It goes without saying there are a lot of factors that go into how a literary journal selects work for publication. As the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly, I’ve found even genre editors at the same magazine have dramatically different decision-making processes. The discussions I have with our fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and video teams are all nuanced in esoteric ways. With this series of round tables, I wanted to compile various editorial perspectives to give writers insights into different aspects of the gig. To kick off, I asked four editors I very much admire for some thoughts on a perennially hot topic—submission strategies.
-Aram Mrjoian, Interviews Editor
In conversation with:
-Megan Giddings: Fiction editor at The Offing, contributing editor at Boulevard
-Jennifer Wortman: Associate fiction editor at Colorado Review
-Luiza Flynn-Goodlett: Editor-in-chief at Foglifter
-Robert James Russell: Editor-in-chief at CHEAP POP, publisher at Midwestern Gothic
Outside of the basics, the sort of nebulous submissions page language, what do you look for in an ideal submission?
Megan Giddings: For me, I'm looking for a story that's imaginative in some way. I don't mean the nebulous, starting to get played-out, write weird. I mean I'm looking either through language or content for a story to surprise me, to show me that the writer is engaged with how interesting living actually is. I love inventive and dynamic language. But I'm also fine with a straightforward, more soberly written story as long as if by page 2, I can't tell you exactly where it's going. Where even if it's about an unhappy teen, I can't tell you everything that's going to happen because the character is miraculously alive on the page. I think the most unfortunate thing about reading a lot of submissions for a literary magazine is you become a person who is extremely good at seeing where a story is going. But if you surprise me, I'll be a fan for life.
Robert James Russell: To be surprised. When editors do their job for any length of time, you start to notice trends and patterns. It’s unfortunate, but when you’re reading a boatload of submissions, it’s just the reality. We all put great care into our submissions page—always read these, y’all!—and everything we put there is a foundation, a bare minimum of what we want to see, rules to follow, but what I’m looking for, beyond that, is someone who’s going to take a chance, zig instead of zag, end a piece where I didn’t think it would end. I want to be left agape. Good writing is a beautiful thing, yes, but give me something I haven’t seen before, a perspective, a voice, a style, a story.
Jennifer Wortman: Colorado Review’s head fiction editor, Steven Schwartz, and I have similar sensibilities, but my tastes are maybe a bit more eclectic. If I had to pin down what I look for in a submission, I’d say a riveting voice, a fresh vision, well-wrought characters, narrative drive, psychological complexity, intellectual force, and emotional punch. But I also love stories that successfully subvert narrative form and don’t necessarily contain all those elements. And while there isn’t always a clear distinction, I lean more toward intensity and authenticity than immaculate technique, though we always, of course, want to see baseline technical skill.
Luiza Flynn-Goodlett: Like many of my answers, this may only apply to folks submitting to our very queer journal, but we're looking for well-crafted, challenging work that expands and deepens our understanding of queer experience and/or identity. We're looking for pieces that make us sit up straighter, that feel urgent and alive on the page. Maybe that's too nebulous, but as a group of editors, we all have pretty different aesthetics and interests, and I think the journal reflects that diversity of vision. We just hope each issue is a snapshot of that particular moment of queer writing in all its cacophonous glory.
What is the No. 1 mistake writers make when submitting to your journal?
LFG: Can I say dick poems? For the love of all that's holy, please stop sending those.
RJR: Not reading submission guidelines. They’re written with great care, and ultimately, yes, they may just be basic rules for what we want to see—word count, genre, etc.—but they are there for a reason. No matter how many submissions a journal may get, it’s this kind of stuff (not following directions) that instantly will set pieces apart; and sure, this might sound austere, but think about it: Everyone else took great care in crafting cover letters and fine-tuning submissions, showing they are actively thinking about where they send their pieces, who they are sending them to. That’s no small thing. This community of writers, our larger, amazing community, is built on small kindnesses like this.
