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Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories

By posted at 6:01 am on September 6, 2011 20

1. Mark Farrington, my first writing teacher at the Johns Hopkins MA Program in Writing in the fall of 1998, suggested we should start sending our stories out “when they are as good as we can make them.” That may seem obvious, but I’ve found it to be a great rule of thumb. Perhaps you’ve had several rounds of feedback, you’ve revised, and while you still see problems, you don’t know how to fix them. When you’ve taken a story as far as you can on your own, send it out.

2. Send stories out broadly – ten to twenty journals at a time. This is particularly important if, over time, you hope to receive useful feedback. Since sending my first story out in January, 1999, I’ve sent to 225 journals, contests, or competitive retreats; I’ve received 219 rejections and had six stories published. But I’ve received some kind of encouragement – from formal letters to “send more” checked on a postcard – from 71 publications, about one-third of all my submissions.

3. Aim high. Make a list of the top tier journals you’d love to have your story published in, then start at the top and move down. I submitted my very first story in 1999 to 12 places, including the Atlantic Monthly, the New Yorker, Zoetrope, and Virginia Quarterly Review. While the odds are very low, any feedback you receive can keep you going.

4. Another of Farrington’s suggestions I’ve tried to follow religiously over the years: Send only to journals that pay – however little. Sure, writers should be paid for their work, but this is not just a question of principle. Payment (cash – not contributor’s copies) signifies an added seriousness, a heightened commitment to the piece being published. Using pay as a guide crisply sorts journals into two categories: those that do; those that don’t. While there are certainly serious, respectable journals that don’t or can’t pay, by and large payment is an efficient surrogate for quality.*

5. Send smartly. Read a journal’s submissions guidelines. Pay attention to page limits and manuscript needs. Don’t send to AGNI in July. Don’t send Fence a hard copy manuscript (they only take electronic). Most writers I know don’t read all the journals they send to in advance. But at the very least familiarize yourself with a journal’s unique pulse before sending, or take your lumps. Perhaps the most embarrassing (and humbling) rejection I received came from the Chariton Review, then published through the English Department at Brigham Young University: “Sorry – but we can’t consider anything with an f word in it. You surely must know that BYU is church-sponsored.”

6. Find out which journals respond personally to your work, and keep sending them stories. Even if they never take one, you’re likely to get a steady stream of feedback. Keep a file, tabbed by journal, of all the responses you receive – whether a letter from an editor or a form “send again” card; good, bad, or otherwise – so you can track them over time.

7. When you get a positive response, always reference it when sending your next story. Do this even if all you’ve received is a scribbled, unsigned “nice work” or an auspicious check mark. Sometimes, someone will initial their comments. Take the time to look them up online, and address your next story to them. I’ve started many letters: “Thank you for your encouraging note about my last story…” This immediately establishes your relationship with the journal, and can help lift your story off the slush pile.

8. Don’t take rejection personally. Every writer knows this, and yet it’s one of the toughest things to truly internalize. I once received an email from the Paris Review that felt, well, pretty personal: “I just finished ‘Innkeeping’ … I found it able but not, to be honest, terribly distinctive, and the tone sort of YA – not for us, I’m afraid.” I consider myself fairly well steeled, and, still, the email stung. Less than two months later, though, I received another email, from Field Maloney at the New Yorker: “I want to apologize for our taking so long to get back to you on ‘Innkeeping.’…I enjoyed reading this one – the voice is natural and distinctive – and I’d be glad to read more of your fiction in the future.” I keep both notes in their separate files, with a Post-It note on the Paris Review comments, reminding me of the New Yorker’s.

9. If you are fortunate enough to get a story accepted, immediately write or email the other journals where the story is still under consideration, letting them know your story has been placed.

10. Celebrate rejection. I’m not kidding. Each rejection is a chance you gave your story to live in the minds of readers; each, an opportunity to toughen your writerly skin. Mark milestone rejections by subscribing to the journal that didn’t take you. I did this when I received my 200th rejection – and in so doing, I owned the rejection, instead of letting it own me. Now, each month when One Story arrives, I’m reminded of my triumph.

*I recently contacted Farrington, still an instructor and faculty adviser at Hopkins, to run this piece by him. He said while he still recommends writers submit to journals that pay, he offered this addendum: “Sometimes there will be a story that you sincerely believe is finished – it doesn’t need to be revised, or put on a shelf for awhile, it is what it is – but it’s not a story that’s had success with the top tier journals. That’s a story I would feel absolutely fine about sending to a journal that doesn’t pay.”

Bonus Link: My Life in Stories

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20 Responses to “Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories”

  1. Nigel Featherstone
    at 6:25 am on September 6, 2011

    Interesting list.

    Related to No. 10: one rule that a writer more senior than me once shared was this: when something good happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to celebrate, then you just have to get on with writing; when something bad happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to commiserate, then you just have to get on with writing.

    That rule has got me out of all sorts of situations, particularly regarding submissions.

  2. Susan Gabriel
    at 8:44 am on September 6, 2011

    Excellent list. Thanks for sharing it. I really like what the first comment says, too: when something good happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to celebrate, then you just have to get on with writing; when something bad happens in your writing life, you have 24 hours to commiserate, then you just have to get on with writing.

