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[The Art of Submission] Why We Submit
Written by
Emily Lackey
February 2018
Written by
Emily Lackey
February 2018

I think it’s important, in my first blog post about submitting to literary journals, that I admit something from the start…

I have no idea what I am doing.

But here’s the thing: I don’t think most people know what they are doing when it comes to submitting work to literary journals. Based on the advice columns and essays and blog posts that I have read, everyone seems to have a different system for and philosophy on submitting work. There are elaborate paper filing systems. There is also Duotrope. Some people submit only to The New Yorker and Tin House and Ploughshares, and some people submit to mid-tier journals and work their way up. Some people submit only to journals that they have read, and some people don’t read literary journals at all. There are cover letters to write and the debate between print and online journals to decipher. One article I read said to only submit your work to journals with a readership over five thousand people. A teacher of mine said to use the list of journals in the back of the Best American series. Another said to only send your work to journals that have the most Pushcart nominations.

See? It’s confusing.

But regardless of how we go about submitting our work, what all of these people have in common is that they are trying. They are trying to find a foothold in the convoluted, ever-expanding, and rapidly changing world of literary journals. Because the act of submitting can feel a lot like trying to find your way around an unlit room: what to send, where to send it, when to send it, etc. Except in this room, there is no light to find. The bulb is broken. The wires are frayed. The only thing you can do is wait for your eyes to adjust to the dark.

So, here we are. In a dark room with nothing really to hold onto. Let’s just sit a moment and admit that we’re scared. Sending our work out into the world is terrifying. But it’s also necessary. For those of us who write short stories, it is our lifeblood. But it’s useful for longer form writers as well. Sending out chapters or longer scenes can be a way for novelists and memoirists to get their work out into the world. Because there’s a practical side to submitting your work for publication: being published is a way to find agents, it’s a way to have our work seen, it’s a way to build a readership. Sure, Twitter helps, but social media can only do so much. Even Roxane Gay, who has 27,300 followers on Twitter, has been published in fifty literary journals.

So, every other Wednesday, we are going to talk about submitting. We are going to sit in that room together, and we are going to try to let our eyes adjust to the dark. Because there is one thing I do know: even though the submission process is opaque, it is also extremely gratifying. While this writing thing can often feel solitary, it is a transactional process. The meaning of a specific story or novel or poem or essay comes not from me, the writer, but from the act of having my words read.

One of my favorite quotations about writing is from Jean Rhys:

“All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don't matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

When I graduated from graduate school, my brother and his girlfriend got me a necklace with the words “Feed the lake” imprinted on it. Lately I’ve been wearing the necklace while I write, those three words a constant reminder that my fears and my insecurities and my ego are not what matter. What matters is that I write. What matters is that I send my work out into the world. What matters is that my work does more than satisfy my own creative impulses. What matters is that my work contributes something to the world.

It can’t do that if it never leaves my computer.


* This post was originally published in September 2014.

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  • Valerie J. Brooks

    You're welcome, Emily!

  • Emily Lackey

    Thank you for sharing, Valerie. Those links are invaluable. Bookmarking them now and forever!

  • Valerie J. Brooks

    I've been working for a poet for years. I market his poetry and, therefore, find so much useful info along the internet highway. As I dislike not sharing, I thought I'd pass on a few links that might help those of us who do submit to reviews and journals. Here they are:





  • Valerie J. Brooks

    I agree with Ellen Behrens. "I never know until I read it." What she goes on to say is most appropriate: if you read the journals, you find what they don't publish. Write what you're passionate about, but make sure you're sending it to a review that would fit no matter the voice, narrative, etc. Guidelines are usually pretty straightforward about what the publication doesn't want. I think it has to do with a story I haven't read before in some form, something that makes me think, react, emote, and puts me there, just like in novels. I want to be transported.

    Emily, great advice on flash pieces. How exciting, Tisha! That's so supportive and motivating.

  • Emily Lackey

    Tisha, I love this. Thank you, thank you for the invite. Joining immediately!

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Tisha, having a submission party is a GREAT idea!! It would be a way to motivate and overcome resistance to submitting.

  • Tisha Marie Reichle

    Emily, I enjoy your posts on She Writes every time. I'd like to share with you our submission community that started with some friends getting together sporadically for submission parties. Now we have an established web presence and last Saturday, organized a online Submission Blitz -- over 100 women sending their work to tier one journals. Check out our facebook page and watch for us at upcoming AWP conferences.

