The Art of Submissions: How to get accepted & published by literary journals

by Aremu Adams Adebisi

There is an art to submissions that many submitters do not know. It is the same art that works, no matter how tasteless they appear, get accepted by journals.

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As a writer, reader, editor, content and submissions manager with vast experience, I dare say not all rejections are as a result of the perceived beauty/ugliness of my work, some are due to my negligence/conformity to the art of submissions.

Like human passes through a phase, submitting works to journal follows the same routine. It took me a while to master these routines.

Before I proceed, what is a literary journal and why do we submit to journals?

Literary journals as I know the term is quite different from literary magazines, reviews and presses. Journals are published with peer reviews. They come with feedback. More efforts are put into journaling. Magazines only provide entertainment and do little to improve work or review them. Reviews are what they are: a careful examination of the quality of literary work. A press or a printing press publishes books, anthologies and sometimes magazines.

This is not to say there are no journals that function like magazines or magazines that function like journals. There are in fact presses that do not publish books only but also journals, reviews and/or magazines. To avoid this confusion of functions, we use “journal” to connote any and every literary platform that accepts and publishes literary work.

That defined, why do we submit? I can’t speak for you. I submit my work to get accepted, broaden readership, widen digital footprints, update biography, and possibly meet a literary agent that’d sign me up.

Publications also have helped to create a small group of enthusiasts for my art, who, in addition to that, are fast becoming beta readers of my unpublished work and would probably be the first to order/preorder my coming book. It is safe to say then publication is another form of marketing.

These enthusiasts get to meet me through my work published online. They stumble upon them and chat me up. The question they ask first, however, is not how I write the poems— knowing the mystery behind the art of poetry and since most of them are often writers— but how I have poems published in diverse journals. To which the simplicity of my answer puzzles them. I say I follow the art of submissions.

The art of submissions is a wide spectrum of steps and instructions aimed at understanding how one’s entry works and how a journal works usually for the purpose and motive of getting the entry accepted by the journal. It’s a two-way thing— submission and journal. The ultimate reason is and has always been acceptance. There can be sub-reasons, anyway, like read broadening, rejection counts, motivation to write more and publish more, and so on and so forth.

4 major aspects to the art of submissions

There are four major aspects to the art of submissions:

Submission Contemplation:

The first art to submitting my poems is that I conclude I want to submit it. Not all poems are meant to be submitted to journals. Some are kept either for contests and other submissions, like chapbook submissions.

If you are an avid submitter, you must have noticed that literary contests call for unpublished work. Most chapbook submissions also mandate a certain number of unpublished work if the manuscript must be considered. So, the first art is to conclude what I want to do with my work— if to submit or keep unpublished.

Submission Reason:

The second art after answering the question “If I want to submit my poem” is “Why do I want to submit it“. As I have noted above, not every submitter sends in their work for acceptance only; there are sub-reasons.

Although acceptance is the ultimate reason, there are those who still seek to objectify their rejection counts or to have a taste of submission experience. Whatever the reason is, I get accepted because I drive towards acceptance, and so tick every box to ensure that acceptance comes true.

Submission Readiness:

As I am ready to submit my work, I ask myself if my work is likewise ready to submit. These are two different things. We both have to agree— me and my work. My readiness does not necessarily validate my work’s readiness.

How do I know my work is ready for submission?

It’s quite simple. I delay the work a bit, say two to three days, gain a new perspective on it. Most submitters make the mistake of passing their first draft as readymade work. After the delay, I get friends to read it and then edit and edit and edit the hell out of it. If it is ready for submission, the work itself gives me a nod. There is a feeling to it, a kind of mutualness between us that greenlights this.

Journal Contemplation:

I’ve been drumming on submission, I should talk about where submission goes. In truth, the question “Where” is an effort question and is a process of stress.

If you’ve ever tried to locate a place in a busy city like Lagos, you’d know what I mean. The cost of transportation, the distance, the seemingly endless traffic, all compound woes on “where, where exactly am I going“.

it is also a survival question. The reason this aspect comes fourth and last. In this category, there is a lot to look at, but I have narrowed it down to two: the Process and Steps of Submissions.

Process of Submissions

In the past, it was difficult to submit works to journals. Before now, submitters had to contend with the use of SASE—Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes. Entries could only be submitted by post and could take years for a submitter to get a reply.

