First year contributor
Comments 45

Some Myths About Your Litmag Submissions

I read stories. A lot of them. I am the sole fiction editor for Reservoir, and I read (and edit copy) for Raleigh Review, an up-and-coming litmag founded by MFA alums from North Carolina State University. I’ve read for a couple other journals in the past, and been a preliminary reader for a couple of literary competitions in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry as well. I’m fairly sure this all added up to about two hundred stories last semester, from flash to novellas, and maybe another fifty poems, dozen essays, and thirty-five poetry collections.

And sometimes I come across people online or in real life who have no insight into this process, a great many misconceptions as to how their work is being read. People who submit scattershot for years on end without success, or—and this is sadder to me—talented, sensitive writers too intimidated to submit at all.

So let’s provide a little insight. Let’s clear up some misconceptions about submissions.

  • Nobody gets published without an MFA. 

This is simply not true, as demonstrated by my experiences and those of people I know. There are a lot of excellent literary magazines out there making a point of publishing work by people without graduate writing degrees. Glimmer Train gave first prize in its Fiction Open to a friend of mine, then published her, based on a story she wrote in the gap between her undergraduate and MFA degrees. New Letters awarded me the 2015 Alexander Cappon Prize for work I completed and submitted while finishing up my undergraduate degree. Even before then—in my sophomore year, actually—I entered work in CutBank’s Montana Prize that the magazine chose to publish.

Going behind the scenes at literary magazines has only reinforced my impression that most don’t care which degrees you have. Raleigh Review’s readers are evenly split between those with degrees and those without them, and so I doubt any of our fiction-reading teams are thinking that only MFAs are worthy or good writers. At The Journal some other first-year fiction readers and I will often discuss how we don’t read the cover letters until we’re finished with the story, just to make sure we don’t develop an unconscious bias for or against a given submission.

(Caveat: Obviously there are going to be litmags that care about your degree more than others. I cannot vouch for the folks at The New Yorker. Still, I suspect many swank venues are giving equal consideration to MFA-less writers.)

  • It’s all arbitrary, just a matter of taste. If the first twenty magazines hate your submission, the twenty-first might love it!

It’s amazing how much agreement happens in my fiction workshop, how much has happened between me and other fiction writers I’m teamed with on both The Journal and Raleigh Review. I don’t believe this to be a function of the MFA itself—I’m usually paired with a non-MFA reader at Raleigh Review. Rather, it just seems that most people with a strong interest in contemporary literary fiction have similar ideas about what constitutes a dealbreaker. They’ll turn down flat the vast, vast majority of stories people send to litmags, and they’ll usually have the same ideas about which stories those should be.

All of which is to say that it’s not actually likely the twenty-first magazine will love something twenty other magazines hated, which bodes ill for the story that’s gotten twenty form rejections. It is somewhat more likely if many of the first twenty magazines wrote a personal or tiered rejection, encouraging the submitter to send more work. For my own part, I would only send a piece out again if the first twenty magazines had some favorable response (and if I really believed in the writing).

  • The readers probably didn’t even look at the whole thing.

Actually, this might be true. But look, it’s your responsibility to write a beginning that makes someone want to keep going, not the readers’ responsibility to force themselves to slog through.

  • That magazine turned me down once in 2014. They must hate me. I won’t submit there ever again.

Good news! Even if I genuinely can’t stand your work and reject it within two minutes of opening the file . . . I won’t remember a thing about you fifteen minutes from now. I’m too busy reading the other dozen submissions I hope to plow through today. Go ahead and submit again; odds are low you’ll get the same reader at one of the bigger mags, and even if you do, odds are low anybody will recognize your name.

  • I’m not really good enough yet to submit to top-tier magazines. I’ll work my way up there someday, but for now I’m just sending work out to this other place you’ve never heard of . . .

Nah, dude. If you feel your work is lacking in any way, don’t send it out anywhere. Then when you do feel your work is good enough, aim high.

  • I posted my story to my personal blog or webpage.

