#1 Not reading literary magazines.
This seems obvious, but if you want to get published in a journal, it’s helpful to read the types of pieces they publish. Most literary magazines suggest you read a few back issues first to get a sense of their aesthetic. In an ideal world, you should do this, but chances are you don’t have time to read multiple back issues of every single journal you’re going to submit to. Instead, make it your goal to simply read more literary magazines than you currently do. Subscribe to a few each year. Get your friends to subscribe to different publications and then trade. And of course, take advantage of free online journals, such as Carve. Read a story whenever you have a spare moment, even if it’s on your phone while waiting in line at the grocery store.
#2 Not submitting your best work.
Instead of finishing a story and submitting it immediately, let your piece rest for a few months then go back and revise. Workshop it, or let a trusted writer friend read it and give feedback. Print it out and triple-check for grammatical and spelling errors. Read your piece out loud at least once. Only submit when you think the piece is the best it can possibly be.
#3 Not following guidelines.
Double check all guidelines before submitting to a magazine. Is there a word count requirement? Should your name be removed from the piece? Should your document be in Word, pdf, or rich text format? If it’s an email submission, do they want the document attached, or pasted into the body of the email? Do they accept simultaneous submissions? Don’t risk getting your piece being tossed out because you didn’t follow the rules.
#4 Making simultaneous submission goofs.
Speaking of simultaneous submissions, if a journal says they don’t accept them you should respect that, or risk making an editor annoyed. Fortunately, a lot of magazines do accept simultaneous submissions, and if they don’t say either way, you can safely assume that they do. This is good because it means you can send the same story to multiple journals at the same time and increase your chances of getting an acceptance letter. But if your piece gets picked up by a journal, you must alert the other journals you submitted it to. If a reading committee debates over your story for a long time, decides to accept it, and then finds out it’s been published elsewhere, your name will be mud in the world of literary magazines.
#5 Not keeping track of submissions.
Use a spreadsheet or some other organizational method to keep track of your submissions (what you sent, to which journals, when, and the responses). Not only will this help with simultaneous submissions in case your piece is accepted (see #4), but it will also keep you from submitting the same piece to a magazine that has already rejected it, or not yet responded to your last submission. The online submission manager Duotrope offers this type of “tracker” as a feature for their paid subscribers.
#6 Making cover letter goofs.
In general, cover letters to literary magazines should be short and include little more than the name and word count of your piece and a brief bio. There is no need to include a summary of the story or any cutesy “attention grabbers.” If you have an MFA, or have been published in other magazines, you might mention that, but for most editors, it’s your work that’s important, not your C.V. Do be sure to proofread your cover letter carefully, however. If you are copying-and-pasting, make sure you change pertinent information, such as the name of the journal.
#7 Not doing enough research.
There are so many journals out there it can often feel overwhelming to know where to begin. To find new magazines or publications that are actively seeking submissions, check NewPages , The Review Review, the AWP website, Duotrope, and Poets & Writers. The Poets & Writers “tools for writers” section has a search system for journals, and The Review Review reviews literary journals to help give writers a sense of the types of pieces they publish.
For even more submission ideas, google the Pushcart Rankings and Every Writer’s Resource Rankings. You can also look at short story and poetry collections such as Best American, O’Henry, Pushcart, and Flannery O’Conner; at the front or back of the book they will tell where each piece was first published. And why not tweet at your favorite literary agents and ask them what lit mags they like to read?! As for your genre pieces, research magazines that specialize in horror, sci-fi/fantasy, mystery, romance, LGBT, YA, etc. Dark Markets is a good resource to find horror, mystery, sci-fi/fantasy, and other genre magazines and anthologies. Also, be aware that some literary magazines will NOT accept genre pieces.
#8 Ignoring online journals.
There are more and more excellent online journals publishing high quality literature. Although most writers still have the desire to see their words on the printed page, there are many benefits to being published online. Your friends, family, and followers can easily find your work via a link instead of having to wait to purchase a copy of a journal. Not only are online journals often more helpful when building your network and platform, but you are more likely to get feedback from readers through blog comments and tweets than you are with a printed journal.
#9 Taking rejections too personally and not submitting enough.
Even the most brilliant stories will get rejected, and as a writer, you have to come to terms with the fact that you will get (many) more no’s than yes’s. Sometimes your story may not be right for a particular issue, or may not connect with a particular editor. Don’t let the rejections get you down. In many ways, this is a numbers game, and the goal is to get the right piece to the right journal at the right time. That’s hard to do, and chances are it’s going to take a lot of submissions before you get an acceptance. Don’t give up, and while you’re at it, check outCarve’sReject! feature which showcases stories Carve rejected that were accepted in another publication.
#10 Not thanking the editor.
So you finally got an acceptance letter! Congratulations! Don’t forget to thank the editor. Most literary magazine editors are unpaid (or paid very little) for their time and effort. Thank them when your piece is accepted, and thank them again when the piece is published. They love to hear the feedback and know that their hard work is not going unappreciated.