  • Nancy Andres

    A big WOW! Thanks to you +Emily Lackey and +Jean Rhys. Her quotation and your blog remind me of my primary purpose for writing-to contribute something to the world. Best wishes, Nancy Andres

  • Emily Lackey

    Karen, flash pieces are very high in demand these days, especially for online outlets. Lucky you! With sites trying to keep their readers' attention spans from waning, flash is a great way to get in to some of the big time literary journals. Tin House, for instance, has Flash Fridays. A friend of mine who has been getting nothing but rejections just had a piece accepted by them for that feature.

    I'm not sure of entire journals dedicated to flash (although I'm sure they're out there!), but Duotrope would be a great site to use to find them. 

  • Karen A Szklany Writing

    Enjoyed reading this. Though I seldom write short stories unless they are flash fiction, I am working on a series that I will want to research a good place to submit to. BTW ~ Are there any "flash fiction" literary journals, or is it a form worth having a magazine for?

    The two manuscripts I am working on are children's lit pieces ~ one picture book and one chapter book. I have submitted articles to Children's Lit magazines, and they are as difficult to break into as adult lit magazines.

    I agree with the need to just keep submitting our best work, to keep our name out there. I haven't done nearly enough of that, but I will.

  • Ellen Behrens

    s -- I completely understand the frustration in reading through literary magazines, trying to get a feel for what they might want. Their editors are easy and hard to please at the same time. Let me clarify my earlier comment about reading samples by saying that you probably won't get a handle on any characteristics or formula they publish. You might get that from genre magazines (like "Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine," for example, where you'd see some things clearly and other, more subtle things only after reading many many issues), but you won't from a literary magazine.

    Literary publishers are both easy and tough to please: they aren't looking for a particular type of story; no specific penchant for first or third or second point of view; no thematic thread (unless an issue is consciously labeled as such, or unless the magazine itself has an overall theme -- in either case the guidelines will tell you about these themes). What they want is an excellent story about something important. A close look at a moment when a character's life is completely changed in an unexpected way. Something like that.

    I was once on a panel with other editors of literary magazines and we were asked, "What are you looking for? Tell me and I'll send it." I shrugged and said, "I never know until I read it." The other editors nodded.

    So why read samples? So you'll get an idea of exactly what they don't want. They don't want genre fiction. They don't want sloppy writing. They don't want something that fits an easy description ("romance," "horror," etc.).

    You read samples to see if they've published the sorts of stories you can't imagine ever writing -- in which case, you've saved yourself and the editor a lot of time by sending something to them. This isn't wasted effort -- it's valuable research.

    I mention reading the magazines because many people sent us stories that were completely wrong for *any* literary magazine. You might not be able to pinpoint what any given editor likes (that's a good thing) but you should be able to do exactly what you did -- find the magazines that are not a good fit for your work.

    Good luck!!

  • S. Ramos O\'Briant

    I consider myself more a novelist than a short story writer, but I've written and had published the latter as well as CNF. Submissions are a mystery to me. The advice is always to read the journal. I sat on the floor of a Barnes & Noble over a decade ago and perused the literary journals there. Nothing grabbed my brain and heart and I hated a few of the published pieces. The entire process is like the lottery, but I submit to the Submission on a periodic basis. Love the Jean Rhys quote. Look forward to more of your advice.

    Love the Jean Rhys quote. Submitting is arduous and you need patience and a thick skin. 

  • Ellen Behrens

    Great post, Emily. And I second all comments Valerie Brooks has made. I served as fiction editor for Mid-American Review for a few years -- and it turned out to be the best education I could get for writing and publishing. Our unwritten policy was to never read the cover letter -- I always tucked it behind the last page of the MSS. Sometimes it was a fun "reveal" to see a badly written story by someone with great credentials; to have read a wonderful story by someone without any.

    I'd add here that it's important to read the magazine. Usually you can find samples or a selection or two online; I realize it's too expensive to buy a copy of every magazine you want to submit to, but we got many, many submissions that were completely wrong. Writers who know the difference between a literary short story and a mainstream story (or genre) have a head start.

