Of course, rule #1 is to read and follow a liteary magazine's submission guidelines, which are usually very easy to find on a literary magazine's website. Editors post these submission guidelines for writers to help make their lives easier. Please make their lives easier. Failure to do so will result in a swift rejection--often without even reviewing your submission.
To find success with literary magazines, answer these questions:
- What? Most literary magazines accept fiction, poetry, and nonfiction essays. While each magazine has its own tastes, you need to figure out what it is you're submitting, because literary magazines expect a complete manuscript, regardless of which genre you write.
- Where? There are like a gazillion literary magazines in the world. If you're new to submitting, you might want to try submitting close to home, because you may even run across editors at local literary events. Outside of the local approach, I advise mixing up your portfolio by submitting to literary magazines that are very selective with publications that are a little more newbie-friendly (though even newbie-friendly publications will expect your very best work too).
- Why? Know why you're submitting to a particular literary magazine. Maybe you like work by some of the other writers. Maybe you think the design rocks. If you have a good reason, share it with the editors in your cover letter. (NOTE: "I want a publication credit" is not a good reason--at least from the editor's perspective.)
- When? As mentioned above, many literary magazines have submission periods that align with the school calendar, because many are either student- or professor-run publications. However, some literary magazines actually have submission periods that run counter-intuitive to the school calendar or run on some other completely different schedule. Always double-check submission periods for literary magazines and submit during the correct time.
- Who? While knowing the editor's name is not going to guarantee publication, addressing your submission to the appropriate editor may help you get read by that editor. In fact, I've had more personalized rejections from editors when I include a name than when I do not. On most literary magazine websites, this information is very easy to find by clicking on an About Us or Masthead link.
- How? With literary magazines, there are still editorial teams that prefer postal submissions. There are also magazines that prefer e-mail. Plus, I submit a fair share of my poems via submission systems, such as Submishmash. Make sure you know how the editors prefer to receive their submissions before sending your work their way.
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Here's some more Not Bob advice for writers: