you can only submit to the places that the larger public has heard of. There are a number of smaller journals who are publishing engaging and amazing work. All you have to do is look for them or do enough flinging to find them.
“Don’t feel like you can only submit to the places that the larger public has heard of.”
All of that said, if The Fling Method works for you, then by all means, keep flinging. If The Find Method seems more productive, then begin finding! Either way, make sure that you actually read some literary journals because they rock. It’s where the newest literature is being published; and similar to how you want people to read your own work, spend a little bit of time each day reading other people’s work. After all, when you’re searching for a home, it’s best to actually step inside the house and have a look around to see if you could imagine yourself living there.
Next month, we’ll take a look at cover letters, sarcasm, and what you want an editor to know (or not know) about your submission.
Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome and won the 2016 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s, and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She’s the essays editor for The Nervous Breakdown. @ChelseyClammer www.chelseyclammer.com.
Chelsey is also an instructor for WOW! Women On Writing. She’s offering column readers a Submissions Consultation of up to 12 pages (4,500 words). Find out more.
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Submit ’Til You Make It