Whenever I meet someone new, the conversation usually ends up like this: they will ask me what I do and, when I respond that I am a writer, they’ll ask where I am published. I’ll turn bright red and laugh, feeling uncomfortable. Like a fraud. I’ll say that, actually, I am not really published anywhere except the literary journal at my undergrad, which barely even counts, and I’ll divert the conversation elsewhere. And so it goes.
As I look ahead at my last year and a half of this program, though, I think about the goals I set whenever I started out, fresh-faced and revving to go. I wanted to be part of a literary community (check); I wanted to feel proud of my progress in my work (check); I wanted to have at least one bad workshop (double check, am I right?); and I wanted to publish an essay or two. No check on that one, though. So I’ve enlisted the help of Marissa Higgins, a bright first-year MFA student who has placed her work in Salon, Guernica, Hippocampus, The Huffington Post, and elsewhere.
Below, Marissa shares her best tips for those of us who need a little kick in the ass, or maybe just a little bit of encouragement, in the submission department.
Read The Publications You Submit To
This should be obvious, but I think the most common mistake writers make when submitting their work is that they don’t actually read the publication they’re submitting to. While some publications are print-only, and subscriptions can be expensive, most publications are online, or have samples of their work available online. If you’re a student (which I’m assuming you are, if you’re reading this) you can check with your school to see if they already have a subscription to the publication you’re interested in, or if there are old issues in your institution’s library. In truth, reading the publication is the only way to know whether your work is a good fit. It’s also the only way you’ll understand house style, which is particularly important if you’re submitting to a magazine or newspaper. Reading the “About” or “Submissions” tabs for a publication can be frustrating, as how they describe what they’re looking for can feel decidedly vague… and that’s intentional. If you read the publication frequently, you will absolutely get a sense of what their style (both in terms of content and form) constitutes. This is also a benefit to you: You should aim for your work to find a “home” with its peers, in terms of quality, style, and theme. While publications are always exciting, you don’t necessarily want to read your work alongside something you aren’t fond of, and that’s a risk you take when you aren’t actually familiar with the publication in question.
Be Realistic About Your Tiers
Most people want their work to end up in the top tier journals and magazines. “Top tier” generally refers to the publications people outside of publishing are familiar with, which translates to being “impressive” or “the best” places to land your work. These are also often the places which pay the most for your work. Personally, I think you should submit wherever you think your work is the best fit (in terms of “fit,” remind yourself of my first tip, above) however, I think it’s also beneficial to be realistic about where you send your work. Many well-known publications only publish work from professional writers, or people with agents representing their writing. Sure, you should still try, if these places stick out to you. But there are many publications that publish excellent work, and many of those, do pay for your material. If you want to submit to top tier places, I suggest doing submitting in “groups” so your work has the best chance at each level. For example, submit X piece to Tier 1, wait Y amount of months, then submit X piece to Tier 2, wait Y amount of months, and so forth.
Use Networking To Your Advantage
Now, networking is tricky, because it’s obviously different for everyone. If you’re in an MFA, your network is comprised of your peers and your instructors. When people publish places you think would be a good fit for you, talk to them about the process. Sometimes people are hesitant to offer up their connections, or give advice, but networking, as a whole, is pretty common in publishing so a polite question shouldn’t feel out of the norm. Outside of academia, I suggest identifying your peers in your “niche” group. For me personally, this means I’m in many (online and in-person) groups for women writers, as well as for queer writers. Social media is helpful for finding these groups and staying in touch with people, though traditional email works just as well, if you can get that initial connection.There are niche groups for pretty much everything, and of course they’ll also vary in terms of what purpose they serve: Some groups I’m in are specific to pitches, some are specific to editing swaps, and some are for submission calls. The goal is to improve your own work, through better understanding of what actually gets accepted at your goal publications, while gaining contact information for the editors you’re reaching out to. Often, when you have a connection, people will offer you more direct access to an editor, or suggest mentioning them as a contact or reference when you submit your work. This doesn’t always happen (and doesn’t necessarily help) but can be very beneficial, depending on the circumstance.
Actually Submit Your Work
Unless you are already established, or have an excellent agent, it is very unlikely anyone is going to solicit your work. This means you have to actually submit it for editors to read and consider it. While it’s tempting to hold onto your work forever, there comes a time when you have to send it into the world and risk rejection. My personal advice is to have a number of trustworthy people read your work before you submit it. I generally workshop my pieces in their very early stages, when I’m still getting a feel for my piece thematically, as well as how my form is influencing my content (a braided essay in contrast to a reported piece, for example). From there, I do heavy edits until I have the “essence” of the piece together, then I look for people to edit it in terms of grammar, fluidity, and flow. Lastly, I look for people who have experience with the publication in question (see above, for networking) and see if they’re interested in reading my piece and offering feedback. For the pieces I’ve sent out and had accepted, this process has worked every single time. For pieces I harbor close to myself and barely let a soul read before I submit, they’ve nearly always been rejected. Some people are excellent self-editors, of course, but I think there’s much value in getting multiple perspectives on your work. Then, it’s time to submit.
Apply To Writer’s Conferences And Workshops
So, this has less to do with submitting, but I think is still important to mention. Especially if you’re a graduate student, there are many scholarships and fellowships available for people who want to attend writer’s workshops and conferences. I’ve done a handful of workshops (outside of college and the MFA) and have been lucky enough to receive scholarships for all of them. These environments can be excellent because they often expose you to writers you wouldn’t necessarily meet in an MFA classroom: working writers, editors, instructors, and people returning to the industry often take workshops as a way of getting feedback and ideas. Workshops can also be a way to get diverse voices to look at your work, which has been particularly beneficial to me as a queer writer. Taking workshops and attending conferences also gives you a way to network with people face to face, which can be a great way to understand what a certain publication is actively looking for, or when to anticipate a contest or submissions call at a publication you’ve been eyeing. If you’re interested in workshops, I suggest checking out the listings here, here, and here as a starting place. Personally, I’ve had great experiences at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center and GrubStreet, both of which offer excellent scholarships. While these are both in Massachusetts, you can find similar things pretty much anywhere you want to go.
Marissa Higgins is a contributing writer for Café Américain and a first-year candidate in the American University’s Creative Writing MFA program.
Introduction written by Emily Moses, editor in chief of Café Américain.