Navigating the world of literary magazines was difficult for me in the beginning. I initially set out to publish anywhere, so desperate for publication, I actually Googled easiest literary magazines to the publish in, or something to that extent, and came across visual and literary artist's Michael Alexander Chaney's "Top Lit Mags that REALLY do Publish Emerging Authors." Some of the magazines on his list include Baltimore Review, Bayou Magazine, New England Review, River Teeth. For each one, Chaney includes short anecdotes, quotations, and descriptions--proof essentially--that these top-tier lit mags have, indeed, published emerging writers, and have given some writers their first publications.
Despite, and maybe because of that article, I became more aware of the level of prestige each journal carried, and after a few rejections from them, I decided to aim low, believing I had no chance with those big journals and, even worse, that I needed permission to submit to them. I had only just started writing, and I was in search of validation. I wanted to prove that I was a writer. I thought that's what publication meant--that an editor's acceptance letter means you are a writer. Early on, each publication provided a rush.
But as time passed, as I progressed through graduate school, and my writing continued to improve, the (mostly flash) prose that appeared in these magazines were either not up to my standards or they were essays or thinly-veiled fiction that felt too personal for online publication.
Somehow I stumbled across an article on Brevity's nonfiction blog. In "What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended" Writer Sarah Finnerty recounts the years following her MFA. She describes herself as a “miserable mess” because she “felt like a failure as a writer and a human being” and admits that at times she still feels that way. Now, however, she recognizes that to “try and fail and try again” doesn’t mean she’s a failure; she’s a person. Switching to the second person, Finnerty lists nine things she would tell herself six years ago when she was finishing grad school. It's a remarkable, enlightening essay for writers of any stage.
The first thing on her list shocked me in a good way: Do not even try to get published. She's speaking to herself, sure--this is a personal essay that also aims to advise based on her own experience. Number four--”Read literary magazines and send your work to your favorites”-- struck me too, as it ties into the number one. I had not been reading these magazines. I did what she did and carpet-bombed magazines only to receive countless rejections. I also placed my raw, unpolished pieces into unprofessional journals that seemed to accept anyone who could write clear sentences.
There are plenty of gems in Finnerty's piece and I encourage you to read it, multiple times, as I have. After I first read it, I stopped submitting for a while. I didn't, however, wait until I finished my MFA to start submitting, but took a break from submitting and began to read literary journals, online and in print. During this time I found which ones I liked, and therefore which journals I wanted to house my stories and essays. In short, Finnerty's piece taught me to slow down, to write multiple drafts, to take time with my work, to focus less on publication--what's the rush?--and more on becoming a good writer.
After a couple of my stories placed in a couple of contests, in journals I admire--journals I submitted to because I'd read them and knew my work was a good fit--I looked at the reverse-alphabetical order of the publication list on my CV, and realized my that I do care where my work ends up, that what mattered, to me, wasn't that I published, but where I published, even though the journals I admire are more competitive and I published less often. This pickiness, as I see it, helps me to work as hard as possible on my stories and essays.
So. How do you to find your favorite lit mags instead of randomly picking journals to carpet-bomb
A friend of mine learned how to navigate lit mags by reviewing them for The Review Review. Becky Tuch, our Founding Editor, sends print journals to those willing to review them, though this site is in need of people to review online journals as well.
Journal of the Month is a great resource as well. You can "decide how often you want to receive magazines - every month, every other month, or once every three months - and during that period of time, you will receive a brand new literary magazine by the 10th of the month. Exactly which literary magazine you'll get is a tantalizing surprise that changes every month. And you'll never receive the same literary magazine twice."
Read used journals. Search used bookstores and libraries. Borrow journals from friends. Trade journals with friends. Read reviews here on this site.
I want to leave you with some words from writers on why and where they submit.
One method I really like for finding journals is the acknowledgments sections of story collections I admire, the ones I want my work in conversation with. I look at where those stories first appeared and research from there.
I submit because it causes me to push my work to a higher standard. It also makes me part of a writing community that I believe is so important. I choose markets for several reasons: to challenge myself (tough markets), to support feminist lit mags, to become part of the greater work of art that is an issue or anthology. I need to be part of the literary conversation that is such an amazing part of my life. Ultimately, I do what I do to be part of a grander literary community that encompasses my human condition.
I submit my work for publication because Ira Sukrungruang told my undergrad creative writing course that “[we] weren’t really writers if no one (outside of family or friends) read [our] work.” That really stuck with me. A few weeks later I sent my first submission–and it was accepted. (Beginner’s luck!)
I’m also going to be totally real--submitting and publishing helps me keep my job and prove that I’m qualified to teach writing. (Publish or perish is real, y’all.)
Duotrope really helps me find markets for submission. It at least points me in the right direction so I can check out the journal, review the submission guidelines, and see if I match their aesthetic. In addition, I scope out the Calls for Submissions on NewPages, Poets&Writers, and The Writers Chronicle as well as on various Facebook submission groups. I’m looking to see if I have already-existing work for a themed issue or anthology, and I always go to the website to read selections and see if what I write matches what the publish.
When I was in grad school, the literary journal I worked with traded with other journals, so we had a glorious library of physical copies I could look through for inspiration and research. Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to amass my own little library of lit journals to review (mostly thanks to free copies at AWP). Thanks to all of this reading, I have a good pulse on what a lot of journals publish, and then I submit my work in tiers. I group the journals based on where they are in my wishlist (dream journals with tiny acceptance rates at the top) and I send out to the pickiest journals first, and once I hear no from all of them, then I send a new batch to the next tier, etc. If I’m frank, the wishlist is created mostly based in jealousy. If I read a journal that has SUCH GREAT WRITING that it makes me question why I even bother because everyone else is so damn talented, then I make it my goal to write something worthy of being in those writers’ company.
Jen Stein Hauptmann, Assistant Editor at Rogue Agent Journal:
I’m going to be honest here – part of the reason I send things out is because I want external validation that my work is meaningful to someone. I also like to look at places people I admire are publishing, and people who write things in the same vein that I do, exploring themes, etc. I don’t care about the size of the readership if I feel the artistic vision of the journal is in line with mine, or if their work constantly delights me. I also prefer not to send to journals that publish primarily white men. If the journal is making an effort to publish diverse voices, I’m more likely to submit.
Do you have something say about poetry? An essay on being a poet, tips for poets, or poetry you love? TrishHopkinson.com is now accepting pitches for guest blog posts.
Bernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He’s also received residency and fellowship support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School. He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Sundress Publications), and his stories and essays have appeared in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, and The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, among others. He currently serves as Associate Essays Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.