How To Get Published in Literary Magazines: Reflections on Michelle Watters’ Workshop

by Liz Cantrell

Publishing one’s work in literary magazines and journals is a daunting process.

Michelle Watters, assistant poetry editor for Mud Season Review
Michelle Watters, assistant poetry editor for Mud Season Review

Fear of rejection, information overload, and lack of organization can prevent any writer from pursuing publication.

The BWW is fortunate to have regular members who have successfully published their work—including Michelle Watters, assistant poetry editor for Mud Season Review—who hosted a recent workshop to advise writers on the submission process. Here are Michelle’s top tips:

Read literary journals and magazines.

To get published in literary journals and magazines, you must become familiar with them. Michelle recommends reading many styles of journals, from big names (Paris Review, The New Yorker, Tin House,) to niche journals (ROAR for feminist work, Bellevue Literary Review for health and wellness) to regional presses (Green Mountain Review, New England Review, Hunger Mountain, and of course, Mud Season Review.)

“To be a good writer, you must be a good reader” —A cliché for a reason

Pay attention to format and content.

Find journals that suit your interests and your work. If you are a writer of flash science fiction, then a journal that primarily accepts political poetry is likely not the best venue for your work or the best use of your time. Identifying places where your work might be a good fit will increase your chances of publication.

While print volumes used to be the standard, online lit journals have also become prominent, so be sure to look at a mix of both. You can also follow journals’ social media accounts to learn about deadlines, contests, new issues, Q&As, and to interact with other writers.

Get organized.

Michelle introduced 2 essential that will help you organize your resources:

  • Submittable is a platform for actually submitting your work and personal information to a journal. Almost all places you submit to will use Submittable, so once you set up your account you will easily be able to send out your work to multiple journals.
  • Duotrope is a site that has a searchable database of hundreds of journals, tracks your past and pending submissions, sets reminders and deadlines, and provides statistics. Duotrope does have an annual subscription fee of $50, or you can choose a $5 monthly subscription.

You should also be prepared to submit a personal statement or bio. Michelle recommends writing a short and simple explanation of your educational and professional background, along with places you’ve been published. She cautions against writing a flowing, deeply personal statement about the nature of your work or creative process. If asked for an artist statement, then you can describe those things.

Submit like it’s your job.

Using Submittable and Duotrope, you can find hundreds of places to submit your work. Submit as often and to as many places as you can. 

Most journals will expect a cover letter. To avoid appearing like a “serial submitter” who blindly sends work to every journal, you should tailor your cover letter to each specific journal. Recall a poem or story in one of the journal’s recent editions, and explain why it appealed to you. Describe how your work would suit the journal. And, if possible, address your letter to a specific editor or editors. If you are submitting poetry for example, address it to the poetry editor by name. Simply writing “Dear Editor” shows a lack of research on your part.

Contests and theme issues are a great way to get your work out there because you can write a specific piece that has a better chance of being accepted. Contests normally come with a small application fee, but in return you may get a subscription to the journal.

It is also important to pay attention to the journal’s rules and formatting requirements. If the journal wants your documents in Times New Roman 12 point font, 3 poems maximum, with 1-inch margins, then do exactly that. And proofread! 

Rejection happens. It can be a good thing.

Rejection letters are inevitable, but they are not all the same. Michelle described rejection letters in “tiers” and even brought examples that she has received.

The bottom tier is blunt and impersonal: “Dear Writer, thanks but no thanks.” It’s cold, it’s harsh, but it will probably happen.

The middle tier is less brutal. These types of letters might at least address you by name or encourage you to resubmit new work in the next call for submissions.

Then, the top tier. These letters might explain why your piece was not a good fit, which gives you an idea of what that journal is looking for. Or, you may even get a positive critique from an editor explaining parts of your work that appealed to them, even if the piece was not accepted. Michelle says that these letters are actually encouraging because someone at the journal took the time to engage with your work and provide feedback.

A few more tips:

  • If you feel that a certain journal is a good fit, submit to it again. Hopefully, an editor will remember you and you can establish a connection to that journal.
  • The sting of rejection can prompt some people to send an angry reply. Don’t do it! Sending heated replies or arrogantly explaining why you should be in the journal can only hurt your future chances of publication.

To sum up, remember Michelle’s tips:

  • Read.
  • Organize.
  • Submit. A lot.
  • Learn from rejection.
  • Repeat.

Getting published will take time and energy, but it is within reach! With all her successes, Michelle is proof of that, and everyone at BWW can learn from her advice.

Publishing Resources:

  • Dustbooks publishes the International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses
  • Poets and Writers is the best resource for finding conferences and calls for submissions
  • AWP supports writers and writing programs around the world
  • National Writers Union is a union for freelance writers working in US markets
  • Literary Marketplace is the directory of American & Canadian book publishing companies, as well as other resources

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