9 Hard-Won Submissions Truths I Wish I’d Known on Day 1

At the risk of sounding like a geezer cracking wise in a rocking chair on my dusty front porch, I’ve been doing this whole “send your writing out to magazines” thing for quite a while now. I’ve learned a few important facts about writing submissions in that time – facts I would have given a kidney actual cash for if I could have known about them in advance. I’m giving them to you here for free, in the hopes that you won’t have to make all the big mistakes I did. Here they are:

A pair of gorilla hands type a writing submission at a Mac-style keyboard, a yellow prop banana close by.
  1. Don’t assume anything.

You don’t know as much about submissions as you think you do. Did you check each publication’s submissions guidelines? Odds are, they’re all different. Did you assume your poem goes right to the Editor-in-Chief? More than likely, it’s screened by an overworked slush pile volunteer. Did you address that managing editor named “Jordan MacKenzie” as “Ms. MacKenzie” without knowing the person’s actual pronouns? Yikes. There’s a lot you don’t know you don’t know. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you can start learning it all! 

  1. Be prepared to wait – measured in months and years, not days (or even weeks).

Magazines and journals are busy and intricate enterprises. Your writing might go through several rounds of editorial consideration, which can take months.(Many months, sometimes, if the staff have shortlisted your piece for potential publication.) I have had longer work, like book manuscripts, take over a year before I heard back. Patience is the name of the game, so get comfy and grab a beverage. You’ll be here a while. 

  1. Don’t depend on “name brand” journals – especially early in your career. 

Truth: most writers want to be in The New Yorker. Harsher truth: most writers will never end up in The New Yorker. It’s wonderful to think big and even to fantasize about having your essay in Yale Review or Ploughshares. But it’s a numbers game: the more name recognition a magazine has, the greater the likelihood that they get a staggering number of submissions. It’s all well and good to submit to these places (because hey, you never know!), but don’t depend on them as the backbone of your submissions strategy. Backs, when stacked with that much pressure, tend to break. 

  1. You will get rejected. A lot. Learn how to fall. 

I’ve been rejected over 200 times (and those are just the ones I kept track of in Submittable). Rejection is the most likely outcome for every literary submission. “How to be rejected gracefully” is one of the most important muscles you can exercise as a submitting writer. Practice being a “gracious loser”. Mentally congratulate the writers whose work is getting to be where your work isn’t; you’d want the same from them. 

  1. Rejection will hurt you. 

The first time I was ever broken up with romantically, I cried so much that it felt like there was no fluid left in my body. You won’t cry that much (hopefully) over a writing rejection, but you will still face disappointments. Some of these may sting. Maybe that contest you thought you had a really good chance at was a “no”. Maybe the same piece keeps getting rejected over and over again. Whatever the reason, bear witness to your own discomfort, and know that this, too, (however unpleasant) is a natural and expected part of the submissions process. Remember to breathe, sleep, and do the equivalent of eating your Wheaties. It will be okay. 

  1. Rejection might also help you

Maybe you sent that short story to a publication that wasn’t the best fit. Maybe, after submitting your poetry to X magazine, you hear about Y contest that would have been perfect for it. Sometimes, a rejection is liberating because it enables you to find where the work was actually supposed to go. One of my book manuscripts was rejected because it read (to the press’ editors) like it was written by multiple different people. The same book then found my dream publisher, ECW Press, and exceeded all of my most feverish expectations. Even the paper they printed the book on is perfect. If your work has been rejected, ask yourself: “is there a bigger ‘yes’ waiting for me somewhere else?”

  1. Don’t develop too thick of a skin. 

This runs counter to most advice about rejection. “Develop a thick skin”, editors and casting managers say, “and the criticism will just bounce right off.” That’s exactly the problem: criticism in all its forms is how we learn, develop, and rise to challenges as writers. If we get too toughened by the process, we treat all rejection as someone else’s fault instead of inspecting our sentence structure or submissions strategy and seeing what we might try differently the next time. Rejection and criticism are important feedback if we let them be. Don’t let them bounce off you – but don’t absorb them like a sponge, either. They’re trying to tell you important things about your writing career, not permeate the darkest crevices of your soul.

  1. Acceptance is a gift – not an inheritance.

Never treat acceptance as something you’re expecting to happen. This isn’t a trust fund, and the friendly, underpaid editors to whom you’re submitting don’t owe you jack. If you get a piece accepted, then wonderful! But that’s not a reliable benchmark, and there is only one guarantee in the writing world. 

  1. Good news: the only guarantee is completely within your control.

The only guarantee is that you keep growing and maturing as a writer, and -this part is crucial – that you keep writing.  

I once met an English professor acquaintance who needled me about my (at the time, still very young and bad)  writing career. He eventually confessed that he, too, had wanted to be a writer – but he quit because he couldn’t handle the constant rejection. It wasn’t worth it to him. 
I hope it’s worth it to you, because now we can’t read that guy’s stories and poems. But we still have a shot – a big, terrific shot –  at reading yours.

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