Ask Becca: 5 Worst Mistakes When Submitting to Literary Magazines

by Rebecca Jordan
published in Community

Okay! I wrote a bunch of short stories—now what do I do with them?
– The Next Jane Austen

Congrats! You’ve put on your silvery boxing pants, got your boxing gloves on, stuck that plastic guard between your teeth. Finishing something is no small accomplishment. (Pumping “Eye of the Tiger” at full blast during the reading of this blog post is optional.)

Now it’s time to get those gloves broken in and learn how to hit that knockout strike.

Getting something published is a long game. A lot of twiddling your thumbs, picking your nose, and constantly checking your Twitter stream. Looking for instantaneous success?

Hah. Haha. Heh.

When I first began to submit to literary magazines, I made a ton of mistakes that cost me valuable time and frustration. Let me here elucidate some of them so that you don’t follow in my bumbling footsteps.

1. Not Doing Your Research

You finished your story! Everyone must read it RIGHT NOW! Doesn’t matter if the magazine guidelines say they’ve seen enough Frankenstein/succubus romance to last a lifetime, because you know that yours will change their minds!

Coming from experience, magazine guidelines exist for a reason. When I read for Bartleby Snopes, we had to continually revise our guidelines of things we didn’t want to see because authors kept sending in stories that didn’t resonate with us.

In short: If the magazine classifies itself as “literary fiction,” hard sci-fi is going to be a hard sell.

Do the editors—and yourself—a favor and don’t submit to magazines that just aren’t picking up what you’re throwing down. You feel me?

Make sure you’re a good fit before you submit (Feel free to put that phrase to whatever catchy Arianna Grande tune is on the radio today). A great way to research magazines in your market is Duotrope or the Submission Grinder. I originally listed Duotrope on DIY MFA’s Resource List because you could search magazines for word count, genre, payments, average response times, and more. While it’s gone to a yearly payment (a cost I gladly pay, as I’ve found an incredible amount of magazines and have been published because of Duotrope), Submission Grinder is a good no-cost alternative.

2. Wanting to See Your Name in Lights

While poking around the literary magazines, one might notice that only about 10% of them (75% of percentages are made up on the spot) are in print; it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single writer must be in want of her name in print. Errr…I mean, one might be inclined to snub one’s nose at the online magazines. It’s not a real magazine, is it?

When I first started out, I wanted to see my name in print. It’s the thing we authors salivate over. But most print journals are highly selective—understandably so, since as we all know print is slowly slouching toward the way of the dodo (or however that phrase goes) and people don’t buy as many print magazines.

However, lots of people have access to internet—and these people love to read things for free.

Two of my favorite stories were accepted by two wonderful online magazines—one put my full story online for free and they both promoted the hell out of my work. That’s the kind of notoriety that you can not only tell your friends about (and earn rabid readers along the way) but that looks good in cover letters when you submit to magazines in the future.

Speaking of that (only natural) authorly desire for fame and fortune…

3. Going for the Big Money

I have a friend who has yet to publish anything, and yet he told me that he hoped to get his first short story sold to Tin House because he’d like to pay back some student loans.

Sure, I took my turn at the Tin House submissions. And maybe someday you’ll work your way up to that point, but professional payment is not easy to come by—and practically impossible on your first short story.

Let me say this once: If you are in this writing gig just for the money, get out now.

It’s totally possible to build a sustainable, lucrative career on writing. But when you’re first starting out, nobody’s going to be lining up to tuck money in your pantyline.

Editors of free/low-cost magazines agonize just as long and hard over which stories to include as those that offer high payment. It’s not like they’re cheap because the fiction is low-quality—it’s because these magazines want to get into the hands of more people and find you more readers.

Submitting to magazines that offer little to no payment might seem like you’re selling yourself short—literally—but once you get published? You’ll get that little boost of confidence and build a foundation for breaking into markets with higher author pay.

4. Submitting Only to Non-Simultaneous Markets

Most of the big, prestigious, pro-paying markets have this little note in their submission guidelines: No simultaneous submissions.

All that means is that they don’t want you submitting your story for consideration to other magazines while they’re reading it. They usually have the best of intentions for doing this—from keeping themselves from drowning in a stack of submissions to upping the quality of submissions, and even to allow themselves more time to carefully review stories.

But the problem comes when you see their average response time—3 months. I even know of one magazine which gives a minimum of 6 months.

As a beginning author, it’s likely that you’re going to receive more rejections than acceptances. That means that if you send your story just to one magazine, you could be twiddling your thumbs for 3-6 months before you get your rejection.

This is probably my biggest mistake when I first started submitting. Don’t do what I did. Submit lots of stories to lots of places. You still might wait 6 months, but at least you can submit the story to more magazines while you’re waiting. This will up your chances of getting accepted and ensure that you don’t throw things at the wall and scream colorful curses loud enough for the editors to hear.

I mean, wait, what? I never did that. Nope, never.

5. Letting Rejections Deter You

After over 50 rejections before my first sale, I was sorely tempted to give up. The self-doubt inevitably crept in: What if I’m wasting my time? What if I’m not cut out for this writing thing?

Maybe some of you reading this actually aren’t cut out for this writing thing. But if you can’t help yourself, if you absolutely must write—despite the nay-sayers—then you absolutely are meant to be a writer, no matter how many rejections you get.

Whenever one of my friends gets a rejection, I congratulate them. Why? It means they took a risk. It means they’re moving forward. It means they’re building a tough skin and getting better as an author.

Keep on keepin’ on. Do you have any idea how many times Rocky Balboa got knocked out? I don’t. It’s probably a lot

Persistence is key. The more rejections you get, the closer you are to an acceptance, and to getting your first published story. Now, are you going to roll over or are you going to stand up and throw the winning punch?

Got a question? Tweet me @beccaquibbles with the hashtag #askbecca, email me at becca [at] DIYMFA [dot] com, or just leave a comment below! You could see your question answered right here at Ask Becca! 


RebeccaJordan-11b_SmallRebecca Ann Jordan is a speculative fiction author and artist. She recently won Reader’s Choice Best of 2013 for her short story “Promised Land” at Fiction Vortex and has published poetry and fiction in FlapperhouseSwamp Biscuits & Tea, Yemassee Journal and more. Becca is pursuing a master’s degree in Creative Writing from California Institute of the Arts. See more from her at


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