A Submission Process

Image of poetry and fairy tale and other books in my bookshelf

A few years ago, I wrote an overview of my writing process. This was months before my first poem was published, so some sections in that post were sparse in detail. I included my goal to receive “100 Rejections a Year,” but provided no other information about the submission process. In this new post, I will provide tips and resources so that my workshop students and other writers can submit their best work to potential markets.

First things first: Submitting your writing to potential markets takes time. Depending on how many pieces you have to send out and the number of markets you are submitting to, the submission process can take hours. Set aside time for submitting separate from writing, rewriting, and the other stages of your writing process. I often set aside Sundays for this task. Don’t expect to get anything else done until your submissions are complete.

Second things second: What I describe below works for me now, but it has changed over time and will likely change again. You will have to personalize the submission process for your own situation and aspirations.

Start Here

Video Training Resource:How to Get Published: A Step-by-Step Guide to Submitting Your Writing” by Rachel Mindell

Rachel Mindell is a poet here in Tucson, Arizona and also a Senior Editor at Submittable (a widely used online submission tool I’ll discuss below.) I attended her in-person “Fail Better: Creative Submitting” class in 2018 at the University of Arizona Poetry Center and found it helpful, encouraging, and downright fun. She followed up this class with a tremendously useful training video on Skillshare (access to the free training at the above link requires a free registration.) She covers a great deal of material in the hour-long training video, including choosing the right pieces to submit, choosing the right publications to submit to, writing cover letters and bios, actually submitting, tracking submissions, and dealing with acceptances, or, more likely, rejections. My own submission process has been greatly informed by Rachel’s class and training video.

Where to Submit

I’m going to cover submitting unsolicited poetry and short prose (fiction or creative nonfiction) to literary and genre markets, anthologies, and contests, because that’s what I generally submit. These are opportunities like the New Yorker, Beloit Poetry Journal, Rattle, Star*Line, Nightmare Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail’s quarterly flash fiction and annual poetry contests, and thousands of others.

There are several online tools to help you find interesting markets and opportunities to which you might submit your writing, but I’d like to start with a tip for finding potential markets based on the books, magazines, and journals you already read (do I need to remind you that reading constantly is a key part of any writer’s writing process?)

Tip: Review the author’s “Acknowledgements” page. One of my favorite collections of poetry is former U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Life on Mars. Her acknowledgements page is on page 75: “Grateful acknowledgement is made to the editors of the following journals, who first published versions of these poems: the Awl, Barrow Street, Bat City Review, the Believer, the Portable Boot Reader No. 5, Cimarron Review, Eleven Eleven, the New Yorker, Ploughshares, PMS: poemmemoirstory, Tin House, Zoland Poetry No. 4.”

You may or may not write similarly to the authors you read, but the acknowledgements pages of their books will often include a handy list of journals and magazines (sometimes even contests and workshops) that you might like to research further. From Smith’s list, I have submitted poetry to the New Yorker and Tin House.

Tip: Research the publications you already read (or find some to read.) I only started reading and writing poetry regularly in 2013 when I returned to college at age 40 to pursue a degree in Creative Writing. I definitely felt late to the genre. In several of my classes, we took field trips over to the University of Arizona Poetry Center to learn how to browse the periodical section for poetry that captured our individual attention. Many of the journals I pulled from the shelves left me cold, but Beloit Poetry Journal really appealed to me. Like other poetry journals, I didn’t really understand many of the poems in the issue I read, but Beloit Poetry Journal and its editors’ choices began to teach me that I didn’t need to; the words, language, images, and ideas in a poem read for the first time can be enjoyed without entirely understanding what is going on. Some poems also invite you to read them a second time, a third, again and again, which can open up their meaning, or simply bring repeat enjoyment.

So of course I wanted to send my own poetry to Beloit Poetry Journal for consideration. They have not yet accepted any of my submitted poems, but they did send me some of my first personal and encouraging rejections, with an invitation to keep sending them more.

