Submitting Written Work: Mysteries & Strategies

It's the 20th anniversary of National Poetry Month, but people have been writing and celebrating poetry (and prose) for centuries. In this century, with the wide adoption of the internet, it seems that new literary magazines championing one form of writing or another are born daily. From an editor's point of view, they are easy to start, but harder to maintain, as proven by the number that disappear after a few years. Meanwhile, most writers want to be published. With the sheer number of publications available and calling for submissions, how do you know where to submit and what is the best way to approach the submission process?

A reader recently asked me, in regards to my post from 2014, "What Does It Mean When They Say 'Read the Magazine?'": 
"should one first write the piece and then look for an "ideal home: for it, or rather tailor the piece for a specific journal while trying to take into account many of the tips above?" 
My answer was that I thought it was a good exercise to find a magazine that really strikes you, touches something in you, and see what kind of piece you get by writing with its editor(s) as your audience. But you should still write in your style and deal with subjects that interest you. On the other hand, it is good to keep reading magazines to try to find the right home for pieces you have already written and the ones you want to write freely in the future. So, I recommend mixing it up. 

It may also be possible to tailor a piece you have written, but this will require time, and analysis, and lots and lots of reading. What is the overall tone of the magazine? Is everything in first person or from a distance? Are the subjects realistic or imaginative? Are the writers listening to the language and rhythm of the sentences? Does the magazine have works that are close to the edge? Safe? Flowery? Short or long? Introspective or active? Ironic, sarcastic, or gently humorous? The list continues.

An excellent way to figure out an editor's taste and the particular slant and hot buttons of a magazine, are to read Jim Harrington's blog: Six Questions For…You can tell from the answers if the editor will be welcoming to your work or if you should run away. Sometimes the editor sounds insightful and thoughtful, other times the editor sounds like a jerk. Most of the recent interviews are with new magazines, but you can scroll through the list to find older ones, then check and see if they still exist. Other people join Duotrope so they can use the database to search for likely candidates for their work. The lists are updated regularly.

Many people enjoy submitting work to magazines that require a prompt or theme. With a few exceptions, I'm not crazy about writing as an assignment. If I happen to have a piece on the theme, I might submit it. Recently, though, I found a couple magazines that have very specific requirements for what otherwise might be familiar subjects. For one, I wrote the piece specifically for the magazine; for the other, I knew I had a piece that sounded right, a piece I had been sending out for years. I took another look at it, revised it slightly, and then sent. Each of those two pieces was accepted. Something worked, in both cases. (If you are interested in reading them, they are listed in the sidebar, for March and April 2016.) If the prompt or magazine theme sparks something in you, go for it!

A few issues come up as you submit your work. Should you submit to a magazine again after your work has been declined? Yes. Should you submit ten more times? If you've had nine, or even six pieces declined for one magazine, this probably isn't the place for you right now. If you are a new or young writer, and absolutely adore this magazine, you might try again in a year or two. Should you send again right away? Only if the editor asks you to. Otherwise, give it a few months. Look over your writing again. Possibly revise or rewrite. Get some perspective. Read the next issue of the magazine. Do you like the work already published there? Find the interview with the editor. Still think this would be a good place for your writing? Try again. (Please notice I don't use the word "rejection." It has to do with an editor's personal taste and the tone and feel and subjects the editor envisions for the magazine.) Just keep writing.

How shall you choose among them? Are there tiers among the magazines? Yes. But it depends how you want to judge them. Will you get paid? Most of the time, the answer is no. Other questions to ask are: Has the magazine been in business very long? That would let you know if they have the time and some kind of financial backing figured out. How many issues have been published? What kind of experience does the editor have? Is it easier to get published in one or another? That's probably going to depend on how many submissions they get and how frequently they publish. Does this magazine originate in an academic institution? If so, students are reading your work. But the magazine may have been founded decades ago and is still running strong because they have a solid backing and good leadership. Is it nicely designed—do you like the aesthetics? Again, do you like the work you've read there? These questions lead to the next question from the same reader: quantity or quality?

"I have read here and elsewhere that some folks have 'published more than 100 stories.' While that is statistically impressive, I wonder what the goal is ultimately. Personally, I would prefer to have published 10 stories and have them appear in the Paris Review, the New Yorker, and so on."

First, I want to clarify something: someone with 200 publications is not a better writer than someone with 100 publications or 10 publications. I personally don't care, and as an editor, I'm only irritated when the writer includes the count in the bio. Why do they send to so many places? Some people may be out collecting magazines. Some people may only be able to write with the props that another acceptance gets. Others may have heard that to ultimately get a book published, one needs to have the stories/poems/works accepted and published and validated by a magazine first. But again, with all the new magazines flourishing, it is hard to know if that long list will help. That's where the renown of the longstanding magazines probably will. But the catch is that those mags, like the New Yorker, tend to only publish works by people who have already published books. Who knows if the mainstream magazines will be the right place for your work, anyway? If you think your piece is right, however, it's always good to try.

Web or print? I used to want only to be published in a print magazine. But the value of online publications is that you can send the link out and help spread the word yourself. The downside is that if these magazines are not in print as well, once they are gone, they are gone. One of my stories disappeared from the web because the magazine was discontinued.

Paying for submissions? For the most part, I don't believe in it. I think that people should not have to pay to have their work read. There are arguments on both sides for this (Brevity has a good article), but when I have broken my rule and paid $2 here or there, I haven't had any added luck. If the magazine pays, I don't think submitters should be the ones subsidizing the authors.

It may seem complicated, but ultimately, your strategy and your goals and desires are your own, and you must follow your passion and intuition. So, read the magazines. Read the guidelines. Do your research. Above all: write first, then edit.

Other related posts:
What It Means When an Editor Says, "Not a Fit"
What Does It Mean When They Say "Read the Magazine" 
Thinking About Submission Fees 
Dear Writer: Kinder, Gentler Rejections 
Writing Like Rocks, Writing Like Water 
Common Tropes to Avoid 
Formatting Magazine Submissions & Cover Letters 
Insecurity and the Third-Person Bio
Success=Self-Confidence + Humility