(This article was published in slightly different form in The Writing Cooperative.)
First of all, before getting into the eight submission mistakes, let’s acknowledge that getting published in literary journals is really hard (or as I say on the Submitit homepage: &$%*!#@ hard). Most of the top journals accept fewer than 1% of their submissions. There’s a whole heck of a lot of rejecting going on out there.
So writers are already attempting something that, by some measures, is nearly impossible. The mistakes below just make things that much harder.
1. The “sniper approach”
Many writers send their work to just a handful of top journals, and of course these journals are typically the ones with low acceptance rates. I call this the “sniper approach.”
I went through this myself when I started submitting years ago. I sent a story to a few journals—The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and (as a safety) McSweeney’s—and six months later, I started getting my form rejections.
This is not the way to submit to literary journals!
Writers must expand their list of target journals with ones that are more accessible. There are dozens of high-quality journals out there, many with acceptance rates over 5%, and some good ones over 10%. (Of course, a huge part of our job here at Submitit is to find these journals.)
2. The “blunderbuss approach”
This mistake tends to follow the sniper approach. A writer gets tired of the rejections (and who doesn’t?) and decides to start throwing stories around to any journal with an OPEN sign.
The truth is, this approach may “work.” Eventually, the story will probably stick, especially if you include smaller and newer journals on your list. But it’s a lot of work for minimal gain (not to mention the wasted submission fees).
Which leads me to . . .
3. What you don’t know will hurt you
This is really a mistake of both the sniper and the blunderbuss approaches. Everyone makes it. I used to tell myself that researching journals was a waste of time: how could reading a few stories give one a sense of a journal that undoubtedly prides itself on its eclecticism and diversity?
In fact, journals do have recurring tendencies. Some are all about story (i.e. plot). Some publish mostly experimental fiction (plot be damned!). Some are topical. Some historical. Some prefer lyrical (or poetic) prose (hint: these ones often also publish poetry). Some wouldn’t know lyrical writing if it hit them in the ear.
So start reading these dang things! Start a spreadsheet. Take some notes. It’s pleasant homework. By far, most of our time at Submitit has been doing exactly this. (It's possible I've read more short stories than anyone on earth!)
4. A staggering mistake
While I think sending stories to some more accessible journals is important, I don’t necessarily recommend avoiding the top journals. If you don’t take a chance on a Granta or a Kenyon Review, you’ll never get published in a Granta or a Kenyon Review.
Shoot some arrows high.
But don’t make the mistake of sending a story to all markets at once. Stagger your submissions.
Last summer (2019) I had a story accepted by New England Review. This story was also accepted—on the same day!—by a tiny journal no one’s heard of. Luckily I waited months before submitting to the latter. Stagger. And be patient. (At Submitit, we always wait several weeks before moving to the next tier of journals.)
5. Formatting mistakes
This one makes me yawn a little, but I still find that almost every story I receive has some formatting errors. Needless to say, before sending out a story, we make sure it's formatted properly. But what is “proper”? Most journals expect the following: numbered pages, one-inch margins, name and contact information on the first page, 12-point Times New Roman (no fancy fonts), double spaced.
We make sure to read each journal’s submission guidelines carefully. For example, some want your contact information on every page. While others specifically ask you to remove all identifying information. It's important to get this stuff right.
6. Worrying about your cover letter
If what most journal editors say is true, your cover letter just doesn’t matter.
For those journals that don’t read blind (most of them don’t), I suspect this isn’t entirely true. But if your name’s not George Saunders or Joyce Carol Oats (etc.), then, yes, your cover letter probably doesn’t make much of a difference. So keep it short and simple. Just a quick blurb about your story (one to three sentences) and a third-person bio. Don’t stress it. (Naturally, we help with cover letters.)
7. Too soon out of the oven
I purposefully stayed away from issues of writing, per se. Of course, good grammar. Of course, careful editing. Of course, consistency of voice. Of course, believable characters.
I offer one writing tip: when you’re done with a story, keep it in the oven for a while. Make it disappear. Get it out of your mind. You need to stay away from your story long enough to be able to read it with fresh eyes. (I read somewhere that Zadie Smith sets her work aside for a year!)
Submitting an uncooked story is a common mistake.
And finally . . .
8. Failure to anticipate failure
The Submitit algorithm is packed with data from over 500 journals (as of January 2021). Of these, I consider the top 140 or so “high quality” journals, ones like Granta, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, etc. As mentioned above, most of these journals accept fewer than 1% of their submissions.
Many of them (40 to be exact), according to Duotrope, literally accept 0% of their submissions (we know this isn’t really true, but it gives you an idea).
Obviously, you should be targeting at least a handful of journals outside this top list, but, simply put, rejection is part of the process. Expect it. Allow yourself to feel bad for a few minutes, and then delete that email and get back to writing. I know of no writer who doesn’t go through dozens of rejections for every accepted story. And few writers expect to get every story published. So stay strong, and persevere. (Here's an article I wrote about the art of rejection.)
Suffice to say, the easiest way to avoid these mistakes is to use Submitit. But if you're going to give it a try on your own, I hope the above helps you avoid the most common submission mistakes. And best of luck!
—Erik Harper Klass is the founder of Submitit, the WORLD’S FIRST full-service submissions company. He has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.