I discovered the Science Fiction & Fantasy Poetry Association and speculative poetry a few years ago and was immediately intrigued by the possibilities. They publish quarterly journals Star*Line and Eye to the Telescope, as well as the annual Rhysling and Dwarf Stars anthologies. The more I read, the more I wanted to try my hand at speculative poetry. Eventually, I began submitting my own speculative poetry to their quarterly journals and an annual contest. I have received many rejections in return, but I sold my first science fiction poem to Star*Line last year, and my first horror poem will appear in Eye to the Telescope soon.

Reading is research for potential markets. Figure out what you like to read, and then start submitting your own work to those publications. I have a list of dream publications, journals and magazines that publish poetry and/or fiction, and when I finish a piece of writing, I start with them.

Tip: Follow publishers and authors on social media. Markets frequently post their submission calls on Twitter and other social media. Authors frequently share these opportunities to their own networks. Go ahead and start following your favorite journals, magazines, and authors on social media (Twitter seems especially useful for this, in my opinion.) You’ll discover all sorts of opportunities, and those opportunities will often lead you to other opportunities, in the vast stream of social media.

Tip: Use market search engines. There came a time when I had so many poems ready to send out to potential markets that my list of dream publications was too short. I turned to market search engines that list ongoing and upcoming submission calls.

Submittable: Submittable is not only an online submission manager for many magazines, journals, and other publishers and organizations, but it also offers a search engine and submission tracker for writers. After creating a free account, the “Discover” tab in Submittable will present you with a list of markets and other opportunities in chronological order. You can filter the list by keywords like “poetry,” “short-story,” “contest,” and many more. If you click on an opportunity, additional information will pop up, including guidelines, deadlines, submission fees (if any), and a link to the market or organization’s webpage. You can submit right away, save the opportunity for later, or follow the market or organization for any future opportunities.

Screen shot of Submittable's Discover Opportunities list and search interface

Duotrope: Duotrope is a paid ($5 per month or $50 per year) search engine and submission tracker. You can “Search Publishers,” “Find by Title,” or “Browse Index” to find potential markets. Like other search engines, you can filter by genre, style, length, payment, etc. Individual market pages have a wealth of information, including guidelines and average response times.

Screen shot of Duotrope's Search for Publishers of Poetry search interface

The (Submission) Grinder: The Grinder (not to be confused with the hook-up app) is a free search engine and submission tracker created by Diabolical Plots editor David Steffen after Duotrope started charging for its service. The Grinder focused on genre (science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc.) markets initially, but it continues to expand with literary market listings today. Its search engine includes many checkboxes and options for filtering market results, or you can search for journals by name.

Screen shot of The Grinder's Searth for Poetry Markets interface

Market Research

Searching for potential markets is one thing; you still need to research these markets further. Submittable, Duotrope, and The Grinder’s market pages provide all kinds of useful information about what markets are looking for as well as deadlines, submission fees, response times, etc.

I particularly appreciate The Grinder’s market pages because they include helpful bar graphs that track reported submission responses over time. Rejections are red, acceptances are green, and pending submissions stand out in purple. These graphs can indicate how long you might have to wait before you receive a response. This may help you decide whether or not you want to submit your work to that market.

Screen shot of The Grinder's market page and graphs for Star*Line

Tip: Go to the publication’s website and read an issue. These market pages have limitations, however. They might not have the latest information that is available on the publication’s own website. For the most up-to-date and detailed information, you should research further by going to the publication’s website. As Rachel Mindell explains in her video guide to submitting your work, the publication’s own website is a great resource for deciding if you want to submit to them. Do you like their aesthetic? Do they have sample writing or even entire issues you can read online? What do they say they want on their own submission guidelines page? Maybe the publication is defunct. Maybe they are no longer accepting submissions or have changed their submissions windows. Maybe they are planning a special issue that will be the perfect fit for your own piece.

