A friend of mine who’s currently finishing up her MFA recently emailed me to ask for advice about submitting work to literary journals:

I have been writing a few short stories recently (plus many excerpts from the thesis/novel) that I would like to take a crack at publishing somewhere. The problem? I am mystified by the way that authors find magazines that “fit” their style/writing. I’ve heard it’s best to just read lit mags to see where an author should submit, but there are so many! I looked at short stories of authors I like and saw where those stories were originally published (but they were heavy hitters like Granta and Ploughshares, which I don’t think I’m ready for).

I’m wondering if you have any advice for finding magazines and deciding which ones to subscribe to or even how to find them. I don’t necessarily want to subscribe to fifteen random magazines because I have no money and that seems like more of a crapshoot than anything else.

Have any advice on how to navigate this stuff? Anything would be much appreciated!

In responding to her, I thought I might offer up this info to everyone, since these are questions that I certainly worried about when I started writing.

First of all, researching journals is as important as doing research to write fiction. So, try not to be discouraged about the number of journals in existence, and instead think of it as a required part of your job.

Since most journals only publish short work by fiction writers, and I’m a fiction writer, I’m focusing entirely on publishing short fiction. But you can apply these rules to just about any sort of short-form writing. Essays, poems, hybrid work, etc.

With that in mind, following my friend’s example, it’s a good idea to look at collections you admire to see where the stories therein were first published. But I’d encourage you to look at more than one collection. If you want a minimum, I’d say look at no fewer than six collections. If that sounds extreme, think of it this way: if you were researching a story, you’d have to include a detail that came up four or five times, right? Same rule applies here. You’ll know the journal you want once you see it mentioned again and again.

Don’t tell yourself you’re not ready to send work to a journal just because that journal is, in current parlance, kind of a big deal. Look at your work with a critical eye. If you’ve revised it and revised it, and you’ve read it fifty times, and you’re still engaged by it, still impressed by it, admittedly still wowed by it, send that fucker out to the best journal you can. (As long as it fits within their guidelines, of course.) If you haven’t yet revised ad nauseum, but you still want to get your feet wet in terms of publication, read on.

So, let’s say that every single collection you look at has overlap in the following journals: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Granta. Such prestige—how intimidating. What’s a writer to do? No sweat: Just look at different collections. More specifically, look at collections published by presses other than the big five.

This isn’t just my preference as a small press publisher talking. Small press editors are more willing to take risks on lesser known (or unknown) writers because small press publishers don’t need to recoup the expenses of printing hundreds of thousands of books each year.

If you have no idea how to find a small press book or journal, think about how you would describe your work in general terms. Then plug those terms into your favorite search engine, add “submission guidelines,” and see what comes out.

I write long fiction. My “short” stories are usually well over 10,000 words, which usually means they run about 50 pages. That limits me to approximately 25 journals where I can submit work. But let’s say I didn’t know which ones. Looking for “novella” + “submission guidelines” brings up a page at Bookfox with a list of journals that regularly feature long fiction. But your terms might not be formal constraints—maybe you write satire, or sci-fi, or gender-bending scenes about Morocco in the 1840s. (We all have our projects.) For that last one, I searched for gender fiction “submission guidelines,” and got first-page links to (among others) American Short Fiction and Story Magazine, two journals that regularly publish work by emerging writers, and a page on The Review Review for LGBT lit mags.

Regardless of how you discover the journals you want, once you’ve got your list ready, seek those journals out online. Since most print journals have at least a few examples of exemplary work on their websites, and all online journals have their archives online by dint of the medium, you don’t necessarily need to subscribe.

A TIP (slash caveat)
You’ll want to read more than one story in any given journal before submitting your work, so even if you can’t afford a subscription, you could get a back issue, which are normally offered at a discount and would provide more than enough content for you to scope the journal’s aesthetic, not to mention it would support the journal, which helps literary journals stick around.

As for how to figure out which journals to subscribe to, I’m of the mind that the content and design are of equal importance, so I’m visually oriented when it comes to subscriptions. For me, the finest looking journals are Oxford American and McSweeney’s, two very different projects, but the content is comparable in terms of quality, which is to say both are solid. I usually have at least one print subscription (currently: Oxford American and The Cincinnati Review**; past: AGNI*Fourteen Hills**Tin HouseThe Massachusetts Review**Willow Springs**, and Electric Literature, all of which I recommend except EL, but only because EL is now entirely online). Also, friends love reading whatever’s out when they come over, so as a bonus: having print journals around makes everybody happy.

As for how I found these journals in the first place, I was a bookseller for five years, and a periodicals clerk. It was a great way to get paid to know things about magazines. And now, I know a lot of writers and we all like talking about journals we love—easier than acknowledging the ones we hate (a post for another time). So I find out about new journals by talking to people I know, not to mention hearing about new projects via Twitter and Facebook, etc.

Poets and WritersThe Review Review, and NewPages, all of which have searchable databases. TRR and NP also review lit mags, which can give you insight into which issues to read when scouting for journals. Also, Entropy has a bimonthly list of calls for submissions.

Things I consider when sending out work: Does the journal have an easily navigable website? (After all, I don’t want it to be difficult for readers to find my writing.) Will the journal promote my work via social media or am I on my own? Will I get paid? If it’s a print journal, will my work also be published on their website? If it’s an online journal, do they publish supplementary material (e.g., audio files of authors reading their work, interviews with contributors)? And, most important, what can I do to elevate readers’ awareness of that journal?

This may sound backward to many writers—isn’t the whole point of a lit mag to promote new writing? Looking at it from a self-serving vantage point, if you have an eye for keeping your work in print, you’ll want the journals where your work is published to be successful. Also, I come at this from a chatty perspective: I like talking about writing I love. I want to tell my friends about journals they would enjoy. It makes me happy. I did it above. I’ll do it again. Here’s a list of online journals I regularly read because I find them to be the most consistent, re: quality writing, diversity in curation, and innovative fiction: The Collagist, Paper Darts, Collapsar, Bomb, Diagram, Recommended Reading, Triquarterly, and Guernica. I’m also going to mention apt, since that’s the journal I read without question every week, and all promotion is helpful, even self-promotion.

By the way, if this whole system of reading and submitting in order to get published sounds like months (or even years) of work, it is! Just like writing. But reading contemporary fiction (i.e., work by writers who are still alive) is what you’ll want and expect people do for you, once your writing is published. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard me talk about community, how to be part of one, and why literary communities are important. Submitting work for publication is your introduction to the online literary community, which we’re all de facto part of by being writers who use the internet.

So, hello. Welcome. It’s nice to see you. You’re almost ready to send work out.

Submittable is really helpful for managing submissions, but there are still journals that use other submission trackers. Since you’ll probably submit work to more than one journal at a time, it’s helpful to track your submissions so you can withdraw them from consideration should they get accepted elsewhere.

Also, I’m not the first writer to try to tackle the dense subject of submitting work. Lincoln Michel wrote an in-depth guide to getting published in lit mags for BuzzFeed. Lynda Barrett wrote an article on “What Editors Want” for TRR. And Michael Kardos wrote a mini course on cover letters over at Writers Digest. Read each and take heart: you are not alone.

Now go forth and submit. And read, read, read. And, if you can swing it, subscribe to one journal. And if you can’t, go to the library and read one cover to cover. Then tell all your friends about it. Every little bit helps.




* – I was an editor for AGNI, but no bias: they regularly publish good work.
** – Subscribed as a result of having work published in those journals, or winning/placing in a contest. But they’re all gorgeous books worthy of your subscription.

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