Tips for Submitting to Literary Magazines: Common Causes of Rejection
By Kristina Heaney & Sophie Playle
Literary magazines receive thousands of hopeful submissions to their slush pile every month. Of the unsuccessful ones, the vast majority are dismissed within the first four to six paragraphs. To stand any chance of having your work published it is vital to engage the editor from the very first sentence and avoid falling into classic traps. To help give you the best chance of seeing your prose in print, Inkspill Magazine’s submissions editors have compiled a list of recurring issues that invariably send a story to the waste paper basket.
Submissions that have not been properly proofread
This should not even need mentioning, but the amount of stories that arrive with basic spelling and grammatical errors (and not for effect) is incredible. Read and reread your piece both to yourself and aloud and don’t rely on your computer’s spellchecker. The odd typo is forgiven, of course, but multiple errors make you look like an amateur who doesn’t really care about their writing.
Submissions with a careless covering letter
When it comes down to it, the quality of your submission will be judged by its own merit. But your covering letter is also incredibly important. Not only is it usually the first point of contact (and first impressions really count!) it’s your opportunity to sell yourself. Think carefully about what you want an editor to know about you. If you write psychological fiction for adults don’t open with how much you love being a full-time mum. A string of impressive past publications is not necessary, but an editor does want to know why you are qualified to tell this story, so include anything that showcases your talents. Be precise and to-the-point.
Submissions that ignore the guidelines
Though some writers would never dream of shooting themselves in the foot like this, not following the guidelines is a surprisingly common mistake. Different publications will have different submissions rules. Do not assume you can send the same piece in the same format with the same cover letter to all of them. Make sure you’ve read the guidelines and if your piece does not conform then do not submit it. It is foolhardy to think that an editor might read your work and jump on it despite it not fitting their criteria. Ignoring key stipulations such as word limit is not going to result in publication and may even harm your chances of having another piece published in the future.
Stories that aren’t suitable for the magazine
It is disheartening for an editor to receive a submission that is so obviously and completely wrong for their magazine, as it gives the impression that you’re simply submitting anywhere in the hope for publication. Here at Inkspill Magazine, we are open to a wide range of genres and styles, but there is a definite tone to our publication that can be detected upon reading our issues. As stated in our guidelines, we like speculative literary fiction that’s unafraid to push the boundaries. Not so much graphic torture stories or general women’s mag stuff, to be honest.
Stories where nothing happens
It sounds like obvious advice, but you’d be surprised at how many stories seem to lack, well, plot. These are the types of submissions that leave editors scratching their heads thinking ‘So…?’ Events in a story don’t have to be globally important or dangerous or incredible but they do have to have resonance for your characters and therefore the reader. Without this, regardless of how beautiful the language, it’s not a story.
Gore for the sake of gore
This rule also applies to sex for the sake of it as well. Sometimes looking at this from a cinematic perspective helps: what’s the purpose of all this blood? Is it to shock? Is it for aesthetic value? Is it making a wider point? Do you need to describe it in such grizzly detail? If you take away the excessive gore, are you left with a compelling story? Less can often be more.
Openings in which a character awakes in unknown surroundings
From kidnaps to sleepwalking, openings of this kind are strangely popular and very rarely effective. The key issue is that it’s very difficult to convey the character’s confusion without also confusing the reader. We are reliant on you as the author to steer us through a new and unfamiliar world; an opening in which nobody knows what’s happening is likely to alienate your reader.
Stories about the craft of writing
Think back to the last time you read a really gripping story about writers writing and how hard it is to be a writer writing. You can’t remember ever reading a gripping story about writers writing? Exactly. Now don’t do it! Save it for your journal.
Stories with key similarities to other major fictional works
If you write a piece that has all the hallmarks of another widely known work, regardless of how good the writing may be, an editor will not be keen to publish because of the possible legal implications. It’s also very unlikely they’ll want to publish a story that reminds them of something else to such an extent because it becomes difficult to judge it on its own merits. Unless you are putting a completely new spin on an idea, steer clear.
An unconventional format that serves no purpose
Here at Inkspill Magazine we’re all for experimental fiction, but being unconventional without thought or purpose in the hope that your piece will stand out from the crowd will not impress us. You’ve decided to write your piece in the first person plural, or without any punctuation. Why? Are you trying to create a particular mood or feeling? Is it an experiment that turned out to be very effective? Demonstrate that your unconventional technique succeeds in serving a literary purpose, otherwise all it’s doing is detracting from your prose.
Too much irrelevant detail
Short stories are a concise art form. Don’t waste words building up to an event or describing a character’s history if it doesn’t serve a specific purpose – dive into the action and grab the reader’s attention. Every word you write must serve the overall story. Otherwise you risk boring or disorientating the reader.
Dull writing style
Too many new writers seem afraid to let their imaginations run wild and explore their creativity. This results in boring stories about boring characters doing boring things. Avoid stereotype characters and plots. Look beyond the surface. Dig for depth and originality. Allow your voice to flow. Write vividly.
Stories without a proper ending
Endings can be incredibly tricky. There have been a fair few occasions where we’ve absolutely loved a submission, reached the final page certain we would publish and then been met with an unsatisfying ending forcing us to reject the piece. With incredibly few exceptions, a story should not just stop. The ending, whether happy, sad or otherwise, should complete the piece, pulling each strand of the story together and leaving the reader with something to think about. It sounds tough because it is. But no one ever said writing is easy!
If your piece is rejected, it doesn’t mean you’ve automatically committed one of the mistakes listed above. After all, a magazine can only publish so much work. But hopefully this list will help you understand the publication from the editor’s perspective a little more. Avoid these common mistakes and you’ve already put yourself in good stead for acceptance. After that, it’s simply a matter of not giving up.