The best way to find out if your own work will be a good fit for a potential market is to read one of their issues. If the publication is available for free online or as a free PDF or ebook, that’s a wonderful opportunity to spend an evening reading through an issue. If they are a paid market, you may consider buying an issue. The more familiar you are with various potential markets, the more experience you will gain in deciding whether or not a publication is right for your writing.

You might be wondering, though, who has the time? How are you supposed to devote time to writing, rewriting, market research, AND submitting your work, along with all your other responsibilities and activities?

Well, I am not suggesting that you read entire issues of every potential publication you come across and want to submit to. What I am suggesting is that you do this sometimes, especially when you are starting out, and especially those markets that are the most compelling to you. The only way to know if your work will be a good fit is to spend some time with the publication. You might only have to read a single poem, story, or essay to realize that you are not interested in submitting to them after all. Or you might find yourself racing through their latest issue and discovering a new favorite publication as a reader. The more experience you have as a reader of the types of things you like to write, the more you will be able to tell if a publication is right for your work.

To give an example, I knew after reading the first PDF issue of Impossible Archetype that I would love to see one of my poems published there. And I knew just which one of my poems I wanted to submit to editor Mark Ward. Out of my packet of three poems I submitted for consideration for Issue 2, he accepted that poem, “Roadside Freak Show,” which became my first-ever published poem.

The same thing happened with my first-ever published short story, “The Center of Dirty.” After reading an online issue or two of Cold Creek Review (now, sadly, defunct), I just knew my story would be the perfect fit for the journal “that explores the depths of troubled emotion.” Sure enough, they accepted “The Center of Dirty” a couple weeks after I submitted it.

I haven’t read an issue of every potential market to which I have submitted my poems and stories. I do, however, read widely, and do sometimes read an entire issue before I send my work. And I always go to the publication’s website to conduct further research. You can learn a lot from a publication’s website even if you don’t read any of their issues.

How to Submit

Sometimes you know your piece is the perfect fit for a potential market. Sometimes you are just taking a chance. Either way, once you pick a potential market or several for your pieces, it is time to submit.

Tip: Check the publication’s website again. Reread their submission or guidelines page. Sometimes they change their submission window or close early. Sometimes they vanish from the internet forever. Sometimes you miss something important the first time you take a look at their website. Read and reread those guidelines!

Tip: Follow their guidelines! It is a sign of respect and professionalism to follow a publication’s guidelines to the letter. Some editors have preferences for fonts, font sizes, margins, acceptable file types, etc. Sometimes they want your name on your submission; sometimes they do not. Sometimes they are seeking work for a specific theme. One editor of an anthology I submitted to provided a link to an extensive style sheet that covered her preferred spelling, punctuation, and other formatting preferences. I decided to follow that style sheet as closely as possible, because I loved the description of the anthology and I thought I had a short story that would fit right in. Sure enough, my story was accepted, but it would not have been, no matter how well the story fit, if I had ignored the editor’s stated preferences.

Following guidelines is a lot of work. Following guidelines requires you to check and double check your work. Following guidelines can take an entire evening, and you might only be able to submit to one publication before it’s time to go to bed.

But this attention to detail, this commitment to slush pile readers and editors you do not even know, can mean the difference between an acceptance and a rejection. In some ways, following guidelines is the easiest way to get on an editor’s good side and increase the chances that they will accept your work.

Follow. The. Guidelines.

Tip: Follow standard guidelines and formatting. All that said, most editors tend to default to standard guidelines that you will use again and again when submitting your work. The more you submit, the more practice you will have formatting your poems, short stories, or essays in the way most editors expect. William Shunn put together widely-followed formatting guidelines and published them on the web for writers. For prose, use the format illustrated and described in great detail here. For poetry, use the format here.

But, again, follow the publication’s guidelines, too, even if they are not standard. When I was in college, most of my professors wanted papers printed with 12-point font size, but one of my professors wanted 13-point font size. That one-point difference is a big deal for those of us in our 40’s around the time we start needing reading glasses. Follow standard format, then reformat if necessary to the publication’s specific guidelines.

