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The Single Biggest Mistake Writers Make When Submitting to Literary Journals

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

(This article was published in slightly different form in Inspired Writer.)

I’d like to share with you a (partial) list of 40 literary journals. Can you guess what they have in common?

The Missouri Review, Granta, Boulevard, The Sewanee Review, Copper Nickel, The New Yorker, Crazyhorse, Bennington Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, The Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, Salt Hill, Five Points, The Iowa Review, TriQuarterly, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, The Malahat Review, Subtropics, Electric Literature, Salamander, LitMag, New Ohio Review, Denver Quarterly, Guernica . . .

Anyone guess?

Answer: 0 acceptances over the past 12 months. That’s z-e-r-o. (I got these numbers from Duotrope, and it’s probably worth pointing out that no literary journal really accepts zero submissions, but I think you get the idea.)

I also calculated the number of reported submissions to these journals over the past 12 months (again, according to Duotrope): 9,884.

Let this sink in for a minute. 9,884 submissions. 0 accepted stories. To put this in some perspective, imagine sending out nearly 10,000 stories . . . and having every single one rejected. Points for perseverance, but I’m guessing this kind of rejection rate would sink any writer’s boat. (My dating adventures in college had a similar failure rate, but that’s another story.)

Furthermore, most of the major journals not on this list of shame (or glory?) accept well under 1% of their submissions. There’s a whole heck of lot of rejecting going on out there.

So here’s the problem (or the further problem): the journals above are the very ones most writers consider when they begin to submit their stories. I call this the “sniper approach,” and I went through it 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 your short stories.

I believe all writers need to expand their pool of literary journals. There are literally hundreds of journals out there (the Submitit database has (at this moment) 410 relatively high-quality journals). These journals are wildly different. Some specialize in experimental fiction. Some short form (flash, micro). Some are thematic (war, religion, health, etc.). Some have been around for decades. Some are brand new (hint: break into publishing with newer journals). Some love the use of parentheses (my favorites).

Some of these journals, even well-known ones with good reputations, have relatively high acceptance rates. For example, at last check, Trinity Review, Expanded Field, Copperfield Review, and Split Lip Magazine—all fine journals, these—accept over 10% of their submissions, and many others consistently clock in at over 5%. So if you’re only sending your stories to a handful of the top-tier journals, it’s time to expand your list.

So how do you identify these easier journals? Well, of course, the best way is to use Submitit!

But if you want to give it a go on your own, I recommend you start reading short-story anthologies—there are five or six good ones, from The Best American Short Stories to The Pushcart Prize to The Best of the Small Fictions. It’s a great way to learn about various journals and get a feel for the kind of work they publish. (This is potentially the greatest homework assignment in history. You will read some amazing stories, discover some wonderful writers, and learn, by osmosis at least, a ton about writing.)

Start keeping track of journals that publish work you enjoy, especially work that is similar to your own writing. Take some notes. Start a spreadsheet. Maybe buy an issue or two (or read stories online) to get a deeper sense of a market. And then start submitting.

By the way, I’m not suggesting you stop submitting to the top journals. When a client or student sends me a quality story, I generally submitit it to several of the less penetrable journals, as many as ten of them. You’ll never get published in The New Yorker if you don’t take that chance. But don’t stop there. Stagger your submissions. After a month or two, even if you haven’t received any of those dreaded rejection notes, start moving to the more accessible journals.

(Why stagger? I recently had a story accepted by New England Review, a story that on the same day—yes, literally the same day, within hours—was also accepted by a tiny journal that no one’s heard of. Luckily, I waited months before submitting to the smaller journal. Stagger, my friends. And be patient.)

I hope someday you’ll get a story in The New Yorker, but in the meantime, plenty of other journals are waiting to publish your work. And if you're using Submitit, we'll help you find them.

—Erik Harper Klass has published stories and essays in a variety of journals, including New England Review, Summerset Review, Maryland Literary Review, and Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, and he has been nominated for multiple Pushcart Prizes.

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