Creative Writing Submission Do’s and Don’ts

As of this writing, I’ve racked up about 230 submissions and 23 acceptances (which is a super weird coincidence in terms of numbers. I swear, I wasn’t aiming for a 10% batting average). If you didn’t know how many rejections I’d received, you might assume I wake up every morning and walk around like I rent the place. I can assure you, that is not the case. I’m pretty familiar with rejections, and I’m just starting to get the hang of acceptances. That being said, I’ll share the little bottlecaps in my pockets and maybe one day, we’ll figure out how cryptocurrency works or something. I’m not in the mood for metaphors right now.

In this post, I’m going to go through the most common trip ups that I’ve noticed with submissions. Again, this is just me spit-balling. You can also find (probably better) advice from the editor of Fiction Attic PressMichelle Richmond, as well as the editor of 2 ElizabethsElise Holland. Chris Brecheen also has a great two-part essay on why your piece was rejected as well as a ton of other great writing advice and tasteful sex jokes, so be sure to check their blog out.

Brief Cover Letter- Yes

As a previous Assistant Managing Editor of the literary magazine, Bellingham Review, I can confirm that brief cover letters are WAY sexier than giant blocks of words. Personally, I’ve found that the more detailed the letter is, the worse the writing sample tends to be. I think it’s because newer writers feel like they need to justify their work and explain its merit, while more experienced writers are accustomed to just stating the facts of the piece and moving on to the next submission.

Remember that even the best cover letter isn’t going to guarantee that you’ll be published. Only the strength and relevance of your piece can do that. A truly horrendous cover letter can knock you out of the running, but it’s pretty unlikely that you’d simultaneously write a piece brilliant enough to be in the top five, and a cover letter awful enough to make the editors shrink back and hiss. If so, I’d like to meet you and chat over coffee.

Considerations when writing cover letters

  • Do include the name of the editor if you can find it
  • Don’t get too cutesy or old-fashion with your address (Hello super awesome people at ___), (Dear Sirs, Madams, and those brave enough to transcend the gender binary)
  • Do include the title of the piece, word count, and indicate whether it’s a simultaneous submission.
  • Don’t include how long it took you to write this, how many years you’ve been writing, or that you’ve never been published. It doesn’t make you look sweet or “undiscovered.” Do you think you’re going to talk someone into hiring you by wowing them with your lack of work experience? No, weird flex. No one’s going to pity-publish you.
  • Do write a sentence about the piece just to frame the content.
  • Don’t write a paragraph summary about how amazing the piece is and why it will change the world (yes, I’ve gotten these before.)
  • Do write a sentence or two about the magazine if you’ve read it. Indicate which stories you liked and who wrote them. Bonus points if you mention you’re submitting this particular piece because of a piece they’d previously published
  • Don’t give a full summary of a piece they’ve published to prove that you’ve read it, or talk about the editors in depth and their work, or how you totally have a literary crush on them. This has about the same effect as meeting a new person and spending fifteen minutes info-vomiting every factoid you gleaned from stalking their Facebook. Again, not a great look.
  • Do copy/paste your cover letter once you have a good one worked out. There’s no need to write a completely new letter or bio every time. Spend your brain power on writing and figuring out how to survive in our capitalistic hell-scape.
  • Don’t forget to change the template info, though. You don’t want to address the cover letter to the wrong publication or list out info for the wrong piece. It’s about as awkward as calling your new partner by your ex’s name. Oof.

Here are two versions of cover letters I’ve sent out

Esteemed Folks of Heartwood Literary Magazine,

Enclosed you will find “AITA for burning down my family” at 2,267 words. This is a hermit crab essay exploring my tumultuous family relationships through the form of Reddit’s “Am I the Asshole” advice forumThis is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your time!

Bio: C. M. Scott is a neurodivergent writer from the Pacific Northwest with an MFA from Western Washington University. Their work is featured or forthcoming in Dark Matter Magazine, ​Snarl, Ghost City Review, The Disappointed Housewife, On the Run, and more.