MG: One of the things we talk a lot about when reading submissions at The Offing is who is the story's intended audience. The Offing's mission is to create a literary journal that centers the work of writers who are marginalized. Centering for us doesn't just mean publishing those writers, but trying as hard as possible to find work that is writing toward those people. A very simple example of this is we often get stories about very sensitive young men who just want to make art and the world just won't let them. The girlfriend often is disparaged because she does not support his art. Or a woman is there to be fucked. And the whole focus is this man who will one day get that publishing deal or sell his gauzy paintings of water and boats. It's a story obviously written for a man by a man who is only thinking about himself while writing. I could probably write a long essay about how this gets even more complicated when it comes to stories about race and gender identity and how often writers on the outside have to write to center a white audience. It gets very, I guess the best word is sticky, when we talk deeply about those submissions. But I do think that writers forget that if they're ready to be submitting, they should be taking the time to be thoughtful about who might be reading their submissions.
JW: Not having a good sense of the kind of work we publish. For instance, we often get stories that go well outside our preferred length. I write flash fiction and adore good flash fiction, but we don’t publish flash fiction. We print only four stories per issue, so we like them on the meaty side, typically 15 to 25 pages. We sometimes publish pieces outside that range, but we don’t publish the extremely short. Nor are we typically big fans of the extremely long. When people send stories over 30 pages, the piece then bears the extra burden of justifying its length. I rarely see a very long story that couldn’t use some streamlining.
What draws you into a submission and keeps you reading?
JW: I’m a sucker for a strong voice: a strong voice will draw me in, but it’s typically a story’s vision, its larger sensibility as developed through character, conflict, and/or theme, that keeps me reading.
RJR: When I talk about or teach writing, I like to discuss our default settings—we all have them, the POVs or tics we lean into (often) without thinking about it. For me, a default is third person past tense—I love it, but when I’m starting something new, I have to stop and ask myself: Why? What does this story need—and is this it? The reason I say this is, it can be easy, I think, to see when people are writing in their default, when they haven’t given enough thought to how something should be written. An idea might be magical and wonderful, but the execution of it ends up being just…okay. And it’s not that the author isn’t capable, it’s that they didn’t stop to ask: What is my approach? Why am I starting/ending here? Why this voice? Same thing I mentioned earlier, but I want to be surprised. If we get ten pieces telling a similar story, the one that tries something bold or different—read: I’m not saying pieces need to be “experimental” in any way, but when you can see that thought went into length and voice and tone, etc.—those pieces will stand out. These are the ones that surprise, that give us insight we haven’t seen before. And that’s what I want: to see the world from an angle I’ve never considered. I want your story to show why it couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
LFG: I'm a sucker for sincerity. Life's too short for irony, so I respect for work that makes space for deep vulnerability and gentleness.
I'm also delighted to receive submissions that address subjects rarer to queer literature, like the natural world or faith. I feel like I learn a lot from those writers.
That said, I love work that has conviction in its own voice, even if that voice is sarcastic or biting. As long as there's energy and passion behind it, I'll probably keep reading.
What do you make of the quality vs. quantity of submissions debate? Has being a lit mag editor altered your strategies for submitting your own work to other journals?
RJR: There are so many incredible writers and so much incredible writing out there. Full stop, right? I mean, that’s just reality. I do think a journal—and each issue—has a certain voice, and you need to be conscious of that. I can’t imagine a scenario where we’re just taking pieces to take them; we look for a number that makes sense to us, that’s worked for us, but we keep things open: If we don’t get there, if, for this issue, we find fewer pieces that match what we’re looking for, then so be it. It’s not a sprint; we don’t want issues to be lost, forgotten, because we had some weird goal of stuffing it to the brim just to stuff it. I want pieces to saunter and simmer, to sit with you, to be remembered. For my own work, yes: Being an editor has just made me more keenly aware of how the sausage is made, why journals might be asking for X or Y, and it’s taught me not to be afraid to reach out and ask questions if I have them. It’s taught me to be a better reader of journals over the years, to really get a sense of what they want, of what they publish. To be more thorough.
