Want to submit your writing to a publication, but don’t know where to start? Here are the basics.
First off, how does submitting work? Literary magazine used to accept submissions in manila envelopes and manila envelopes only. Imagine that — actually mailing things? That doesn’t happen anymore. These days, all literary submissions occur online. (If you find one that doesn’t, skip it and save a tree.) You’ll find that many magazines use Submittable, a web-based program designed to help organizations manage digital submissions. Magazines that aren’t on Submittable will ask you to send your submission to a specific email address. While the processes for Submittable- and email-based submissions are based on the same key components, they can differ significantly in format and presentation. We’ll break them down separately, starting with the most important pieces: the third person bio, the cover letter, and the document itself.
The third-person bio is a summary of your background as a writer. It’s very straightforward if you do have writing experience; be sure to include any awards you or your work have received, any publications that your work has appeared in, and any programs/publications you have been a part of. Give credit where credit is due, and don’t be afraid to make yourself look good. But don’t worry if you don’t have submitting experience! Every famous writer started with an empty bio. Instead of listing significant writing milestones, be true to yourself. Mention your pilot’s license, your baking habits, your tendency to binge-watch The Twilight Zone while eating Frosted Flakes. The whole point of the bio is to show your individuality, so whether you do that with publishing history, personal details, or a combination of both, make sure it accurately represents you. You should also feel free to customize your bio to have it fit the particular magazine you’re submitting to. Just remember to keep it in third person — that way, it’s publishing-ready!
The cover letter allows you to express your interest in being published in a specific magazine. For further information, visit a previous post, “How to Write a Cover Letter.”
The document, of course, is the most important part of the submission! Most magazines will make these requests on their own, but in case they don’t, we’ll give you some reliable defaults. When in doubt, use 12 pt. font. The font itself should be readable and conservative, which generally means Helvetica or Times New Roman (or Garamond if you’re feeling adventurous). Poetry should be single-spaced unless the poem calls for special formatting; anything else should be double-spaced. For poetry submissions, follow the magazine’s specific guidelines on how many to submit on one document, and start each new poem on a separate page. For prose, number the pages for the editor’s convenience. Don’t put your name on the document just in case the magazine prefers to do blind readings. And if your magazine requests anything that contradicts with this list, TRUST THE MAGAZINE!
If you use Submittable:
The beauty of Submittable is that it was literally designed for this purpose, so it’s incredibly easy to use. The text box that says, “Third-person bio?” Put your third-person bio in that box. Attach the document where it says to do so. The only thing that can get tricky with Submittable is if it asks for both a cover letter and a bios. I struggle with this because I usually include a first-person bio in my cover letter. In these cases, I just omit the first-person bio from the letter and let the separate third-person bio do all the work.
Once you’ve used Submittable for a while, your account will be all pretty and organized, like this:
If you use email:
Email submissions are often more lenient than ones on Submittable. Most only ask for the document and a third-person bio, which allows you to treat the cover letter as a vehicle for your other materials. Simply omit (or consolidate) the first-person bio section of the cover letter and you’re good to go.
On what to submit:
As you research literary magazines, you’ll come across many that have certain restrictions on what you can submit. While a few magazines are happy to publish previously-published writing, the vast majority only accept unpublished work. Many magazines are picky about simultaneous publishing as well, meaning that while they might allow you to submit the same piece to other magazines, they expect to be notified immediately if it is accepted into a different publication.
Remember that the entire publishing process takes a lot of time, and it can be overwhelmingly negative. I personally have received only two acceptances out of about fifteen submissions, and I was lucky. Have something else to do; waiting can be rough. But once you get that one acceptance, it all feels worth it!
For pointers on how to choose the right literary magazine for you, see our follow-up post here!