Cheers,
Caity


To Brett Pribble and all the Esteemed Folks of Ghost Parachute,

Enclosed you will find “Parkside Visitation” at 358 words. The flash fiction featured in your magazine is electric and I was particularly impressed by ‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’ by Patricia Q Bidar. I’d be honored for my work to be featured here. This is a simultaneous submission. Thank you for your time!

Bio: C. M. Scott is a neurodivergent writer from the Pacific Northwest with an MFA from Western Washington University. Their work is featured or forthcoming in Dark Matter Magazine, ​Snarl, Ghost City Review, The Disappointed Housewife, On the Run, and more.

Cheers,
Caity


I emphasized the identical parts with bold white font. Notice how these letters are super close to being twins. In the first letter, I included the name of the editor because I could find it (they aren’t always listed) and I spent a sentence prefacing the piece because it has an unusual form that might otherwise throw off the reader. In the second letter, I spent a sentence discussing a particular piece that stood out to me from the publication just to demonstrate that I’m familiar with the publication’s work. I’m not going to say my cover letter template is the absolute pinnacle of its kind for submitting work (my bio is a bit too long and I probably could’ve prefaced the work in both letters), but if you aren’t sure where to start then these are better than nothing.

Bio: Yeah, probably

Almost all publications ask for you to submit a 100 words-or-less bio alongside your cover letter and piece. If they don’t want one, they’ll specify. You can also check out the lit mag itself to see if it even features bios. Usually, the Bio is just a part of the cover letter, but some publications will have a specific box for it on the submissions page.

How quirky you want to get with your cover letter is up to you. I like to write garbage, so I’ve got a bit more leeway than more mature, capable writers. You can also have rotating bios for different styles of writing if that’s more your jam. Whatever direction you take, make it short. Bios can seem super intimidating to write up, but once you’ve got an idea what you’re doing and have one drafted up, you can reuse it as many times as necessary.

  • Do include a sentence or two about your personal life, style of writing, and where you’re from
  • Don’t dump a wall of text about how much you love your hometown, how proud you are of your kids, or how much the divorce destroyed you but that you’re persevering anyways despite not winning the mini-fridge in the settlement.
  • Do mention that you’re currently in an MFA/MA program. No, you don’t look pompous by doing that (unless you start talking about how happy you are to be in grad school because it elevates you above the “riff-raff.”)
  • Don’t mention your undergrad or community college unless it’s your top degree, it’s relevant, or it’s particularly interesting (you’re submitting a starship-fighter sci-fi piece and have a degree in mechanical engineering). If your undergrad is in English as well, you can get away with listing both at the beginning of your degree, but chisel it down once your degree progresses.
  • Do include a brief list of past publications (like three to four). If you’re widely published, include the most relevant and recent.
  • Don’t include a detailed list (title, magazine, synopsis) of every single publication. You’ll come across like that guy at parties who won’t stop talking about all the records he broke in high school track. Let your writing prove itself.

What if I don’t have any publications to list on my bio?

This is something every writer runs into at some point. Here’s what you can list instead:

  • Where you’re from
  • What you write (genre, form, themes, etc.)
  • If you’re in a writing program or graduated from one
  • Personable quirks (hobbies, pets, projects other than writing, etc. Be careful about not getting too obnoxious with this one.)
  • Where readers can find you (like your website and socials)

Here’s my first bio before I was out. It’s pretty embarrassing, now that I look at it, but I have a hard time being objective about my past writing because my automatic reflex is just to cringe ferociously. I’m showing this to you because a trash fire bio is a better template than nothing at all.

Caity Scott writes about diabolical joy, simple wonder and, (whenever possible) dinosaurs. Her work has teeth and exists in liminal spaces between what we love, what we laugh at, and how it all breaks us. When she’s not listening to true crime podcasts, she’s pursuing an MFA in creative writing at Western Washington University.