LFG: Being an editor has definitely changed my submission strategy, or at least my attitude toward submissions. The biggest lesson has been something that seems really negative at first, but is actually a blessing: editors/readers don't know who you are and won't remember you. Like I said, it sounds bad but is actually amazing because they won't remember what you sent in last time; and, unless you've received a personal rejection, they'll look at every submission with fresh eyes. This has made me willing to keep submitting to those dream journals who've literally rejected me for years on end—it's great to know that they still have no idea who I am!
One practical change I've made is to stop shaping submission packets like mini-chapbooks where you move through the poems in a little arc. Knowing how editors actually read—harried and ready to move on to the next batch—I've started front-loading submissions with the very best poems, regardless of flow.
And, finally, I take encouraging, personal rejections much more seriously knowing how many submissions editors receive and how much effort it takes to respond with anything beyond a form letter.
JW: First strive for quality, then strive for quantity. Take time with your work: let it sit a little, rethink and revise, and let it sit again. And there’s no substitute for the feedback of trusted readers. I’m a strong believer that the real writing happens through the editing process. Do what you can to make the piece the best it can be. Sometimes my excitement about a project gets the better of me and I don’t take my own advice; I always regret it.
Once you have a piece you believe in, though, send it out to a pool of journals you admire that seem like a good fit. And keep trying. After a round of rejections, it might not hurt to rethink and revise again, but if you still believe in your work, keep sending it out. If editing is key to writing, persistence is key to publishing.
Editing a lit mag has strengthened my resolve to research journals before I submit work: I don’t want to waste anyone’s time by submitting something that doesn’t suit the journal’s aesthetic. But I also see how much luck plays into an acceptance: the right person seeing the right piece at the right time. Sometimes pieces we reject end up in great magazines, which I find heartening. A story that wasn’t right for us found its way to the right journal. The element of luck helps me take rejection less personally and stay the course: the more I submit, the better the chances that luck will strike.
What are your formatting or cover letter pet peeves? What makes you step back from a submission outside of the content?
LFG: Frankly, the writing world's fixation on these elements of a submission seems like a weirdly classist gatekeeping impulse. I avoid even glancing at cover letters before making the reader for our decision meeting, then I take a look—just to make sure there aren't any MAGA folks trying to troll us or something—but I generally try to deprioritize this stuff as much as possible.
Jennifer Wortman: Formatting peeves: Single spacing and weird fonts; please don’t make our job harder by straining our eyes!
Cover letter peeves: Anything that isn’t short and to the point. Just introduce your submission and tell us a little about your writing credits and/or life experience. We don’t need a synopsis of your work or your opinion of it: we will read it and judge for ourselves. And attempts to stand out from the crowd through flashy humor, long autobiographies, or self-promotion usually backfire. Also, this should go without saying, but I’m saying it: it’s not cool to berate a journal for perceived past slights in your cover letter.
That said, I try to judge each submission on its merits. But editors are human, and a big formatting or cover letter gaffe might lead to a bias against your work, which isn’t helpful in such a competitive forum.
RJR: The only cover letter pet peeve is not giving us what we ask for. If we ask for a third-person bio, and either (1) don’t get one or (2) get a first-person bio, it just creates more work for us in the end, having to track these things down. And again, maybe this seems super nit-picky, but when we get a lot of submissions, we’ll end up having to ask: Why did this person follow directions, give us what we want, and this person didn’t?
I have two major formatting pet peeves: (1) is receiving a straight-up poetry submission at a place like CHEAP POP when we specifically ask for fiction, and (2) is length. Overall, we editors are very specific about what we want, how long things should be and how many pieces we want. If we ask for every author to submit only one piece, and they submit many in the same category…that’s not fair to everyone else, you know? Same with length: If we ask for X words, whatever that might be, and a submission blows past that, it reads to us like this person doesn’t care what we’re asking for. Doesn’t care at all what we want and need. I believe wholeheartedly in a good dialogue with editors, and when we get to that point, I love it, but if everyone didn’t follow directions, it’d be pandemonium. I want to see writers who trust us and our requirements. We have to work together. We just have to.
