Yesterday, I submitted my poems to literary journals for the first time in months. I even sent out some new poems that I’m a wee bit nervous about. I’ve been putting this off forever because the process is so intimidating, but it occurred to me that non-writers (or people who haven’t looked into publication yet) may not understand what it’s like to send out your work. If you’ve ever wondered why your writer friends take ages to send out their work that is so clearly amazing, or if you’re currently procrastinating sending out your own writing, I hope this step-by-step guide (with GIFs!) can help you understand and/or make you laugh and relax a bit. If I can do it, you can too friends!
1. First, you need to consider your work worthy of publication.
This is so much easier said than done. Ugh. Just the thought of sending your work to be published along with “real” writers you admire is just…stomachache-inducing. In order to see your work as good enough or see yourself as a “real” writer, you have to confront a lot of insecurities about your writing, but also about your personhood. Many of us get derailed on this first step because it can quickly lead to an existential spiral about the “point” of writing or whatever such nonsense. Luckily, I am not currently in this spiral, so I can offer a few tips.
First, writing matters because reading matters. You like to read things, right? You like when it feels like an author is peering into your soul or like they stole a line from your literal diary? Of course! We all want to be seen! Writing is about seeing and being seen and so it matters. Yes, even your writing matters.
Second, about the “real” writer thing: do you write stuff sometimes? If the answer is yes, then congrats, you are a real writer. Now do your best to let this particular fear go, because there’s no way to think your way out of this one. There is no definitive way to “prove” that you’re a real writer. You simply have to learn to accept the truth: you’re a writer.
2. Next, you need to find places to send your work.
I have a love/hate relationship with this step. When you start, it’s so exciting. There are so many publication opportunities out there if you simply look. I start by opening a few tabs from promising journals that match my aesthetic, then I add a few tabs from journals that are probably out of my league but I’ll try for anyway because I’m a real writer, dammit. Then there’s monthly contests that are too perfect to pass up, and of course I want to try my hand at any free submissions opportunity that even remotely matches my writing style. Suddenly, four hours have gone by and I have literally 45 tabs open and I have no idea where to start.
I’m not going to lie, on several occasions, I have gotten to this step and then just closed everything and given up. It’s just too much to organize once all those tabs are open, and I don’t know how to prioritize as I search, so sometimes I just get overwhelmed and peace out. Yesterday, I managed to get some poems submitted because I didn’t search for every single publication opportunity out there, I simply perused one article with 20 or so opportunities, sent my stuff to the ones that applied, and then I was done. It was so much nicer than the process I’ve put myself through in the past.
I know I probably missed out on some key chances to get my work published, but sending out four or five entries is better than getting overwhelmed and sending out zero.
3. Then you’ll have to decide which poems/essays/stories/etc. to send in.
Okay, so before you got started, you struggled to like any of your work enough to even think about sending it anywhere, but when you get to this stage, all the sudden you may find you have the opposite problem. You want to send out EVERYTHING. How in the world are you supposed to decide??
Okay, first, this is great! You actually like, or at least don’t utterly loathe, some of your work! That’s huge! So first things first, celebrate that.
Then you’ll want to read some work that’s been previously published in the journal/magazine/etc. you’re submitting to. Find out what they like, what they’re missing, and where you fit. I’ll be honest, I get overwhelmed with this stage too, so I tend to skim for what forms and themes they tend to choose rather than carefully reading everything, but if you have the attention span for it, your publication record might improve if you can really sit down and get a good grasp on what they’re looking for.
Once you’ve done that, just go through your favorite works and pick the ones that you think will resonate most with the readers. Remember, there are real people reading each and every submission, so send them something they’ll actually enjoy reading, and odds are much higher it will get published.
4. Oh crap, you also have to write a cover letter. What the hell.
This is yet another point where I tend to close all my tabs and abandon ship, despite having come so far. The prospect of writing about myself and my writing after doing all the other work I’ve already done already just seems impossibly difficult.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. You can get through the cover letter stage, I promise. First, read the submission guidelines. They may say there’s no need to include a cover letter, in which case, hurray, you’ve been spared! Or the guidelines may be very specific about what should be included in your cover letter, which is honestly also a huge help. The worst situation is when the guidelines say nothing about the cover letter and you just have to guess.
I don’t have a ton of advice on this one because it’s truly hell on Earth, but I will say this: as someone who used to read for a literary journal, I rarely paid any attention to cover letters. So maybe we don’t need to stress about them too much after all.
5. Finally done! Now you just have to press send! Press it! What are you waiting for??
You’re done! You did it! Now just press send! Just…press send. No? Okay, great.
By the time you’ve found the right publications to submit to, put all your work together, and written a cover letter, you might find that you’ve come full circle, back to the panic of step one. Suddenly, you feel like the pieces you chose to submit are completely wrong, and you probably made a million mistakes in your cover letter, and who are you kidding anyway, right? Your stuff will never get published anyway, what’s the point?
This last-minute panic is totally normal, but still sucks hard. My best tip for getting around it? Yell “3-2-1: send!” hit send, and then slam your laptop closed and run away to make hot cocoa.