But technology is easing that. There is now a variety of ways to submit my work. I submit my work electronically. I may use the body of a mail, as instructed by the journal, or submission manager to pass my work across to editors for consideration.

If it is through the body of a mail, I either paste the work into the body of an email as it is or attach as a document. By far the most common email is Gmail and has features that include: From— which contains my email address; To— the email of the journal I’m submitting to; Subject— usually, this is stated in the journal’s guidelines and in most cases is something like “Poetry Submission”; and Compose Email— which is where I paste my work or attach as a document.

Alternatively, I may use submission managers which is an integral part of system documentation. SMs use an online system to manage submissions. Decisions from this management are either an acceptance of my work or a rejection. There are two types of submission managers— journal-based and privately-owned.

Journal-based are submission systems coded by journals. There are journals— like AGNI, Pleiades, Lucent Dreaming, etc— who have their own submission system uniquely created to manage their submissions. And when I talk about privately-owned, I’m saying the likes of Submittable, Duotrope, Submission Manager and Tell it Slant. The most popular still is Submittable.

Submittable is free to use and it allows me as a submitter to manage my submissions. It makes my works simple to organize. With Submittable, it is easy to submit to journals and I also can source journals. RECEIVED in Submittable means my work is received but unopened. IN-PROGRESS means my work is opened and is considered. What follows is either ACCEPTANCE (which I pray for) or REJECTION (which I expect).

Steps to Submissions

Submission Goals

There are steps I take before I submit my work to any journal. First, I set a submission goal. Say, 20 acceptances per month.

Packets and Simultaneous Submission

I prepare my packet of works. A packet is a collection of works (not drafts) ready for submission. Often, journals request submission of three to five works, so I set my packet at that number and submit to multiple journals. Simultaneous submission is when a work is submitted to multiple journals at the same time. I submit a packet to five (5) journals at most.

Submission Trackers

I track my submissions. This is where most submitters have problems. They submit to multiple journals and lose track. The result is that they submit rejected work to where they first were rejected and forget where an accepted work was published. They also fail to inform journals they submitted work to that another journal has accepted that same work because they have forgotten where.

I use Microsoft Excel to track my submissions. Although Submittable has in-built tracker, I don’t submit my work through Submittable only. So I use personal trackers.

I create a sheet with Microsoft Excel. Each column has a title. For the tracker, I need only about five columns. The first column is about the poem, say “Submission”. The second column is about where the poem is submitted to, say “Journal”. Third column deals with acceptance, say I title it ” Acceptance”. If the poem is accepted, I tick ✔️ . And if it’s not, it falls into the fourth column ticked ✔️  with the title “Rejection”.

If this feels a little tedious, you can just note where you submitted the works, the journals and feedback (acceptance/rejection) in whatever digital notepad you have them.

Cover Letters

Before I submit, I ensure I have prepared a fit-for-all-journal cover letter. Sadly, most submitters do not know how submissions work. They think work they submit goes directly to the editors. In every journal, there are readers who care less what cover letters read like. Being a panellist for a prestigious American prize myself, I know this.

A good cover letter salutes (Dear Editor), briefly notes (Please find attached so-so works for consideration), concludes (Hope to hear from you soon) and closes complimentarily (Sincerely, warm regards, etc,). In addition to this, I read submission guidelines for the specificity of cover letters. Some journals require certain things to be included in a cover letter. Nonetheless, a cover letter must be short, simple and straightforward.

Create Biography

As I have done for cover letters, I do so for biography. My biography is the last paragraph of my cover letter. It is also fit-for-all-journals. Typically, biographies should not go beyond 50 words. There are journals that request 100 anyway. My biography is written in the third person and includes my recent works. If you are a new submitter, your biography should reflect your name, field of study, interest, location and social media handles.

Submission Guidelines

I always read submission guidelines. Always. It explains everything about what is to include, how to submit and what to expect after submission. Most submitters get rejected because they fail to read submission guidelines. A journal requests submissions on aloneness only to receive submissions on loneliness. While they may seem the same, they are very different. Please, always read submission guidelines.

Written by Aremu Adams Adebisi (The Antagonist, tweets @aremuadebisi_)

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