From an editorial perspective, how do you recommend writers handle and move forward from extremely personal or top tier rejections? How can the writer politely maintain a dialogue with that journal?
MG: For extremely personal rejections, I think they're a huge gift for a writer because either you'll learn (sadly) that this person is the exact right person for your story because you're agreeing with what they're saying in the rejection. Or you'll learn (happily if you can get over any hang-ups you might have about rejections) that this person is one hundred percent not the right reader for your work. One thing I've noticed at The Offing though is whenever someone gets very far in our process, we ask them to submit again and often the only people who take us up on that are cis-men. This isn't a complaint; it just seems that many of the men are less afraid about taking up space/believe us when we say not now, but hopefully soon. I have never asked a writer whose work I didn't click with--unless several people who weren't me on staff were in love with it--to submit again. But I think most writers, especially women, think we're just being nice. So, I guess my advice is, if a magazine gives you good advice or just takes the time to say hey we loved some of this, but not all of it, but please send again: believe them. They're trying to build a relationship with you.
LFG: What I do—and what I like seeing Foglifter submitters doing—is just respond with a quick thank-you and the assurance that I'll submit to the next reading period. Those personal rejections do take time and energy, so it's nice to acknowledge that. And, the next time I submit, I always use the first line of the cover letter to thank the editors for their encouraging response to my previous group of poems. Sure, some folks may remember me, but it's probably wise to jog their memory.
JW: Take editors at their word and submit again! But don’t jump the gun—send your best work. Mention the personal or top tier rejection in your cover letter. And don’t be discouraged if your next submission doesn’t land. The fact that someone at the journal has taken note of your work means something, and while that won’t necessarily result in an acceptance, it ups your chances, so keep polishing your writing and sending it in. We’ve published numerous writers who’d previously received several top tier or even plain form rejections from us.
RJR: If you’re fortunate enough to get a personal/top tier rejection, I say run with it. We give those out for a reason. We want you to be in touch. So maybe, down the road, you have another piece you want to submit, in my opinion it’s not a bad look to reach out directly or say something in a cover letter to the effect of: “Hey! You loved my last piece, and I just submitted another. I know this doesn’t guarantee anything, but hope you enjoy the read and wanted to give you a heads up.” If that line of communication is open, use it. I also think that writers don’t realize often enough that they can press for specific notes on pieces. Granted, an editor may not share why a piece wasn’t chosen or may not have a specific answer, since so much of this is subjective, but reach out and ask: More often than not, most of us are glad to give you feedback, to help you out if we’re able.
I believe everyone here is active on Twitter, what do you make of the ways in which communities of writers, on social media or otherwise, discuss submissions, rejections, acceptances, etc.?
MG: Most of the time, social media when it comes to the business of literary magazine submissions makes me exhausted. While I'm always happy to congratulate someone who just got a story accepted or nominated for an award or something, there are so many complaints, especially about response time. At The Offing, we get thousands of submissions. Because we are, god, I don't know what we are, we don't have a page limit still. We should probably have one. But anyway, next to someone's 2500-word story is someone else's 40 page story that we need to take just as seriously. We also actually do work on edits on with writers. So, at any time, me or Bix or one of the associate editors is working with at least one person each on edits, we're also reading different literary magazines to find writers from different communities to reach out to (we would love to publish more Indigenous/Native writers, as well as more Latinx writers) and encourage to submit to us, we're reading the queue, planning our meetings, and as editors we're mentoring and working closely with readers. All of this at The Offing is unpaid labor. Only one of our staff members is a full-time student. Everyone else has at least one job, families, and are working writers and artists. This is all to say, I do sigh a lot when I see people getting very upset about how long submissions take to read. Waiting sucks, but again, you're talking about people's unpaid labor that they're doing because they love reading and believe in the magazine.