Stop right now. There are two reasons you could have done this, and neither makes you look good. Either:

1. the work is not ready to be published. It’s unedited and unrevised and unfun, and you couldn’t convince anybody to put it in their litmag. You are throwing it up on your website anyway because you are unjustifiably proud of something that just isn’t there yet.


2. the work is ready to be published, but you couldn’t figure out how to send it out. You have no idea how to operate Submittable. What is a litmag?

  • Those timid bourgeois readers probably just hated my bold anarchist political statement.

Unlike many other people in MFAland, I love political fiction, and what’s more, I think this shows in the stories I accepted to Reservoir this past issue. Greg Sullivan’s “Scary Close to the Zoo” is a prime example, with its commentary on the hot mess that was Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games.

But let’s be real, a lot of beginning writers set out to compose political fiction and just come up with a heavy-handed screed. It helps to have some plot in your politics, some humor to counterbalance your convictions, rounded characters for whom I feel actual empathy. Forget the easy calls, the right-wingers sending me their unaltered, uninteresting fantasies about stopping a terrorist attack. I’ve turned down plenty of staunchly leftist, feminist stories—even though staunch leftist feminism is my thing, even though I’d love to have a drink with the writers—because the work just felt didactic to me.

  • This magazine is taking too long to get back to me.

The state of literary publishing is such that nearly all of us who read are doing so for free, in our spare time. We have lives, busy ones. Many of us are earning graduate degrees or adjuncting or raising kids or some combination of the above.

And so far as I can tell, absolutely any magazine that has ever offered its writers money, or been written up in The Review Review, or heaven forfend, won a Pushcart, is bombarded with manuscripts on a daily basis. So not only is any given reader trying to work your manuscript around what is likely a busy, busy life, but also, a workflow has been established to deal with the sheer quantity of submissions, and that workflow means your manuscript might sit for a few weeks or months before even being assigned to a reader. And then your manuscript is the fiftieth in line to be read.

These things happen. It’s not a sign of anything except that readers are busy and unpaid. I promise you will get your turn. Please don’t email queries until it’s been several months. Please don’t pull your work out of our system in a huff.

  • They keep spamming me after I submit.

You have asked the magazine a favor by submitting—you want the readers to check out your stuff. The staff of that magazine are now asking you a favor. They want you to check out their stuff. This is entirely fair. If you’re really upset at being reminded a given magazine exists, then why did you contact them in the first place?

Remember that readers are not the enemy. Litmags are not the enemy. I want to help you. I want to love your work. I want, sometimes desperately, to say yes.

Anything else you need cleared up? Ask me in the comments.


This entry was posted in: First year contributor


MFA, Distinguished University Fellowship. Endelman/Gitelman Fellow University of Michigan, English and Judaic Studies, Translation Fellow at Yiddish Book Center. Translation forthcoming in LA Review. Fiction most recently in Glimmer Train and New England Review, contest winner in Ninth Letter, Mid-American Review, and others. Collected in New Stories from the Midwest. Been to Kenyon Review Workshops, Tent: Creative Writing, Vermont Studio Center. Editor for Raleigh Review, Reservoir.


  1. Anonymous says

    Wow, thanks for the shoutout!
    – Becky, Editor of The Review Review

  2. Thank you, Cady, for such a needed article. I deal with these issues every day at The Copperfield Review–and just as you say, we don’t get paid for our time. We do it as a labor of love. Even though we make it clear on our guidelines that responses will take several months, I still get emails from writers who can’t understand why they haven’t heard back in a week!

  3. I myself think a writer only need read the best in the genre, study it, analyze it, and, if you have any talent in writing, write. Practice DOES make perfect! Besides, looking back on the greats (i paint and write, poetry, studied both, thus have a foot in both camps, so to say) well, the best writers and artists, it seems to me, went where the action was (Paris, New York) when they could, hung around with like-minded people, lived life, and wrote about it. I myself don’t see any need for an MFA if you’re a writer. And I have two MAs (Fine Arts and Italian), but I think it best, at some point, to live life, go abroad, learn a new language, make friends from different cultures! The world is interesting! Go visit it!