Tip: Include a cover letter and short biographical statement. Not every publication wants a cover letter or bio, but most do, so have one ready to go before you submit. A cover letter is short and simple:

  • Greet the editor or editors – you can find the editor’s name on the publication’s website, often on the “Masthead” page, but if you cannot, “Dear Editor” is fine (avoid guessing an editor’s gender or nonbinary status and/or preferred titles like “Mr.” or “Ms.” and use their complete name, unless their guidelines specify otherwise.)
  • Announce what you are submitting (there is no need to include the publication’s name in your cover letter, as in “Please find attached three poems for your consideration for the upcoming issue of Eye to the Telescope“; they know who they are!)
  • Only if appropriate, add anything you think the editor should know that is relevant to the work you are submitting (if you are an astronomer submitting a science fiction story about a space voyage to a star you research in real life, you might want to include this information.)
  • If this is a simultaneous submission (you are sending the same work to several different potential markets) let them know: “This is a simultaneous submission, but I will let you know immediately if a poem is accepted elsewhere.”
  • Include or exclude anything else they require per their guidelines.
  • Thank them for their time.
  • Personalize with your preferred closing, like “Sincerely,” “Best regards,” etc.
  • Include a short bio written in the third person – this generally includes three or four sentences about you, including recent publications (do not include in your bio every publication in which you have been published; list the three or four most recent, or list the three or four most relevant to the current submission.)

Here is an example of one of my recent cover letters for a packet of poems:

If you do not have any publications yet to include in your bio, that is fine! Simply include two or three sentences about yourself. Once one of your pieces is published, then you can add this publication to your bio for future submissions.

And as always, follow the publication’s guidelines for what they want to see in a cover letter and bio.

Tip: Submit using the publication’s preferred platform. Many markets use Submittable, which is a pretty straightforward way for writers to submit their work. Other markets use different submission managers, like Moksha, Green Submissions, or the publication’s own internally-developed platform.

Other markets ask for email submissions. Some markets want the text of the cover letter and the poetry or prose copied and pasted into the body of the email. Others want the work submitted as an attachment in a preferred file format.

A few markets still want paper snail mail submissions.

Follow the market’s guidelines for submission, or they might ignore or reject your work outright.

Tip: Never pay anyone to publish your work! Except for legitimate submission and contest fees, you should never pay any publication to publish your work. Money (if there is any money involved) should flow from the publisher to the writer, not the other way around. Your time and your work is valuable; you deserve to be paid (or recognized in a worthwhile way if the publication isn’t a paying market.)

Tip: Decide if you are willing to pay submission and contest fees. Submission and contest fees help markets pay for publication, platform expenses like the cost of subscribing to Submittable, and sometimes staff salaries, among other expenses. Submission fees are often around $3.00 per submission, but sometimes a market will offer expedited consideration of your work or personalized feedback for a higher fee. Contest fees are often closer to $20.00 or more per submission.

It is up to you to decide based on your own philosophy and budget whether or not you want to submit to publications that charge submission and contest fees. There are plenty of publications that do not charge any fees for submissions.

I personally submit to both submission fees and no-fees publications, because I budget for this expense and keep track of how much I’m spending every year. I also want to support several publications that I enjoy that charge these fees. I do not submit my work to many contests, however, because I do not feel like I can justify these higher fees. The few contests with fees I submit to regularly, such as the annual Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards or The Molotov Cocktail’s quarterly flash fiction and annual poetry Shadow Award contests, mean something special to me and often provide bragging rights even as a finalist or short-listed participant.

Any time there is a fee involved, make sure that the fee is reasonable and not evidence for questionable practices. The market search engines listed above do a good job of highlighting those markets with submission and contest fees. If you are on social media, pay attention to what other writers and editors are saying about markets that charge fees. There have been legitimate publications with questionable practices related to their fees. Error on the side of safety and your own budget, and remember that it is you, the writer, who deserves payment or acceptable recognition for your writing and hard work.

