Let's Talk Literary Magazines
If you caught my introductory post on literary magazines (lit mags) last month, then you might already be thinking about sending out your first submission to a journal.
So where do you begin?
Well, to start, you want to make sure your piece is ready for submission. That means you’ve revised the work carefully, and proofread the final product to catch any errors.
Lit mag editors often receive hundreds—even thousands!—of submissions to go through every month. If you want to stand out among the slush pile, you want your piece to be as polished as you can get it.
But once your piece is ready to be sent out for consideration, you might be mystified by the process. How do you format the manuscript? What do you include in your bio and cover letter? Should you include content or trigger warnings?
In this post I’m going to walk you through the process and help you get your manuscript ready to submit!
How to Submit to Lit Mags: Manuscript Format
The first thing you need to do when you’re formatting the manuscript is check to see if the lit mag you’re submitting to has any listed preferences. Check out the submissions guidelines on their website; if they want you to format it a certain way, that’s where the information will be.
If they do have specific guidelines, great! Format your manuscript exactly as asked for, and if there are any discrepancies between what I suggest you do below and what the lit mag lists on their website, always default to the magazine’s own preferences.
But if they don’t have a preferred format, there are some industry standards that have been in practice for years. Instead of listing them all here myself, I invite you to check out William Shunn’s website and, in particular, the prose format and poetry format templates he provides.
If you format your manuscript according to those standards, then not only does that make the editors’ job easier—the standards exist for a reason, after all—it also helps you communicate to the editors that you’re serious about publishing.
I’ll offer a few alternative or additional tips of my own:
- For prose, Shunn advises listing an approximate word count, which was the standard in the typewriter days. However, most magazines today want the exact number you get from the word processing software, not just an approximation. So you want to write “1,217 words,” not “about 1,200 words.” (Note: don’t include the title or any of the other extra text, like your contact details, in the word count; just calculate the word count of the story or essay itself.)
- For the line count in poems, only count the lines of text itself, not the spaces between stanzas.
- Note what Shunn does to handle poems that are more than one page. He starts each subsequent page of the same poem with his name, the poem title, the page number of that poem, and a clarification on if the page break coincides with a stanza break: “continue stanza” or “start new stanza.”
- If you’re submitting electronically and you’re submitting more than one poem at a time (which is common; a batch of 3-5 poems per submission is pretty standard), then include all the poems in the same document. Separate each poem with a page break and repeat Shunn’s process again for each individual poem.
Again, if there’s anything I advise here, or that Shunn advises on his website, that goes against what the lit mag you’re submitting to wants, always defer to the lit mag’s preferences.
How to Submit to Lit Mags: Your Cover Letter
Most publications want you to include a short cover letter with your manuscript. A lot of writers have no idea what sort of detail they should include in the cover letter, and they often end up saying too much. But short and sweet is key!
Generally, this is what most editors want to see:
- The title and word count of the piece, and genre to which you’re submitting (fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry)
- Your contact information
- Any prior creative writing publication credits, if you’ve got them
- Whether or not the piece is a simultaneous submission—i.e. whether or not you’re also submitting the same piece to other magazines. Unless the lit mag says they don’t accept simultaneous submissions, this won’t hurt your chances either way, but journals appreciate the heads up that someone else might be considering the piece.
- A short bio—unless you’re asked to include a bio elsewhere, in which case, leave it out of the cover letter. (More on the bio further below.)
A lot of writers who don’t yet have publication credits to their name are tempted to try and make up for their beginner status by overselling their credentials. They might list non-creative-writing publication credits (like news reports or academic papers) or semi-related job history (like content development for a marketing agency or teaching English literature). But don’t bother.
There’s no point trying to draw a fuzzy connection between what you’re submitting and what you’ve been paid to do in the past. This is a new path for you—embrace that.
A better strategy is to simply be straight with them: “If selected, these will be my first published poems.” Believe it or not, that could work in your favour! Lots of editors will actually have their interest piqued by knowing they’ve got the chance to “discover” a new writer.
And the same goes for giving too much information about the piece itself. You might be tempted to try to sell the editors on your submission before they’ve even read it, by offering a little teaser or highlighting the themes of the piece. But again, do NOT do this.
Readers who pick up the published magazine will have no idea what they’re about to dive into with each new story, essay, or poem. The editors want the same experience—they want to be surprised by your piece. They want to know what reading it will be like for the readers who are turning each page unprompted.
