When submitting to literary magazines, contests, reviews, or anywhere you’d like your writing to be considered, there are a few simple rules to follow to improve your chances for success.

As editor of the Maine Review, I’m often asked what I look for in submissions. As a writer who has been submitting to literary magazines for years, I know the process is fraught with anxiety, hope, and an occasional bit of dread. It’s sad that there’s no easier way for editors to discover excellent writing than through an impersonal submission process, and I hope that by sharing my thoughts, I can help make the experience of submitting a little easier for you.

Let me say first that there would be no Maine Review, or New York Times, or Amazon.com without writers. Though writers often feel they’re at the bottom of the totem pole, the fact is that writing is actually the cornerstone of the entire industry. Be proud that you’re a writer.

As an editor, it’s a thrill for me to read a piece of writing that grabs me in the first paragraph, carries me along, and moves me in some way – whether to tears, laughter, or amazement that someone could so clearly express powerful feelings, ideas, and metaphors that I can deeply relate to as a fellow human being.

Writing is powerful. The process of writing can be powerful, healing, enraging, ennobling – it’s one of the purest forms of self-expression because it comes straight from inspiration. What many writers ignore (or don’t realize) is that there’s a second part to the process, and that is craft.

There are many excellent books on craft: Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird are two of the best. You owe it to your muse to learn the craft of writing, so you can make the words of your inspiration as compelling as possible.

Over the years, I’ve edited books in every genre, and I’m often amazed that some writers will write a book without reading over it to tighten, focus, delete, and expand to make the book as compelling as possible. Rewriting isn’t always as fun as penning the first draft, but it’s what truly makes the story.

That said, here are a few tips to keep in mind when submitting to literary magazines:

1. Find out what kind of work the lit mag publishes, and choose your submissions accordingly. You can often get a copy through your interlibrary loan system, or find previously published issues on the website.

2. Go deep. Readers love to experience what they’re reading, to relate to it on a visceral or emotional level. Gutsy writing is always appreciated.

3. Reading a piece through without noticing an error is a real joy for editors. I always suggest that writers have their work edited before submitting it anywhere. At least run the work through the spell checker, and fix what comes up. A few typos doesn’t mean the end of the world, but a piece that has numerous typos feels carelessly done, no matter how good the writing is.

4. Follow instructions. It’s amazing how many people, in every walk of life, fail to follow instructions. At the Review, we usually ask for a cover page along with a submission, so we can easily keep track of a writer’s contact info. When we’re running a contest, we need a separate cover sheet to tag entries for the blind judging process. When we receive a submission that doesn’t follow instructions, there’s a tendency to assume that the writing might not be that good either – even though that’s often not true.

One last suggestion: when you submit a piece, offer first time rights or nonexclusive rights only – that way, when you’ve written enough short stories, poems, or essays, you can combine them into an anthology and publish it under your name.

Above all, enjoy the process of writing! Remember: editors love discovering the next great writer – and it could be you. Best of luck!


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Katherine Mayfield

About Katherine Mayfield

Katherine Mayfield has written 1 posts in this blog.

Katherine Mayfield is the editor of the Maine Review, a quarterly print/electronic lit mag publishing short fiction, poetry, CNF, and essays. She’s also the author of Stand Your Ground: How to Cope with a Dysfunctional Family and Recover from Trauma, a guide to writing memoir called What's Your Story, and the award-winning memoir The Box of Daughter. Her website is www.Katherine-Mayfield.com, and she blogs on dysfunctional families at www.TheBoxofDaughter.com.

6 thoughts on “Tips for submitting to literary magazines

  1. A.J. Flowers says:

    I’m surprised to hear how much goes without rewriting and revision. Especially short work which is submitted to literary magazines, why not? Are people so lazy? Or is it just difficult to find a second set of eyes to review the work?
    (If it’s the latter, that’s why I thank the literary gods every day for the Scribophile.com online community!)

  2. Kevin says:

    Good tips.

    From a writer’s perspective, it would be very helpful if journals included sample pieces on their web sites—especially if they already link to previous issues, and even more so if they charge any kind of submission or reading fee. There are so many journals out there that tracking down physical copies of every one can be costly and/or time-consuming; providing samples of previously published work would make it easier for writers to quickly determine whether their work is appropriate for submission.

    Without samples, the only things a writer can go by are cover thumbnails, sometimes a list of an issue’s contents, and the particular journal’s reputation. Again, there are so many journals out there that the cover thumbnails will have the biggest (and, often, only) influence on the writer’s perception of that journal; if the cover design is dodgy, or doesn’t properly communicate the journal’s aesthetic, chances are that that journal is going to miss out on a submission that might have been worthy of inclusion.

    I would also suggest that those journals that insist on right of first publication reconsider that requirement. In my experience, poetry is not so widely read (the only people I meet who do read poetry are themselves poets) that there is any real risk of someone opening up a journal to find themselves reading a poem they have already read.

    Plus, for folks who blog their work (as I do), the “no previously published works” restriction automatically eliminates a lot of work from consideration (as well as the possibility for cross-promotion between writer and journal). Why save your best work for a journal when you can present it to the public yourself, and get more-or-less immediate feedback? Not to mention that it often takes time to determine whether a piece that seemed so fresh the moment after its creation still holds up—by which time the writer has already moved on to something else.

  3. Teri says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. It’s very helpful to hear from someone “in the trenches”. 🙂

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