How to submit poetry to literary magazines and journals

Have you wondered about submitting your writing or poetry for publishing but you’re just not sure where to start?

I submitted my first poem to a literary magazine two months ago and since then five of my poems have been accepted for publishing, so although I’m just starting out too, I’ve followed some tips and suggestions which are still fresh in my mind and which hopefully will be of help for anyone who is thinking about taking that first step.

This is a very different process to just throwing poetry out into the void and seeing a few hearts pop up to let you know that somebody has read it and likes it (which is what I had previously been doing on Instagram and YouTube).

The submission process is far more critically demanding. Nobody stops you putting your poetry onto Instagram but literary magazines and poetry journals often have quite specific things they are looking for so don’t accept every submission they receive.

Follow journals

Twitter is a great place to follow magazines. I joined Twitter just to be able to do this. Get an idea of what literary magazines and poetry journals are out there. Some feature specific poetic forms (like micropoetry, haiku, experimental, visual), some focus on tender, positive or uplifting writing, some have have themes such as dwellings, rivers, seas, climate crisis, others are looking at the world from a different perspective, confessions, memories and so on.

There are hundreds of lit mags out there so you probably won’t want to blanket follow them all as that will just fill up your feed with information overload.

Find some that you like. If you have niche interests you can always tweet for help. Twitter users (within the writing community at least) tend to be very helpful. And literary magazines grow very loyal followings and lots of their contributors or readers will want to share their favourite lit mags with the world. Perhaps include hashtags such as these to ask for help here – #writingcommunity #litmag #submissions.

Read their issues

Find their current issue and have a read. If the writing is completely unintelligible to you or just doesn’t resonate in any way, then don’t be put off. Just find another journal that speaks your language and where you find the writing engaging.

Look at how often they publish

If they publish annually as one print copy and you are just starting out on the poetry submission adventure, you might want to focus your efforts on a journal which publishes more often (monthly, weekly, daily on their blog) and perhaps doesn’t have such exacting standards – unless you are extremely confident that your poetry is already to the standard they normally publish and fits their style, in which case go for it!

Read their submission guidelines

Magazines provide submission guidelines for a reason, so follow them! If you don’t follow the guidelines you risk receiving an otherwise avoidable rejection letter and putting the editor to the trouble of writing it, which is unpleasant for them and made worse by it being completely unnecessary.

Similarly, you might be tempted to send poems out without giving much thought to the fit with the magazine’s theme and that also provides more work for the editors, many of whom are unpaid and keeping their magazines going for love of their craft and the writing community. Doing the legwork yourself is a way of respecting editors.

Use a cover letter

Some magazines specify that they’re not that fussed about cover letters but many lit mags and editors like them and you can find some templates by searching poetry submission cover letters. I have used a variation on this one.

If you use a template then doublecheck before sending the email that you are addressing the right editor as receiving a cover letter to your lit mag with the wrong name is sure to get you off to a bad start!

Be inspired by new themes and write specifically for the theme

You might already have or be getting a better picture of your own writing style now as you compare it with other poetry you’re reading in journals. But don’t let that stop you exploring other styles and forms of poetry.

All five of the poems that I have had accepted for publication have been a step away from the way I was writing before. Three of the poems were an exploration of new poetic forms and two were written in response to a theme I found really touching. Don’t be afraid of trying new things! And if you have written a poem specifically for a literary magazine or journal then mention it in your covering letter.

Prepare for rejection

Nobody likes the R word! Sylvia Plath famously said ‘The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt’ and receiving a rejection letter can feel like all your own doubts about your work have been confirmed by a stranger. I’ve written more in my post about rejection, acceptance and carrying on regardless, but a few thoughts for now.

You are not alone! Have a look here at some of the comments from writers and poets about the number of the times they submitted writing before receiving their first acceptance. So keep writing and submitting.

It’s maths! Editors cannot accept every poem that is submitted to their magazine. They have the difficult job of deciding what makes the cut. So keep writing and submitting.

