By Colorado Review Associate Editor Aliceanna Stopher
The first time a writing mentor seriously urged me to submit my work, I felt flattered and confused. He shrugged on his coat and said, “Send that essay out. It’s ready.” Instantly, flattered and confused.
I’ve become that kind of teacher, that writing group pusher, that slightly bossy, slightly busybody writing friend who, after I’ve read a draft that knocks me out, is the bee in the writer’s bonnet buzzing, “Have you sent it out yet?” This is mostly, I think, because I am a greedy reader, one who wants the world to be filled with things I want to read, things I love, things I’m excited about. It is also, perhaps, that in my own writing and submitting practices I’ve learned I can be stubborn and slow. I’ve learned that sometimes I need that push. Most times I am grateful for it.
On the faces of my students when I suggest they submit their work for publication: flattery, confusion. And I get it—no one taught me how to submit, how to find journals I admire, how to know when a piece is ready. The prospect can be daunting when you’re starting out. Important to my sense of good writing citizenship is passing along what I’ve learned; in that spirit, find a few basic tips below.
1. But how do I know where I should submit my work?
Exactly the right place to start. Admittedly, when I started sending out stories I wasn’t yet a reader of literary journals. Each submission was a shot in the dark, a guess. There is, however, a better way.
Before you create your Submittable account, before you set aside money for submission fees, find a handful of journals you love, journals you’d be over the moon to be published in. When I was new to the wide world of literary journals, I spent much time on the Review Review. This website is an excellent resource, proving details and descriptions of a large array of print and online journals. NewPages is another such resource. Both are fabulously free.
After you’ve done your preliminary searching, subscribe to the journals you suspect you’re most interested in. It’s true, you may find a single copy here or there at a local bookstore or your local library. If your budget is tight, this is the best option for exploring the flavor of each magazine. Also true, the writing life is one of entering into a community, a family, a country in which being a good citizen means being an active participant in the community. All to say, subscribe subscribe subscribe. It’s worth it.
2. So I have a list of my very favorite journals and a draft I think is ready. What’s next?
First of all, congrats! Writing is work and if you’ve got a ready draft, that means you’ve put in the work. Feel proud. Recognize that your work has worth, value, and that no publishing credit changes that your beautiful, challenging, fresh art matters. Be prepared to face rejections; know they’re not a reflection of you as a human being or of the quality of your efforts.
Now you’ll probably need a Submittable account if you don’t have one already. Most journals use this submission portal, so it’s a good idea to sign up (and it’s free).
We’ve entered, at this point, into pretty straightforward territory. Ask yourself some basic questions and seek out the answers: Is the magazine I want to submit to open for submissions? What are their guidelines? How much does it cost to submit?
Read any instructions carefully. Journals are hungry for your best work. I promise, they’re not trying to trick you or make the submission process unnecessarily difficult. Reading and following their guidelines shows the journal that you’re serious and professional. When you’re ready, press submit. It’s really that easy.
3. Now what? Fame? Glory? Million-dollar advances?
Now my friend, you wait. Maybe you wait two weeks, two months, six months, eight months. The journal should give you an idea of how long you can expect to wait on their website.
In the meantime, don’t get Submittable obsessive. Instead make a spreadsheet! Mine is laid out like this:
Know that going into this process, despite how confident you are in your poems, story, or essay, an immediate acceptance to a journal is not the norm. Try not to take it personally—sometimes your piece isn’t a good fit for the journal’s upcoming issue, sometimes the piece needs another round of revision before it’s polished, sometimes the stars just don’t align. Remember that thing I said about your work mattering regardless of publication? Hold on to that.
Keep detailed records. Note what piece(s) you’ve sent, to where, and when. When you finally hear back from the magazine, keep a record of what kind of response you have received. Did the editors indicate interest in seeing more of your work? That’s great! Plan to submit to them again sometime in the future. Keeping track of what kinds of responses you’ve received will help you make smart submission decisions in the future. Recognize patterns: Have you sent the same piece to ten different places and received rejections across the board? Maybe it’s time to look at the piece again, enter into another round of revision.
Lastly, don’t give up. Mourn your rejections, but believe in your work enough to send it back out again. Know every writer is in the trenches with you; we all want to see good work in the world. Show us yours.