    • You’re right. There are indeed quite a few writers who don’t need MFAs to produce excellent work. Would that I were one of them . . .

      Anyway, I do think it’s interesting that so many people see two mutually exclusive paths here. Conventional knowledge seems to be that either there’s the MFA, or you practice writing, live in New York, and visit the world.

      But I’ve visited the world. I practice writing quite a bit in my MFA program. And if young writers really want to be where “the action” is, then they can get an MFA while living in New York. I guess I just want to advocate for a both/and approach instead of either/or.

  4. ambershockley says

    I think the idea that writers are asking a “favor” of the magazine, or the magazine’s readers, by submitting is problematic.
    Submission readers are certainly doing the magazine a favor, assuming they aren’t being paid. If they are being paid, they are doing their job. In any case, whether it is a favor or a job is between the magazine and the submission reader, not the writer and the submission reader.
    In my estimation, it is the writers that are doing the magazine a favor by submitting. Writers provide the content without which, presumably, the magazine would not survive. Or at least would be very thin.
    This doesn’t excuse any rude, entitled, self-aggrandizing behavior from some writers, but neither does it justify the idea that literary magazines and journals should be anything less than grateful to receive work.

    • I’ve never met or heard of an initial reader for any litmag who was getting paid, even at very high-tier mags. I’m sure there are some, somewhere, but I would discourage submitters from imagining that reading your piece is the actual day job of the people dealing with the majority of submissions. Maybe once you get bounced up to a genre or section editor? But even then, it’s still a maybe.

      Aside from that, I do see the point of your post. Yes, without submissions there would be little or no work to publish, so in that sense most people running litmags certainly need them (unless your mag is such a big deal you can just solicit famous people all day long). I still disagree though. It feels entitled for me as a submitter to tell myself that I create the context for the magazine to exist, or that they should be grateful I even got in touch.

      • Anonymous says

        Hmmm…I was the poetry editor at Phoebe, the George Mason MFA program’s literary magazine, and we got paid to do the work…not much on an hourly basis, but quite a bit for doing something I would have done for free…the readers were myself and the other editors, who were also being paid…I don’t see the benefits in anyone thinking the other either is or isn’t doing them a favor…both the publishers of the works and the creators of the works are well aware of the situation involved and have decided that, for the moment, it’s worth their while to participate…I have always been grateful to the magazines that read my work, whether it’s published or not, for they are my audience as well as the consumers of their publishing products, but I haven’t often expressed my gratitude. or felt that it was required by the magazine or small press…we pursue these ventures for our own reasons, to suit or own needs…when I was working as an editor, sometimes I would come in contact with a cranky submitter, bristling with attitude, burdened under by umbrage, and mostly these folks were a break from the ordinary drudgery of the day…unless met in person…that might have been intimidating…but when dealing with folk’s ego, most of which are fragile, as mine is, and having to reject them, well, it’s a business that’s bound to sometimes be unpleasant…where was I going with this? I guess, just suggesting that most of the time a sense of humor and perspective are required, and, if available, doesn’t allow these types of issues to intrude overly much, and it’s possible to go about the business of writing or publishing with a degree of personal satisfaction or serenity, in the presence of that thing which is enjoyable and difficult to fathom.

  5. I’ve never met a literary magazine editor who was paid directly from the magazine they represent though that’s not what the article is about at all. As far as I can tell—-this is about debunking common myths about magazines like ours, and it’s well done (and overdue). Thank you
    for sharing, Cady. I’d personally like to see an optional feature on the submission systems in the future that has both a time opened field (how many times the file was opened) and a time spent field on each attachment feature that goes through the electronic systems. We’d definitely use it.

  6. Among the myriad lists of things supposed to help emerging writers on the internet, these are my favourite. Submitting to Lit Mags is an exercise in a lot of virtuous things that I’m not bursting at the seams with, so insider advice like this is something I accept graciously.