    I think we can use this for life in general, too.

  3. L.
    at 1:12 pm on September 6, 2011

    Good list, although I must say I disagree with the payment rule. There are a good number of literary magazines that are truly fantastic and have a good readership which I’d prefer to be in over a magazine that pays a trifle. That is especially true as more and more lit mags move online and thus pay less.

  4. L.
    at 1:13 pm on September 6, 2011

    And really, after you get out of the top journals, the payments really are a trifle…

  5. Michelle Mullet
    at 4:40 pm on September 6, 2011

    Josh, this list is really insightful. I was wondering if you spent as much time submitting stories to paid contests like Glimmer Train or Writer’s Digest? And was your strategy the same for paid contests as well as regular submissions?
    I’ve been focused on paid contests because the deadlines seem to be an ongoing motivation for my work.

  6. JJL
    at 5:42 pm on September 6, 2011

    Many of the items in this list also apply when submitting scholarly work, at least in the sciences. For instance in my field, with respect to item 5, manuscripts will often be rejected without review if you fail to read the journal’s guidelines and formatting instructions, or if it isn’t an obvious subject matter fit for the journal.

    Unfortunately, no scholarly journal pays (item 4). Usually it is the other way around and authors have to pay publication fees (thankfully, these are almost always covered by the grant funds obtained for the research). Most science journals will also not consider your manuscript unless you have submitted it to them exclusively, so you can’t send it out widely (item 1). This is a shame; it would make the whole process a lot quicker.

  7. Josh Rolnick
    at 9:25 pm on September 6, 2011

    Nigel,
    I really like your rule, about moving on with the work — whether you’ve received good news or bad — within 24 hours. Although in practice, that can be hard to do. Sometimes, it just takes longer to process. Counterintuitively, perhaps, I’ve found it can be tougher to get back to work after success; I remember thinking in the past, after winning a contest: that story was lightning in a bottle — how will I ever replicate it? (Which is why yours is a great rule to follow.)
    Michelle,
    I’ve always sent to contests with monetary prizes, following the same guidelines. Though when it comes to getting feedback or forming a relationship with an editor, standard submissions are probably the best.

  8. Leslie
    at 10:28 pm on September 6, 2011

    I found this so inspiring, Josh–what heart and grace and graciousness in these pieces of advice. I love that you apply to your milestone rejection journals. It makes me wish I’d been keeping track of all my rejections all this time.

  9. Lara
    at 12:23 pm on September 7, 2011

    I appreciated the honesty of this advice in terms of the sheer volume of work sent out. It gives me motivation to keep trying. Thanks so much.

  10. Lauren Rheaume
    at 6:29 pm on September 7, 2011

    This is a great list! And one of the reasons why we offer a comprehensive guide to literary magazines. We at The Review Review know how daunting it can be to send work out. Thanks for offering your thoughts too.

  11. Barbara
    at 9:39 pm on September 7, 2011

    It’s no surprise that success can be more difficult to recover from than rejection…it’s called the “Nobel Prize effect.”

  12. Josh Rolnick’s Top Ten Suggestions While Sending Out Stories « Scribbly Jane
    at 10:22 pm on September 7, 2011

    […] some kind of note of encouragement from 1/3. This inspires me to start licking those stamps!  The Millions : Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories Advertisement LD_AddCustomAttr("AdOpt", "0"); LD_AddCustomAttr("Origin", "other"); […]

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    […] things @JoshRolnick learned over 12 years of submitting writing: bit.ly/qWiQtg 7 […]

  14. Kristine Ong Muslim
    at 3:17 pm on September 8, 2011

    Josh, this is a very thoughtful read. I’ve been submitting and publishing for a long time, and most of the things you’ve mentioned in the article have struck a nerve. Thank you.

  15. Hank Single
    at 6:54 pm on September 8, 2011

    To a comment above about ‘trifling’ payments –

    If you do not demand that art be paid for, everyone else will gladly accept it for free.

    Those online mags (who have comparatively fewer costs and according higher opportunities for profit) do very well by convincing you that exposure is as good as money.

    People, say it with me now, die of exposure.

  16. Magazines and Wisdom « Carmen Maria Machado
    at 4:59 pm on September 9, 2011

    […] friend Josh Rolnick has a great article over at The Millions: Ten Things I’ve Learned over 12 Years of Sending Out Stories. (Josh’s collection of short stories, “Pulp and Paper”, is out […]

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  18. Ana
    at 3:12 pm on September 27, 2011

    Thanks so much for writing this, Josh. I think writers (especially young writers) don’t get nearly enough guidance on entering the realm of true “quality” publications.

    I will also say — being a young writer — that it’s incredibly intimidating to hear how many rejections even a talented and successful writer like yourself had to live through!

    -Ana

  19. PANK Blog / PULP AND PAPER By Josh Rolnick (A Review by Sara Lippmann)
    at 8:10 am on January 24, 2012

    […] his material over years, twelve, to be exact, which he wrote about in an instructive piece for The Millions.  The reader feels that gentle balance of humility and confidence in the stories of Pulp and […]

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