It’s not personal! It is not a rejection of you as a person. Editors mostly don’t have time to send constructive criticism for every poem they reject, but there are multiple reasons that a poem might not fit within a given theme or issue without it being related to how excellent the poem was. So keep writing and submitting.

Reframe it! Receiving your first rejection letter means that you’ve taken the big step to start submitting and that’s worth celebrating! See if you can find some positives. Rejection is an inevitable part of the submission process however much you try to avoid it. The only way to totally avoid rejection is by not submitting your work at all, but then who knows how many people will miss out on being impacted by your wonderful writing? So keep writing and submitting.

Build your resilience! Writing workshops with a focus on building your resilience as a writer are a fantastic way of refocusing and changing your perspective. I was able to participate in a writing resilience workshop led by Nikki Dudley (co-editor of streetcake magazine and creator of the MumWrite programme) as part of the Stay-at-home! Fringe Literary Festival. I would highly recommend Nikki’s workshop and you can read my response to one of the writing exercises we did here. Keep your eyes open for upcoming opportunities (search #writingworkshop on Twitter) or have a look at Nikki’s website.

Read tips from editors

This applies to all writing, not just poetry, but it is helpful for you to see the editors’ perspective. Sometimes this is provided in interviews with the editors features. Individual editors sometimes tweet from the editing perspective and lit mags may retweet tips and suggestions (or rants about abusive or offensive behaviour). Take note of these!

Keep track

The sheer number of lit mags and journals can be very overwhelming at first and it can be very difficult task to find what you like as you trawl through long lists and look up different publications and so on. It can be equally difficult to remember which magazines you happened to like, so make notes as you go. I started a note with the lit mag name, theme and submission window just so I could find them more easily afterwards.

Use Poets’ Directory

Poets’ Directory is “a site dedicated to providing information and opportunities for UK and Irish poets”. It has an alphabetical list of literary magazines and journals and links to their websites (if online). Of course, there are many journals worldwide and new ones seem to be starting all the time but this is a good place to start if you like a comprehensive approach.

The writing community being as supportive as it is, lit mags will very often promote and retweet opportunities and submission windows for other lit mags (who in an other business would be considered arch rivals or at best competition for your audience).

Literary magazines with a Christian or spiritual focus

Finding literary magazines that accept poetry with an overt Christian message can be a challenge. Thankfully a North Dakotan poet has already asked Twitter the all important question and lots of other poets and lit mags replied to form this extremely helpful thread.

Keep a spreadsheet

It might sound a bit like the antithesis of poetry to keep a spreadsheet but it’s been invaluable (like making the list of interesting lit mags with name, theme and submission window of interesting lit mags while you find your feet and it slowly becomes less confusing). Submitting poetry to literary magazines involves a great deal of poetry admin, which like most admin is helpful but unexciting.

My spreadsheet has the following headings:

Date submitted
Name of publication
Name of poem
Heard back?
Date for new submission
Publication date for poem
Link to poem

Something like this will help you keep on track of your submissions, perhaps remind you of lit mags who have previously accepted your work and help you particularly with simultaneous submissions.

Simultaneous submissions

Some literary magazines do not accept simultaneous submissions (where you submit the same poem to multiple lit mags at the same time in the hope that one of them will accept it).

If you do submit your poem to more than one journal at a time, it is your responsibility to notify the other lit mags as soon as you receive an acceptance. Not doing so is disrespectful to the editors involved and can be a source of real aggravation to them.

On that note, you have the opportunity to be an encouraging presence throughout the poetry submission process. You can read more about that here.

But don’t forget that many editors and teams are unpaid and create and run lit mags for the love of writing and a desire to serve the writing community. Many editors are one-person-bands and you can make their lives a lot easier and more pleasant by following their guidelines and treating them with appreciation and respect.

Equally, even simple steps like interacting with lit mags, commenting or sharing poems that you enjoyed, goes a long way to encourage others in their writing.

Celebrate with others who are having their work published and with journals you like when they reach milestones like 200 followers.  Think how much it means to you for someone to read your work and take the time to mention what it meant to them and remember that you can do that too.

I’d love to hear your story! Where are you on the poetry submission journey? What tips would you give to someone just starting out?

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