    I do have one question, though, that’s been bugging me for a while now. You mentioned cover letters in the article. Magazines put varying amounts of emphasis on the cover letter in their submission guidelines, and, even then, few put so much emphasis on these that you know it’s crucially important to the submission. I find that, more often than not, the cover letter is glossed over. Beyond that, some mags will have up to 1000 words of space for a cover letter, where others will have up to 400 characters. In your experience, how important is the cover letter to the submission? Can it be a deal breaker? I never talk about the story itself in the cover letter, unless it’s to disclose what I am trying to achieve with the story, or how it came to be. More consistently, I’m giving some headline details about who I am, some unrelated to writing information about myself, relatively trivial things like that. Can you give some insight on this?

    Thanks in advance!

    • I would, in fact, never write enough in the cover letter to discover the limits of the character or word count. My cover letter says nothing except: Dear X, Please accept my story “TITLE” (number of words) for consideration in your magazine/contest. I study creative writing at this university. My poetry/fiction is out or forthcoming in these cool magazines, and I have placed in these neat contests. Here is my bio. Then I add a three-sentence bio about which MFA program I attend and where I’ve been published.

      Obviously, this isn’t the best advice for people at a different place in their lives and careers, so: If you aren’t in an undergraduate or graduate CW program, just write your job and where you live. If you have no publications, write that this piece, if accepted, would be your first publication. Do not say anything at all about the story you just sent, not even to explain how you came up with it or what you are trying to achieve. Really.

      I know this sounds very weird and boring, but it’s the cover letter I send out and it’s worked fine for me. People really do care more about your work.

  7. Reblogged this on Trish Hopkinson and commented:
    Some really valuable advice in this article… please poets, don’t post your work on Facebook or your personal blog. Read it at open mics, share with your friends privately, workshop it with poet peers, and then when it is ready, submit!

  8. William Jablonsky says

    Very valuable. I will share this with my undergraduates, who are just learning how to do this.

  9. Excellent article! It confirmed some things for me, and taught me some others. I have been published (book and several shorter selections of poems). My recent insight is to write in two categories: one for submissions, and the other for pieces that I post solely to maintain a web presence. What do you think?

  10. Thank you for this essay. I have been astonished by writers who think they are doing favors by submitting their work to magazines where all of the staff is volunteer. That said, people need to read and reread Sherry Della’s comment to both internalize and truly understand its validity.

  11. Cull Strider says

    I agree with you, Cady. But I’d be even more blunt. If you’ve sent a story to 20 litmags, been rejected all 20 times, and haven’t received as much as one personal rejection: 100% chance the story is total and utter trash. At the very least, the writer has been sending the story to all the wrong mags, which suggests that the writer does not read any mags, which suggest the writer does not read much at all, which suggest the writer has no clue what good writing looks like — and thus is more likely to produce trash themselves.

  12. Anonymous says

    Sound advice…you left out one other reason a person might post a poem or story on their Facebook page…they’ve had plenty of stories or poems published previously in small presses and even some of the more prestigious presses and received little indication that anyone read or appreciated the work, while on their Facebook page a few friends acknowledged reading the poems or stories…people you know and care and certainly folks you’d want to reach with your work, if you want to reach anyone, a self-publishing of sorts, which, I suppose, you might dismiss as vanity publishing, which I’ll grant you, but after you’ve been around for a while, you don’t really need official approval of your work…you know what you like and don’t like, so…as you may have guessed, I publish my poetry occasionally on Facebook, and I sort of like the idea of the poems hanging around for awhile and then disappearing down-thread, maybe popping up again a year later when someone comes across it accidentally and responds to it…it’s as much fun as getting accepted to a lit mag that no one responds to, or at least they don’t respond to me…yes, I have the lit mag in my possession, and that’s something…I get enjoyment out of reading the work of the other writers…but that’s enjoyment as a reader, not an author…so, my enjoyment as an author is interacting with my readers on a personal level, either through a live reading or a few back and forths over the published work…and Facebook offers me more interaction, usually, than the more traditional, literary methods…

  13. Benford says

    Because of its title I thought this would be a stupid piece written for the clicks. But frankly I’m happy I read it. Thank you.

