We originally posted this essay by Kim Winternheimer in 2016, but with the deadline season coming up, we feel compelled to share it again. The submission process can be full of small and difficult decisions—and we all face the anxiety of wondering if we’re doing it the right way. Let’s talk it through.
Submission strategies are a tricky thing. Every emerging writer I know discusses submission failures and victories, and it’s a topic that pops up in conference panels and workshop often.
Writers talk about submitting because the process itself is the road to publication. Because success in selling stories rests entirely on that effort. Writers lament and analyze the form rejection they receive after eight long months, and applaud the personalized request for more work. Writers talk about the process because they want to see how others are navigating the labyrinth, and, because silently they wonder: am I tackling submissions the right way?
I am a huge fan of Karen Russell’s stories and remember a time I was waiting for her to sign a copy of, St. Lucy’s Home For Girls Raised by Wolves. I had planned to ask what her first Big Publication was, and when it happened in her career. I think I was hoping for advice about submitting. That Karen Russell (the Karen Russell) would pass down a piece of information I could replicate.
When I got to the table I asked: “What was your first Big Publication?” Karen replied, “It was The New Yorker. That was my first publication.” “Ever?” I asked. She smiled and nodded, yes. Then she added: “I got very lucky.”
I mention this because most writers—even very successful ones—don’t publish their first story in The New Yorker. And while every person’s path to publishing is different, I think most new writers understand the broad strokes are often the same: land stories in literary magazines, land stories in some great literary magazines, land an agent, sell a novel or story collection.
So it’s hard. The New Yorker hasn’t gotten back to you. Maybe we haven’t gotten back to you, and there’s that nagging question again: am I tackling submissions the right way?
As an editor who sees and processes a lot of stories, certain submission strategies are apparent. We see multiple stories from the same writer in the same contest (as many as six to ten), we see stories from writers with long stretches between submissions, and we see submissions from writers only once.
I do feel that the kind of writer you are and the goals you have for your writing dictate your submission strategy. For example, prolific writers can submit multiple new stories to a contest at the same time without compromising quality, while others submit new work intermittently. Some writers value the long bio, while others value the short and extremely impressive one. Here are a few strategies and issues I see with submissions. (Please note: it is impossible to go through the many varied and personal ways a person can go about submitting because each writer is different, is affected differently by the process, and has different goals for her writing.)
Top-Tier Publication Goals
What kind of writer are you? And what are you goals? For writers seeking top-tier publications, be realistic about what that means. With so few spaces for new writers who submit through the slush, this strategy inevitably means long wait times and many rejections. Take Tin House for example. They publish one new writer in each issue. That means they take one story that is probably not from an agent. That means out of the thousands of stories they receive each year, four are published from the slush. Four. And while an acceptance from a publication like Tin House will do wonders for your visibility, prepare yourself for the realities of this strategy. (It is worth noting they have an excellent track record of publishing flash fiction from new writers online and their platform offers incredible visibility. We love you Tin House!) If rejections get you down you might be compromising confidence and the enjoyment of the process by setting your sights too high. It’s also true that you might land the publication of your dreams.
I think it is a strong strategy to have both top-tier and medium-tier publication goals for your work. I also think it is wise to submit to handful of those when you feel your story is ready, lets say ten, and see what kind of feedback you receive before moving on to the other publications on your list. If you are getting all form rejections, it might be worth revisiting the piece, workshopping the story with friends, and editing before moving forward. I always think it’s wise to revisit a story after a little time away from it, but if you are getting positive feedback, then consider moving forward to the next round of lit mags on your list.
When To Call It Quits
No outside opinion can take the place of a writer’s instincts for her work, so if you are submitting a story that you really believe in, I don’t think there is ever a time when you should quit on it. I do think you should continue receiving feedback and improving on the piece to give the story its best chance, but trust your instincts. There are stories that simply aren’t meant to be published and there are those you should never give up on. I believe strongly that if you continue to service your work and grow as a writer, if you continue to believe in a piece, you will find a home for it.
Submitting The Same Story To A Lit Mag That Already Rejected It
We have writers ask if they should submit a story we’ve already seen, but for a different contest or category. Lets say, they received some positive feedback during our Short Story Award For New Writers, but it wasn’t accepted for publication. Should they submit it to New Voices? Our Fall Fiction Contest? Again, this is a matter of preference, but with The Masters Review we consider all the work we read for publication. If a story isn’t the winner of a contest, but we want to publish it anyway, we will accept that piece. With that said, if we passed on your story I think it’s a waste of a submission fee to send it to us again. Are there exceptions? Of course. If you’ve drastically improved the piece or reworked it so that it is a totally different version of the story we first saw, then please send it our way. But in the end, more than your submission fee, we want to see your best work. And we want to publish that work. If we rejected a story originally we would probably like to see something new from you.
Submitting to The Same Magazine With Different Work
I can’t emphasize enough that continuing to submit to the same literary magazine is something you absolutely should do. As editors, we have a long list of writers whom we’ve declined but are eager to see work from. It’s terrible to think they might not submit to us again when their work is so close and such a strong fit, but has otherwise been beat out by other stories. We’ve published several authors who first received rejections from us. They stayed in the game. They serviced their work, and in the end, they sold us a story.
The Right Fit
It almost feels silly to comment on submitting work to a literary magazine that publishes the kind of thing that you write, but you would be surprised to see the submissions we receive (poetry for example, when we do not publish poetry) that are immediate rejections because of fit. A writer should have a strong understanding of the kinds of stories a magazine publishes to improve their chances. Topically and in terms of style and tone, fit is tricky, but you will only improve your chances by reading that lit mag and knowing what kinds of stories they publish. Still, it’s an obvious statement that many writers, in their zeal to publish, ignore. Do the research. It pays off. (At the very least, read submission guidelines!)
I feel strongly that outside of specific submission strategies, the cream rises. If you continue to submit, that means you are continuing to write, and the strongest strategy for submission success is writing, writing, and writing. As your work improves, the publications will come—and then the very good publications will come. Sit down and edit your work. Don’t be afraid of change and don’t be afraid to move on from a story or set it aside. Your writing might not be where you want it, but you know a good story when you read one. When your talents as a writer and your ability to identify what you love in fiction intersect, you will have success.
by Kim Winternheimer