LFG: Social media is so strange and hard—there's such a capitalist imperative to be relentlessly positive that even something like #ShareYourRejection can turn into a spectacle of humble-bragging—and I suspect that no one thinks they're doing it exactly right. However, working as an editor—keeping an eye out for new, exciting queer writers to solicit and rejoicing in our contributors' many successes—has gradually inoculated me to the professional jealousy that Twitter tends to engender. Also, recently getting into reviewing, and sharing those reviews on social media, has been a big help. Basically, reorienting myself toward serving and celebrating my fellow queer writers has opened me up to so much more joy and connection on Twitter and everywhere else.
JW: I see lots of misconceptions flying around, especially about Submittable. People have weird ideas about the meaning of their Submittable status. Different journals use Submittable in different ways. A piece can be “In Progress” for months and not necessarily get a good read, while a piece that goes straight from “Received” to a response might get thorough consideration.
At Colorado Review, we typically don’t assign submissions for first reads. Most of our first readers have scheduled reading shifts, during which they work their way down the submission queue. If the submission doesn’t get a second read, it won’t be “In Progress” very long, but that doesn’t mean the first reader didn’t give the work attention. Then again, we’ll occasionally have a submission “In Progress” for a while for reasons other than a second read. The larger point here is you shouldn’t jump to conclusions about a journal’s editorial process from your Submittable status alone.
I also want to add that while I understand the need to blow off steam about rejections, if you post a snarky remark about a rejection on social media, sometimes an editor who has read and rejected your submission in good faith will see it. I’ve seen posts like that once or twice and I can take it, but it’s a little demoralizing. It’s smart to keep in mind the public nature of social media: you don’t always know who will read your posts or how they’ll react.
RJR: It can be incredibly cathartic to see someone else talking about something you’re also going through—a string of rejections, feeling defeated, working on a novel draft and not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel—so I absolutely love the writing community on social media channels, the love, how we keep each other going. Personally, I’m not a fan of folks subtweeting/calling out journals just because they don’t like that they got rejected or they’re unhappy with the feedback. Similarly, I don’t really like journals publicly calling out writers for mistakes they make—there are always learning opportunities, and unless it’s something egregious and offensive that should be shared, I think it sort of breaks the sacred editor-writer relationship, you know? Broadly speaking, talking about what we’re excited about, mentioning our acceptances, our dream journals, our sadnesses, our inspirations and our dry spells…it’s necessary. Writing, to me, is hardly that isolated. The actual act of creation, sure, but then we go to conferences and talk to one another online and share work and read each other’s work and remember it and live it. That’s an extraordinary thing, and despite the cesspool social media can be, I wouldn’t give this community up for anything.
Megan Giddings is a fiction editor at The Offing and a contributing editor at Boulevard. Her short stories are forthcoming or have been recently published in The Adroit Journal, Barrelhouse, Gulf Coast, and The Iowa Review. Megan's debut novel will be published by Amistad in 2020. More about her can be found at www.megangiddings.com
Luiza Flynn-Goodlett is the author of the chapbooks Unseasonable Weather (dancing girl press, 2018) and Congress of Mud (Finishing Line Press, 2015). Her poetry can be found in Third Coast, Granta, Quarterly West, DIAGRAM, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She serves as editor-in-chief of the queer literary journal Foglifter and lives in sunny Oakland, California.
Robert James Russell is the author of the novellas Mesilla (Dock Street Press) and Sea of Trees (Winter Goose Publishing), and the chapbook Don't Ask Me to Spell It Out (WhiskeyPaper Press). He is the managing editor of the literary journals Midwestern Gothic (co-founder) and CHEAP POP (founder). You can find him online here.
Jennifer Wortman is the author of This. This. This. Is. Love. Love. Love., a story collection forthcoming from Split Lip Press in 2019. Her fiction, essays, and poetry appear in Glimmer Train, Normal School, DIAGRAM, The Collagist, North American Review, Confrontation, The Southeast Review, The Collapsar, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and two kids in Colorado, where she teaches at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and serves as associate fiction editor for Colorado Review. Find more at jenniferwortman.com.