But even more importantly, your writing has to speak for itself! If you’re worried that the editor won’t “get” your story if you don’t tell them what to look for in it, then that’s a sign that the piece isn’t ready for submission. Keep revising it, and seek input from other writers or mentors if you can.
Don’t talk about the piece at all except to clarify the category you’re submitting to and listing the title and word count.
If you’re submitting according to a specific themed issue the lit mag is advertising, you can (and should) state that too, but keep it simple: “I offer this essay for consideration for the ‘Love and Relationships’ issue.” You can say you think it’s a good fit for the theme if you want, but don’t tell them why—let the editors decide if they agree.
How to Submit to Lit Mags: Content and Trigger Warnings
Good question—but they’re not always needed. Sometimes lit mags ask for a declaration of any potentially triggering content out of respect for their staff and volunteers that assess manuscripts for publication.
If they do, it won’t hurt your chances of publication to say something like “content warning for X topic.” (Unless the magazine has explicitly stated that they don’t publish work on X topic, of course.) It just means they’ll be in the right mental state to engage with the material when they pick up the piece.
However, if the magazine doesn’t explicitly ask for content warnings, you can assume they’re not needed and that they’re ready to engage with whatever material you send them; in that case, skip the warning.
How to Submit to Lit Mags: Cover Letter Format
This will vary depending on the magazine you’re submitting to, but in general:
- Always defer to what they prefer. If they say they only accept submissions via Submittable—a popular online submissions platform—then send your submission via Submittable. If they want you to email it, email it, and make sure you get the address right. (I’ll be back with more information on Submittable in a couple months!)
- If the magazine uses Submittable or another online submissions tool, you’ll be given a field to paste your cover letter into. You don’t have to style it like a formal letter in that case; just paste in the content.
- When emailing your submission, paste the cover letter directly into the email field and avoid any kind of unusual formatting. If you’d like, you can also attach a second copy of the cover letter to the email as a PDF; if you do, the PDF should be appropriately styled like a real letter (see next bullet).
- For mailing the submission in via post, then format the letter like a formal letter: date and address of the recipient in the top-left corner, then salutation, then the letter itself. Print and sign the letter above your name.
It’s a smart move to address the letter to the appropriate editor, especially if you’re sending via email or snail mail. Check out the magazine’s masthead (which is easy to find on most websites) and address it to the editor devoted to a specific category (fiction editor, poetry editor, etc.). If these subcategories aren’t listed, then look for the person listed as the editor-in-chief or simply “editor.”
How to Submit to Lit Mags: Your Bio
You might include your bio with the cover letter, if there’s nowhere else to put it. But these days, a lot of magazines are using Submittable or similar submission software to collect manuscripts. You might be invited to submit your bio separately from the cover letter field.
If your piece is selected for publication, the editors want your bio so that readers can learn about who the magazine’s contributors are. That means they’ll take the bio text and plunk it right into the magazine as written.
So make sure your bio is just as publication-ready as your manuscript!
To start, write your bio in the third person: “Rhonda Douglas is…” not “I am…”.
Most magazines offer some length guidelines to stick to: either a maximum word count or number of sentences. 50 words is a common upper limit, but it could be as high as 150 or more. If the magazine asks for two or three sentences, then write two or three standard-length sentences, and don’t cram as much text as possible into a long, unwieldy phrase—the editors will know exactly what you’re doing, and they’ll be annoyed.
Common things to include are where you live (and who with—family, pets, etc.), other journals or anthologies you’ve been published in, any books or chapbooks you have to your name, and where you’re at in your career. A lot of authors—maybe most—stop there, but some people also include some fun or interesting facts about themselves.
Check out what previous contributors to that magazine have included in their bios for inspiration and also to get a sense of what kind of vibe the magazine is going for.
Literary Magazines, Demystified
For six months throughout 2021-2022, I’ll be posting one blog each month that covers different aspects of lit mag publishing: I’ll touch on things like how to research lit mags, how to submit and how to maximize your chances of publication, and I’ll share my own list of some of the top lit mags for emerging writers in the English-language publishing world.
If you’re able to join me on Fridays at 5pm Eastern, I’ll be going Live on my Facebook Page each week to talk about all things writing. Every month when I post a new blog about lit mags, I’ll also be giving away a gift subscription to a new literary mag so do follow me there and join me LIVE for a chance to win.