    And as Valerie said, we didn't take the time to comment specifically unless we saw promise, either in the story or in the writer. But "we'd love to see more" doesn't mean you should start sending us every draft or to root out the story from the bottom of the drawer that never went anywhere.

    Always, always, always send your BEST work. That's what literary magazines are all about.

  • Valerie J. Brooks

    Keep submitting, everyone. Like Tania said, "boomerang" you piece back out there. Also, remember that reviews connected with universities change editorial staff almost every fall. Marianne, it is grueling, but necessary and you're on the right track by identifying journals that appear to be the right place for your work. Terri, I'm embarrassed that an editor said that. I've read many fine stories by people with lesser or no degrees. Some of the great authors had no advanced degree in writing.

  • Marianne Goldsmith

    Appreciate the generosity of Valerie in explaining the review process. It is just grueling to send work out, but I keep doing it when I find a journal that appears might be a good place for my work. Thanks.

  • Emily Lackey

    Thanks for the first-hand knowledge! I'll be hashing out these and other things about submitting to literary journals in future posts, so I hope you'll all tune in next time. 

  • Tania Pryputniewicz

    I love the story of the necklace..."Feed the Lake"...what a beautiful and thoughtful gift. I too love Jean Rhys...she fired my imagination so early on, I'm grateful to have read her work. Valerie's comments are fabulous; from my own modest tenure as a poetry editor at The Fertile Source (on hiatus for anthology production), I learned not to take it personally when my own work was rejected when I sent it out...I suddenly had an "editor's eye view" of what it is like to receive submissions, to say yes to some, no to others, and many many factors go into the decision. Each rejection also affords the opportunity for revision, and then "boomerang" it right back out until you find the right home. Best to you along the way...enjoyed your post.

  • Valerie J. Brooks

    In a personal note, Emily, Jean Rhys is one of my favorite authors. Thanks for using her quote.

  • Valerie J. Brooks

    I was a fiction editor at NORTHWEST REVIEW. We had 6-8 associate editors, divided up the manuscripts every week (10-20 short stories per reader), read each and every one of the stories, and used a form to write a synopsis of the story. If we found a story we thought was a good fit for NWR--well written, unique and interesting voice, moved us in some way--we passed the story on to another editor for a second read. If that editor felt the same, we discussed it in an editorial meeting and either agreed to pass it on to our main editor or request that the writer make some adjustments or revisions. Every story was read, beginning to end. Unlike some literary reviews, we had to come to a consensus about the ones we chose. Our editorial team was made up of MFA students and community members, all writers. The managing editor hired us on the strength of our publications and writing.

    Cover letters are important to some literary reviews as they can quickly show the author's experience and publishing history. Usually, I didn't look at the cover letter. I read the story first and made my comments. I didn't want to be influenced by the author's credits.

    Not all published authors send their best work. I found it thrilling to discover an unpublished writer

    Some tips on submitting:

    1) send a short and to the point query letter with a bio; don't try to sell me on the story; if you have an interesting side note about where the story originated or what seeded the idea, add this, but don't go on long

    2) most of the stories that are rejected could be classified as "derivative," meaning we've seen it before, we could tell what tv program it came from, the writer has followed a "trend" or it reads like an MFA paper. (We used to receive a number of Raymond Carver-esque stories.)

    3) at the NWR, if you've sent to us before and we didn't accept that piece, but one of the editors has said "we'd like to see more," that is not a casual comment; we would never say it just to encourage someone, only if we felt that the writer could be a good fit or might have something else that's even better; don't, however, swamp us with manuscripts; only send your best work

    4) Please be encouraged by receiving a note with your rejection that says, "Thank you for sending your short story. Sorry it didn't work out." At NWR, we were always cautious about comments. Editors will not make comments if they don't think you're work is ready for publication OR the piece doesn't fit the style of what is published

    5) That leads me to this last bit of advice: read samples of the reviews you would like to submit. Each review will have a "flavor" for its content and what they publish. Sample copies can be found at libraries and university libraries. It's worth the research.

    If you have questions you'd like answered, I'd be happy to try to answer them. Not all literary reviews follow the same process. Hope that helps.

  • Jo Anne Valentine Simson

    Good advice. Every other Wednesday, I will sit myself down and submit something. Thanks! (I have a problem with the words "submit" and "submission." They seem so misogynistic!)