Striving to get a piece accepted by a literary magazine is a great way to get your foot in the door as an author. It helps get you recognized and gives you credibility. During the time I worked with the online literary magazine The Corner Club Press, I got the chance to see what it was like on the other side. I saw just how overwhelming all the submissions could be, and I was able to experience firsthand what it takes to put an issue together. I was lucky enough to work with some amazingly talented folks, and I can honestly say we saw some pretty bizarre submissions at times. So I wanted to share with you guys the biggest mistakes you can make when submitting to a literary magazine. These won’t just earn you a few negative points; they’ll likely get your piece thrown out!
1. You don’t follow the guidelines. This is by far the biggest issue I saw with submissions while working for the magazine. Most literary magazines receive hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of submissions. They don’t have time to read each and every piece they receive the full way through, and they definitely don’t have time to sift through your email or attachment to find your name, the title of the piece, and other information they might need. So guess which are the first to go? If you don’t follow the guidelines for submissions, you’re likely to be out of the running pretty quickly. If you want your piece to outshine the others, start with the basics and follow the submission guidelines. It’s that simple.
2. Your introduction doesn’t hook the staff. The submission process is pretty much like an interview. You need to be polished and present your work well to be considered for hire. The same is true for a magazine. If you don’t have a captivating cover letter for your piece and your email isn’t well constructed, your submission will blend in with the others. Your story may be the greatest work of all time, but if you don’t present it professionally, it could be passed up for someone else’s.
3. Your piece hasn’t been edited or has numerous punctuation errors. There’s nothing that irritates me more than a potentially good story that looks like a third grader wrote it. I’m not saying it has to be totally flawless (though you want to get as close as possible before submitting anything for publication), but if your story looks more like a draft than a final work of fiction (or nonfiction), it’s time to take a step back and patch it up. Magazines are looking for pieces that are publication ready. They typically undergo light editing only. Unless you come across an exceptionally kind and generous staff willing to guide you through a more rigorous editing process, your work with likely be passed up for something a little more polished.
4. Your story has too intricate of a plot. All stories are not created equal. That is especially true when it comes to writing a short story vs. writing a novel. The biggest difference is that short stories are tales that can easily be wrapped up in 5,000 words or fewer. They generally revolve around one or two main characters and one event or short sequence of events. The direction of the outcome is clear in the end, and that outcome usually involves a change in one or more of the main characters. Think everyday circumstances that have potentially monumental results. If your story’s ideas are too vast or complicated to be captured in a just a few pages, they probably don’t fit the frame of a short story.
5. You don’t respond to an acceptance email. This one is the hardest slipup to swallow. I’ve seen some incredibly awesome stories that were accepted but not published simply because the author never responded to the acceptance email—or because they responded outside of the required time frame. Without the author’s final consent on edits and permission for their piece to be published, magazines have little choice but to reject the piece and replace it with another one. It takes time to format an issue and finalize it for publication; magazines can’t wait for weeks on end for a reply.
Added bonus: To really make your piece stand out, give it some extra touches to improve your chances. Address the editor directly, talk about the magazine and how you came across it, and mention specific pieces that you’ve enjoyed in past issues. If you show that you’ve gone that extra mile and really done your homework before submitting, the staff will be thrilled. Your story might even get bumped up to the top of the slush pile because of it!
Here is also a helpful article on constructing a great cover letter: http://www.thereviewreview.net/publishing-tips/your-perfect-cover-letter
(Edited from original post to update and correct point number two.)