Tracking Submissions

Tip: Tracking through Submittable. Once you submit your work through Submittable, you will see it listed with your other submissions on the “My Submissions” page and further sorted into the “All Submissions” and “Active” tabs. You can now click on “Create Universal Submission” to add a submission to a publication or opportunity that doesn’t use Submittable. Submissions are tagged as “Received” at first. The moment a reader or editor at the publication glances at your submission record (they may not have opened your submitted document yet, though) the submission is updated with the “In-Progress” tag. It might stay that way for weeks or months before a final decision is made about your submission. You will receive an email once the publication reaches a decision, and your submission will be moved to the “Accepted” or “Declined” tabs on the “My Submissions” page. You can also withdraw your submission if you make a mistake or your work was accepted by another publication, which will move your submission record to the “Withdrawn” tab.

Tip: Tracking through Duotrope or The Grinder. Duotrope and The Grinder require more data entry to track your submissions, but they offer a lot more useful information about your submissions than Submittable, in my opinion. The information available in Duotrope and The Grinder becomes more valuable the more writers use these services to track and update the status of their submissions. Tracking and updating your submissions can be a time sink, however. While I personally update my submission status on both The Grinder and Duotrope, you may be able to save significant time by choosing only one such submission tracker.

In both trackers, you start by entering information about your individual written pieces, including poems, short stories, or essays. You enter the title of the piece, type, genre, word length, date completed, etc. You can then list all of your pieces in one list that includes the ability to run searches for potential markets based on a piece’s type, genre, and word length.

Once your piece or pieces are entered, then you can record your submission. The interface will ask you to search for the market you submitted to. You then enter the date sent, the piece submitted, the submission method, and other information. When you have updates (the date the potential market acknowledged your submission, the date resolved, acceptance or rejection, etc.) you can enter this new information to keep your submission record up to date.

All of your submissions are then available on the “Manage Submissions” page in The Grinder and the “Your Submissions” page in Duotrope. These pages provide filtering options and summarize your submissions in a list that includes estimates about when you will receive a response from a particular market.

You honestly only need to use one submission tracker, but sometimes I’m a little extra and each tracker offers pros and cons that keep me using all three. Submittable, for example, automatically keeps track of everything I already have to submit through Submittable. The Grinder has graphs I like and it’s free, but it doesn’t yet have the number of market listings or submission updates from other writers that Duotrope does. As I submit more frequently, however, I’ll probably have to streamline my submission tracking and choose between The Grinder and Duotrope.

Tip: Tracking with spreadsheets. Speaking of extra: I also track my submissions in my own colorful spreadsheets. I keep track of what piece has been submitted where, and include additional information for acceptances such as dates for contracts, payment, proofs, and publishing. In addition to this submission overview, I have separate tabs for each poem (with columns for submission number, date submitted, market name, response date, and response type) and each market (with submission number, date submitted, piece name, response date, and response type.) All of these tabs present different views of my submission process, but this means my spreadsheet takes time to manage. Overkill? Perhaps. But so far it hasn’t felt particularly burdensome to me.

So, what do you really need to keep track of your submissions?

  • If you are using Submittable anyway to submit your writing to many potential markets, that might be all you need, especially now that Submittable has added the ability to add universal submissions that didn’t go through Submittable.
  • If you want to keep track of more details than Submittable provides, then your own spreadsheet may be sufficient.
  • If you don’t want to maintain a spreadsheet, you can use either The Grinder or Duotrope, which both track more information than Submittable, but require you to enter that information yourself.
  • Or you can use any combination of these tools, or all of them, or none of them.

I think some submission tracking is better than no tracking at all, but how much or how little you do is up to you.

Conclusion

I hope this overview of submissions tools and a glimpse into my personal submission process will help you develop your own productive and rewarding submission process. If necessary, keep the tracking simple and minimal, but make sure you spend time searching for and researching potential markets, while remembering to submit your best work in an appropriate format and in a professional manner while following the potential market’s guidelines to the letter. Your writing is worth the extra effort to give it the best shot at finding the right home for it.