  14. face what you know says

    Very interesting article! Much of the information you shared seems common place to you but was not for me, nor I suspect for many other writers not in MFA or Creative Writing programs. Most of us have not worked at a literary magazine and have limited information or concept as to the hows and whys of getting those publications up. I think that might be one of the many benefits of an MFA program. I am grateful that there are more and more online literary magazines because it gives me the opportunity to read widely and get a feel for the content appropriate for that particular magazine. Thank you for sharing!

  15. Pingback: Some Myths About Your Litmag Submissions | ScarlettPoppies

  16. Is it possible to read this teenager’s Poetry blog and give him some suggestions? He has been submitting his wok and has not hit the one magazine that will love it. YET. Thank you!

    • If the teen in question were not a teen, my suggestion would be to take down the poetry he’s posted online and find a workshop or tutor. There are even online workshops that are quite effective, although they tend to cost money.

      Because he is a teen, I will instead remind him that a teenager has lots of time to get published. It’s totally okay to spend the next several years just working on the work. I did not have my first publication until my late twenties. This is not a race, and it’s usually a good idea to give yourself those first couple years of your writing practice to just learn, without the pressure of publication. Really. While I’m very grateful for the success I did have in undergrad, I’m also embarrassed at some of the stuff I sent out in my haste to see my name on a contributors list. Be wiser than I was.

  17. Pingback: Stories galore | Jeffrey Ricker

  18. Pingback: John Paul Davis | Poetry | Music | Code | Art

  19. bristly says

    If I’m going to publish something, I’ll submit to mags that pay. If it’s a choice between being published without pay, and posting to my site- I’ll post to my site every time.

    You see, people can buy my other works there directly and I get paid for views. Submitting to a non paying mag is worth less than posting to my own site (or posting a teaser to my social media sites with a link to it).

    I’ll submit to paying mags first though, before posting anywhere online, of course. That is always worthwhile even if they reject the piece.

  20. Thanks for your encouraging article! I was a non-traditional MFA student. I returned to graduate school after almost 20 years teaching high school Spanish, and I haven’t looked back! I did start out blogging and posting poems, but at that point I wasn’t at all aware of the whole publishing world. Since then, I’ve had a fair amount of success in placing my poems in literary journals, but every once in a while I want to grace my blog with a poem I love, just because it’s mine and I want to share it.

  21. I enjoyed this article and found it full of good information. Occasionally I receive personal rejections saying my piece “made it past the first round” – presumably that circle of volunteer readers. Actually I recently got one of these from Raleigh Review. Is there any was to determine the acceptance ratio at this level? I mean, Duotrope keeps statistics overall. It may be impossible to say. The feverishly busy litmag people probably aren’t able to keep track of such details. I’m just curious, though.

    • I’d say this is a good sign. I give about 1/20 stories the thumbs up for round two, and my reading partners will agree with maybe two thirds of those, at which point the stories my partners and I agree on are forwarded to the fiction editor.

      • In sort of two related questions – what % of stories would you say you add some sort of personal note to? I’ve noticed that two journals I’ve submitted to do this consistently, while others never have, so I’m guessing some are better than others.

        Also, is 20 submissions with nothing but form letters the right number to give up on a piece? I mean, it certainly seems sufficient. But so does…I dunno 8. I feel like if I’d heard nothing after 8 thoughtfully submitted pieces (to journals the work would be relevant for) I’d stop sending it out or change it completely. Actually, I’m constantly fiddling, so probably before then, but what’s a good “move on” number?

      • 1) This varies wildly depending on the journal. Some journals have two form letters–one for regular rejections and one for work that showed promise–and virtually never write any sort of personal note. At Raleigh Review and the Journal, that stuff is above my pay grade, but I usually vote to kick up a single story to the assistant fiction editors for every dozen or so I’m given. Sometimes I like none of the stories I’m sent. Once I got a really good batch and I liked three out of a dozen. So at most journals this is the first hurdle you’ve got to meet in order to catch a fiction editor’s eye and get some sort of tiered response. Get the initial readers to enjoy your story.

