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.”