How to submit a short story

Congratulations, you’ve just finished a short story. Now what do you do with it? You want to be a published writer, but you have no idea how to do that. Well, here are some tips for what to do next:

Step One: Find magazines to submit to.

You can do this in several ways. The easiest way is to look at your bookshelf and pick out an author you like, whose stories are similar to your own. If you have a book of collected short stories by that author, look at the copyright page. There, you should find a list of magazines that first published your favorite author’s work before they were collected into the book. If what you’re holding is a novel, look online to see if you can find any magazines that have published the author’s short stories or novel excerpts.

You can also find magazines to submit to by looking at Writer’s Market or Poets and Writers. You can also go to your local bookstore and browse their magazine shelf.

Step Two: Read the magazines.

Do not skip this step because magazine editors can TOTALLY TELL when you haven’t read their magazine. You need to read the magazine to make sure your voice is a good fit. As you read the magazine, take note of any authors you like and look up their other publications (more fodder for step one.)

Step Three: Read the magazine’s submission guidelines

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The reason I have this step next is because occasionally there will be something to disqualify the magazine from your list. For example: if they only accept manuscripts submitted by agents, or if they don’t accept manuscripts that have been previously published on your blog.

Things to pay attention to are: the rights the magazine buys (most magazines want First North American print rights and an option on using your story in an anthology), whether they accept simultaneous submissions, their response time, and–of course–how you should package your manuscript and who to submit it to.

Step Four: Write your cover letter.

Do not spend more time sweating over the cover letter than you did over your story because cover letters are really pretty simple. Here is an example of the cover letter I use, with the variable items in brackets:

Dear [editor’s name, correctly spelled],

Enclosed is my [4,000 word] short story, [“My Fantastic Story”] for your consideration in [Your Wonderful Magazine.]

[The next paragraph is where you include any notice about previous publications, or special experience relating to your story; for example: if you’re a lawyer and your short story is a legal thriller. If you haven’t been published before, don’t be afraid to mention that fact because many editors take great pride in discovering a writer.]

This manuscript is a recyclable copy. I have enclosed a letter-sized SASE for your reply. Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely, [My name.]

Step Five: Start mailing your story.

This is where we get to the “wash, rinse, repeat,” part of the post. Expect to be rejected from most of the places you submit to, but don’t take it too personally. Even authors who have been published before still get rejected. Even BEST SELLING authors get rejected. It’s part of the business. My advice is to take a rejection slip as a reminder to put your story into a new envelope and mail it to the next magazine on your list.

I have a spreadsheet that keeps track of where I submitted my stories, when I mailed the story, and when to expect a reply. That way, if I don’t get a reply from an Editor, I know that I can mail the story to the next magazine on my list.

Personal rejections.

Should you be lucky enough to get a personal rejection from an editor, it usually means that your story came very close to being considered. Editors are busy people and they don’t take the time to write you a letter unless they think you have promise. If the editor gave you some advice on how to fix the story, seriously consider implementing that advice before you send your story to the next magazine on your list.

A word about simultaneous submissions:

Simultaneous submissions is when our send your story to more than one magazine at the same time. It saves the author time, but it can also put the author in a pickle if the story gets accepted to more than once place. The protocol for this situation is to IMMEDIATELY call or write to the magazine you don’t want to sell your story to. If the magazine’s guidelines explicitly states “no simultaneous submissions”  than you can get into a huge amount of trouble and the editor may bad-mouth you to his colleagues.

The best way to avoid the whole mess is to divide the magazines you want to submit to into three categories:

  1. Magazines that accept simultaneous submissions. Mail your story to all of these magazines at the same time. If none of these magazines accept your story, move onto the next category.
  2. Magazines that do not accept simultaneous submissions AND want first print rights. Submit to each of these magazines one at a time. Keep track of when their response dates are, that way–once the date has passed–you’ll know when you can mail your story to the next magazine on the list.
  3.  Magazines that accept reprints. Ideally, someone has bought your story by now, and now it’s time to submit to a magazine or anthology that accepts reprints. Any story that has been published once is probably good enough to be published again, right? If your story has not been published yet than by all means submit to these magazines before you retire the story.

About E.S.O. Martin

E.S.O. Martin is a writer, a California native, and a graduate of SF State's Creative Writing MFA program.
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