        At Reservoir, I am the entire fiction staff, so any story I like enough is getting published. This would be three out of the 106 submissions we got last open period (the fourth story was solicited). Looking back at our files, it appears I gave sixteen of those higher-tier rejections and/or a personal note. Not surprisingly, my comfort with sending out personal notes increased as time went by. Some days I was in a better mood than others, and this shows in the number of works that got this sort of rejection from me. I suspect next open period will involve even more personal and tiered rejections.

        The easiest way to get me to write you a note is to send in good writing that also contains an absolute dealbreaker or two. For example, a beautifully rendered story of heartbreak that contains weird rants about how your ex is the worst person alive. A thoughtful, exciting story with five pages of unnecessary exposition tacked to the beginning. A strong, hilarious voice that doesn’t quite manage to make up for a total lack of character arc. My natural urge to help you will kick in and I might email you a hint as to what fatal flaw is ruining your perfectly decent stuff.

        I’d also dispute the idea that any magazine sending too many rejections is “better.” At the best magazines, the editors are too busy to tell you why they’re saying no.

        2) I think eight form letters could absolutely just be a case of bad luck or poor fit, especially if you’re aiming high. I personally might consider putting a piece aside after eight form rejections, but I’d hold off on a decision until I squeezed in a few more submissions.

        And of course, this is also very different for contests, which is most of what I enter these days. With contests, it’s harder to gauge interest via tiered or personal rejections. I’ve certainly been encouraged in the past by making it to a finalist or semi-finalist round, but those are very small odds, much smaller, I’ve found, than the odds of a getting a tiered rejection or a personal note with a regular submission. I do think that both of my pieces that have won what I would consider to be “big deal” contests at journals I love got eight form rejections at some point, although not eight in a row. It’s also true that both made it to finalist rounds in one contest before eventually winning another, and that I might not have kept submitting otherwise.

        Confession: I’ve been deleting any comments on this article that I feel offer especially pernicious or misleading advice to newbie writers. Still, I do get a bunch of attempted comments insisting that twenty form rejections is too few to know if your piece needs to be put aside. So I guess it’s worth noting that the “move on” number is going to vary from person to person, venue to venue.

      • Thanks Cady – an extremely helpful reply.

        Also, I used “better” colloquially and therefore vaguely. I meant that some journals are better about sending out personal notes (i.e. do more of it), than others. Not that some are qualitatively better journals because of the rejections/notes they send. My bad.

  22. Pingback: Dealbreakers: Reasons I Vote Not to Accept a Story | The MFA Years

  23. I’m curious. Is it still poor form to post something on a personal blog if the intention is to show others one’s evolution as a writer? There are a million blogs out there, good and bad, with finely polished writing, but might a willingness to make mistakes in public encourage quicker maturation?

    • I suppose I might share a paragraph of my old, bad writing and talk about what was wrong with it in a blog someday, then link to the place where my new, better writing was published? Is that what you mean?

      • Yes, but no. Reflecting upon old writing and identifying how you improved could certainly be worthwhile, but what if you just don’t know how poorly you are writing right now? The novice, for example. Would you simply not put anything out there until you’ve reached a certain level of mastery, real or perceived, or would you go ahead and post and leave yourself open to criticism? I’m talking as if this is a hypothetical, but I’m curious because it’s a question I’ve been pondering w/r/t my own practice, development.

      • I would pretty much never put anything out there until you have a certain level of mastery, yeah. I mean, you might be totally unsure of whether or not you have achieved any particular level of mastery, but I can guarantee that litmags will clear that up really fast by either getting enthusiastic about your work…or not.

        I do think criticism is important to developing as a writer, perhaps the most important factor for a great many people. I also think the place for that criticism is in a private workshop or via one-on-one teaching, not the public Internet. I workshop pretty much constantly, and I bring my roughest stuff to that context, to people I know a bit better and trust a bit more.

  24. Pingback: What Should I Look for in an MFA? | The MFA Years

  25. Pingback: Revenge writing: a bad idea – Alex Clark

  26. Pingback: What I Learned in Year One of an MFA Program | The MFA Years

Leave a Reply to Cady Vishniac Cancel reply