Formatting: yes, oh my god, YES

If you’re wondering why this is even a question, let me just say: same. The amount of pieces I’ve come across in the slush pile that 1) were over specified word count, 2) include names when the website specified not to for contests and 3) weren’t double-spaces and/or 12 point font (again as specified) is so completely alarming, that I’ve gone back to the website on multiple occasions just to make sure I didn’t imagine those specifications. Format is one of the easiest parts about editing your writing and if you ignore it, it’s also one of the easiest ways to ensure your piece will go unread.

Big perspective check: if you’re already demonstrating issues following the rules, you likely haven’t familiarized yourself with the publication at all, which means there’s a higher chance your work isn’t a right fit. You might be thinking, but Caity, the number one rule of writing is that all rules can be broken and sure, that might be true of the writing process but it’s not true with publishing. Publishing is when all the adults sit around and make big, grown-up decisions about which pieces to run based on product costs, time management, and the current climate of the industry, culture, and economy. Those particular rules about format are in place because of tangible issues surrounding printing and organization.

Think of it this way: you’ve got to build up trust with your reader in order to justify breaking the rules. You’re already off to a bad start when you can’t follow publication guidelines, and unless you can prove that breaking rules was absolutely necessary, you’ll be exiled to the bin. Also, readers have too much to read and will take any reasonable chance to lighten the load. You are welcome to break whatever rule you want with writing: just find a publication that wants to break those rules with you.

  • Do familiarize yourself with formatting etiquette
  • Do thoroughly read the guidelines for page formatting. The general format is a great start, but each publication has specific standards. The most common areas that vary are document title (what it’s saved as), page title (the heading at the top of the work), name inclusion, and page number format. Also pay attention to how the publication wants you to format emails, preference for attachments, and whether or not to copy/paste cover letters and materials in the body of the email.
  • Don’t think you’re above the rules. If the publication states that it may consider pieces slightly over word count, then you have some leeway. Some. Poetry, hybrid, and nonfiction lyrical essays have some wiggle-room with formatting as well, but some publications will outright specify that experimental form isn’t appropriate for their venue. They’ve got their reasons, like the complexities of printing and formatting non-standard pieces on websites, and it just means that place isn’t right for your experimental piece. Move on, don’t force it. Don’t make this harder that it needs to be. It’s not you; it’s them. Okay, you get it.

Simultaneous Submissions– Definitely, but sometimes No (and absolutely not if it is a no)

Simultaneous submissions refers to the act of submitting one piece to more than one place at the same time as opposed to one at a time following rejection.

Every magazine feels different about this, so make sure to check the guidelines before you send anything off (you’re always doing that anyways, right?) For the most part, literary-focused magazines are chill with simultaneous submissions while genre magazines usually are not. There are different reasons why lit mags feel this way. Part of it could just be industry norms, but the other reason is because literary-focused magazines don’t tend to pay while genre usually does. When there’s more at stake in terms of funds, publishers don’t want to deal with the last-minute stress of a top-tier piece being withdrawn after being accepted somewhere else because that can throw their entire drafted issue off kilter.

Besides format and deadlines, simultaneous submission allowance is one of the areas with most variation between lit mags and it’s very important to check each time you submit something. You’d be surprised at the ones that aren’t alright with simultaneous submissions.

You best approach with submissions is to send out your piece as much as possible especially if you’re confident about it. This is increasingly true with literary pieces because most universities open their submissions at the same time, which means that if you wait to hear back from one, the submissions windows have probably closed for other university magazines.

However, throw that advice out the window if you are submitting a piece to a place that does not take simultaneous submissions. If you thought you were being sneaky and simultaneously submitted, then had to withdraw a piece because it was accepted elsewhere, it’s definitely possible that the editors will catch on. The niche parts of the literary world are tight because many people work at multiple publications throughout their careers. They also read each other’s magazines to stay familiar with the market and their competitors. You don’t want word to spread that you’re violating a pretty important rule because that will result in multiple burned bridges. Instead, make note of which story you sent where, then have your back-up list ready so you know exactly where to send it out next if it’s rejected. It’s going to require a lot of big brain organization, but you’re a writer, right? You make up people and complex relationships in your head. You can do this.

