How to Submit a Short Story for Publication

When I was in third grade, I remember a poster hanging at the back of the classroom.  The poster was mounted in the middle of a concrete wall, and around it hung laminated paper crayons.  In sharp red letters, the poster read, “The Writing Process,” and beneath the title were five steps: Prewriting, Drafting, Revising, Editing, and Publishing.  The “Publishing” step always gave me pause.

I was curious why students were never invited to publish their work.  When I became older and explored the publication process for myself, I discovered the dirty secret: Publication is nearly impossible, and third grade fiction is about as good as first grade calculus (in my personal experience anyway).  Although publication doesn’t provide much hope for third graders, there is certainly hope for writers who are a bit older and a bit more seasoned.

The following sections provide an outline for submitting a finished short story to a literary journal.  If your story is finished (Click here if you’re not sure), it’s time to get it off the hard drive and on its way to the folds of a flashy magazine cover.

Find a Journal.

The first step on your story’s journey to publication is finding it a home.  In my experience, there are two ways to do this:

  1. Purchase the newest edition of “Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market” at your local bookstore.
  2. Visit “The Review Review,” and search for a journal that best fits the theme and style of your story.

When using one of the listed methods for locating a journal, here are a couple questions to ask yourself:

  1. Do you intend to submit your short story to multiple journals?
    If so, make sure each journal you submit to accepts “simultaneous submissions.”  This means that the journal doesn’t mind if the story is also under consideration elsewhere.  This is common practice for most modern journals, but you will run across the occasional odd ball who wants to consider your fiction exclusively.  If you submit to a journal that does not accept simultaneous submissions, keep in mind that response times typically range from 4-12 months.  If your story ends up getting rejected, you’ve placed all your eggs in one basket and will have to start from scratch.
  2. Do you want to be paid money for your short story?
    Of course you do!  Unfortunately, most journals are too small or poor to offer actual money to contributors, so you will usually receive a free copy or two of the journal in which your work appears if you are accepted.  Paying in contributor’s copies is common practice, and if this is your first publication attempt, these are the journals you should aim for.  If you want to gamble, some higher-end journals pay actual money for short stories, but these journals are highly selective and have a steeper rejection rate for new writers.

Read Submission Guidelines.

Once you’ve selected a potential venue for your short story, it’s time to read the journal’s submission guidelines.  These guidelines are often on a separate page of the journal’s website (Look for links that say “Submit” or “About”).  Read these guidelines, and make sure they are followed precisely.  Here are a few items to look for when considering if your work is an appropriate fit for a given journal:

  1. Word Count
    The total word count of your submission should fall somewhere in the middle of the recommended guidelines.  For example, if the journal publishes short stories between 1,500-3,500 words, you will have the best chance of getting published at around 2,000-3,000 words.
  2. Reading Fee
    Some journals require a small fee (usually $1-3) to read and process your manuscript.  The journal may call this reading fee something else (e.g. processing fee, submission fee, support fee), but the bottom line is the editors will not read your work without it.
  3. Reading Period
    You can’t submit to a journal that isn’t accepting submissions.  Make sure the journal is open to submissions prior to submitting your work.  Most journals will make it impossible to submit work when the reading period is closed, but some will allow it.  In all cases where work is submitted outside of the journal’s reading period, the work is discarded without being read.
  4. Response Time
    Most journals take anywhere from four (4) to twelve (12) months to read your work.  Make sure you are comfortable with the journal’s response time before submitting.

Format Manuscript.

One caveat of submitting the same story to multiple journals is that each journal will likely have its own formatting preferences.  In other words, you will need to format your story to fit the submission guidelines of each journal you submit to.  It is common for journals to request page numbers on your manuscript; however, some journals prefer for page numbers to  appear in the document’s header, and others prefer for page numbers to appear in the footer.  Although a reasonable editor will not judge a work’s quality by formatting issues alone, it’s best not to take the risk.

Read each journal’s submission guidelines carefully, and ensure your story fits the exact mold before sending it into the wild blue yonder.

Write a Cover Letter.

Although most journals require some form of cover letter, guidelines vary, so always refer to the journal’s recommendations before submitting.  Here are a few general tips for writing your short story’s cover letter:

  1. The first sentence should announce your intention to publish with the journal, along with a word count.
    Example: I am submitting my short story, “Awesome Possum” (2,376 words), for consideration in The Possum Review.
  2. If you are published elsewhere, or if you have won awards, state that information in the next sentence.
    Example: I have previously published work in Squirrels and Nuts, The Fox Trap, and Coyote Express.  My writing received the Furry Trotters Award for Creative Fiction in 2015. If you do not have publication credits or awards, don’t sweat it.  Just write something like, “If my work is accepted by The Possum Review, this will be my first publication.”
  3. Provide a brief biographical blurb about yourself that is both memorable and concise.
    Example: I am a teacher in Williamsburg, KY, and I live with my wife on a quarter-acre slice of Appalachian pie.
  4. Thank the reader for their time and effort in reviewing your short story.
    Example: Thank you for your time and consideration.

The quality of the short story itself will determine whether you earn the publication credit or not, so avoid getting “artsy” in your cover letter.  All of your creative energy should be poured into the short story, and the cover letter should just be an informational text that states the facts and nothing more.

Track Your Submissions.

If you’re submitting your story to multiple journals, or if you have multiple stories, you need a tracking method.  You can track your submissions by hand, but I recommend doing it in Microsoft Excel.

Here’s an example of how your tracking sheet might look:

submissionsYes, this is a sample from my own submission spreadsheet.  Notice that the tracking sheet is sortable, so I can quickly determine where my fiction is going and which stories are under consideration.  Also, I always include an “Inquire On” date to remind me to follow-up with the journal if I haven’t heard back from them before the “Expected Reply” time indicated on their website.

Conclusion.

Publication is the final step of the writing process.  Do your third grade self a favor, and make it all the way to the end of the process for once.  Just remember that every great writer took his/her first steps toward publication at some time or other.  When you stumble, you’re still moving forward, and sometimes, momentum is all you need.

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