How to Submit Short Stories to Literary Journals
“I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.” – Sylvia Plath
“All great innovations are built on rejections.” – Louis Ferdinand Céline
In addition to writing and submitting stories for over a decade, I have served as an intern at a literary agency and I currently volunteer as an assistant editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal. Through this experience, I’ve submitted some of the worst stories imaginable and, on the other side of the publisher’s desk, I’ve handled some of the best.
The Submissions Process
The submissions process is surprisingly straightforward. Begin by visiting websites that list literary journals. Google “literary journals” and go from there. Also check out NewPages Calls for Submissions, which is updated regularly. The actual submission process varies from one journal to the next. Most journals accept submissions through Submittable.com. Other journals have a submission form imbedded into their website. Some places still accept mail submissions.
Before submitting a story, always read the journal’s submissions guidelines. More importantly (but less obviously), always look at the editor’s bios. Usually a one-second glimpse at the picture of the head editor will let you know if the journal will likely accept your story or not. Writing, after all, is all communications. People who understand and appreciate our communications are usually our peers. If an editor is culturally entirely removed from your peer group (if you would have no interests in speaking to this person in person), then they probably won’t understand (or “get” or “appreciate”) your work.
The Cover Letter
Always draft a short cover letter for each story you write. Sometimes journals want a cover letter, other times they don’t—more than likely they don’t really care either way. But you should have one written for each story just to be safe. I used to write somewhat long, detailed cover letters. I’ve learned that this is entirely unnecessary. Editors want to read your work, not your description of your work. Rather than using the cover letter as a forum to promote your story, think of it as a forum to present yourself as a professional individual who takes the craft of wring seriously. This can be accomplished with a one-sentence description of your work, a short paragraph about yourself and your writing credits, and a polite closing, such as “Thank you for your time and consideration.”
Note that for book-length manuscripts, you should prepare a much more detailed cover letter along with a full synopsis.
What to Expect when Submitting Stories? In general, when submitting stories, you should expect to be rejected. If you don’t get stories rejected, that is always in part a bit of a fluke. If great writing always got accepted, then all the great writers wouldn’t have endured so much rejection and John Kennedy Toole wouldn’t have killed himself.
Getting stories published is mostly about getting stories into the right hands. Any given story you write, you should anticipate sending it to at least 15 if not 50 journals. In 2013, I got a story accepted for publication that I have been submitting regularly since 2004. I think I revised the story slightly in 2007. I kept submitting the story not because I had an ounce of faith in the editors I was submitting to, but because I had faith in the story itself. I knew eventually it had to get picked up. That being said, after you submit stories long enough, you’ll get better at it. Even if you don’t ever get better at writing, you’ll get better at knowing where to submit your work.
In the meantime, as your rejections come piling in, keep a log of everywhere you have submitted. Track where and when you submit, and track where and when you are accepted/rejected. In the event you get a story published, you'll have to go back and withdraw that story from other placed where you have submitted it.