Withdrawing- No, unless you don’t have a choice

As much as possible, don’t withdraw pieces. Believe it or not, they’re not going to care about a couple typos unless the typos are absolutely, undeniably offensive (and it’s kinda hard to screw up that much.)

  • Do withdraw a piece if it’s been accepted by someone else
  • Do withdraw if you realize you’ve made one of those awful blunders
  • Do withdraw a piece if it has copyright issue attached to it (like if the lit mag doesn’t accept reprints or if you don’t have the rights to music used in a hybrid form or poetry video)
  • Don’t withdraw because you realized you forgot to put an apostrophe on “it’s” on page three
  • Don’t withdraw if you forgot to attach something. Send the publisher a message and explain the situation
  • Don’t withdraw because you’ve gone a really long time without a response. Some lit mags have a standard waiting period of half a year, even more. If you piece is over the market average shown in Submission’s Grinder, or above the publication’s specified wait time on its website, then send the publication a message to see what’s going on

Replying to Rejection Letters- No, unless it was personalized

Most rejection letters are form, which means that the publisher just sent out the same letter to every chump unfortunate enough to get their hopes up. Your first inclination, besides sulking and drinking orange juice out of the carton, might be to email the publication back. We’ve all got a certain amount of “professionalism” hammered into us about how you should respond with grace so you don’t burn any bridges, but keep this in mind: some publications get literal thousands of submissions. Thousands. Depending on the size of the lit mag, the email used to send your rejection might not even be able to take responses. It’s just better to let these ones fester in some sort of special email folder that you’ll never look, but also don’t want to purge because those rejections somehow feel important. You could even print rejection letters out if you want to do something fun with them. In his craft book On Writing, Stephen King mentions he used to stab rejection letters onto a nail. When that was full, he got a spike. These sorts of rituals can help mitigate your fear of rejection.

Personalized Rejection letters are sort of like spraying Febreze over that leftover fish you threw out three days ago. Like, thanks I guess, but this still stinks. That being said, personalized rejections can be worthwhile for multiple reasons. First and foremost, it means that readers and editors saw potential in your work. Perhaps your piece got really, really close to being accepted, which is great to know and also indicates it’s almost there. Sometimes the editor will even give you a bit of feedback about why it wasn’t accepted, like the pacing being off, or perhaps it just wasn’t the right fit for the publication at that specific time. That later reason is more common that you think.

Here’s the nicest rejection letter I’ve ever gotten:

Rejection email stating the following:

Hi, Caity!

Thank you for submitting your work to us, but I’m sorry to say I can’t purchase it at this time.

We received a total of about 600 submissions, which means that we won't be able to accept a large number of great stories, yours among them. We thought that your story was exceptionally clever and the unique format was so enjoyable to read, but ultimately the publisher would have liked it to have a faster pace and conflict. Take that with a grain of salt, as a personal opinion, because the story is objectively great and we genuinely loved it.

I know rejections are always tough, and I’m available to talk about it if you’re struggling with it. I would however love to see more writing from you in the future, and hope you’ll submit another story next time I have a call open.

Alex Woodroe, editor

In my response to the above email, I thanked the editor for their personalized response and noted that I plan on submitting work in the future. I also included a smiley face. If you receive a personalized rejection, use discretion to decide if whether it’s worthwhile for both you and the editor to respond. A simple “thank you for your consideration” is usually fine.


Well, I hope this clears up some confusion you might’ve had surrounding the submissions process. When in doubt, read the guidelines thoroughly, skim through a couple stories on the publication’s website, and consider sending out your materials to fellow writers in your network for feedback. Don’t be afraid to use the resources around you!

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