“Is writing the punishment or reward? A secondary gain?”
— Rachel Zucker, SoundMachine
Every literary journal crusader experiences it. You put your heart into your work, you submit your work broadly, and have little blossom of hope when the submission confirmation emails pile up.
Then a few weeks or months go by.
And then…the rejections start piling up, squashing the hopefulness you felt during your last submission spree.
This is especially true if you primarily or only use Submittable. It’s a fantastic system that makes sharing your work with literary journals very easy to track, but it’s also quickly becoming the standard for writers seeking publication. There’s going to be at least a little more competition.
Duotrope collects data on literary journal submissions. According to their report, the overall acceptance rate in all categories is just 4.67%.
There are 11,956 acceptances in contrast to 209,282 rejections.
That is a lot of decline emails rolling into your inbox. On the plus side though, it also means you’re far from being the only person getting them.
Your piece might not fit the journal’s theme.
Even if you wrote something excellent, if it doesn’t fit with the charge of the journal, the editors are going to be hard-pressed to say yes.
We recently had an incredibly well-written social commentary. I thoroughly enjoy good social commentary, but this particular one was very political. It was filled with raw emotion that brought tears to my eyes, so there’s no denying that it was masterfully composed. However, it was only reaffirming the thoughts and feelings I had about the tragedy the piece was about.
We’re looking for literature that makes the reader think about something in a different way. We’re looking for writing that breaks away from reality. Writing can be incredible, but if it’s entirely rooted in reality and doesn’t really bring up a new way to think about something, then it just doesn’t quite fit our charge.
Don’t ever doubt your skill as a writer when your work is declined.
This is the big reason why I’m writing this piece.
Like most of us in the literary journal community, I’m both a writer and editor.
Though I’ve made hundreds of submissions and I have over a dozen publications, those ratios made me feel a little shaky sometimes.
When I’d go a long time without acceptance on my personal writing, I’d have those little moments of doubt that I’m not a decent writer and that my publications were just the result of luck and stubborn persistence.
However, when I sit on the editor’s side of things, I’ve come to understand the publishing dilemma a little better every day.
You aren’t getting declined because your work is bad. You’re getting declined because it isn’t quite a perfect match to what the journal or anthology is looking for.
If there’s a set theme, even if you tried to match it, there’s a chance it doesn’t quite align with the rest of what is being compiled in that issue.
You’ve just got to keep working at it, keep exploring, and keep submitting.
If you’ve submitted over 20 times without luck, it doesn’t hurt to give your piece another round of revisions.
Considering that most journals have acceptance rates below 10%, it’s hard to give you a hard and fast number.
It could be 20 attempts, it could be 30 attempts. As an editor, I don’t have a recommendation. A second draft could be perfect or a tenth draft could be the one.
But as a writer, if I have a piece that gets rejected over 20 times, I will typically take another look at it. I might decide to make a significant change, or I might just give it another readthrough and tweak word choice and sentence structure in some places.
You never know what you can improve with another readthrough until you sit down and do it. You might find that your plot was perfect and your pacing was fantastic, but maybe your intro needed to be a little more gripping, or perhaps your ending needed to pack a bigger punch.
At any rate, I do think it’s good to take another look at a piece if you’ve been sitting on it for a while.
Sometimes, there’s just not enough pages in the book.
As an editor, I’ve got to say, this is the second biggest reason we decline pieces we like.
Sometimes, we find ourselves saying “maybe,” but 9 out of 10 times, maybe turns into a no.
It’s just like adults saying maybe to children. The horror!
Every journal has limitations on how much they can pack into one issue. After all, whether they call themselves a journal or a magazine, there are very few volumes that will go over two hundred pages.
At that point, you’re looking at more of an anthology than a magazine issue.
Stay persistent and don’t let rejections make you give up.
Let’s go back to those numbers from Duotrope one more time.
4.67% are accepted, over 81% are rejected, and the rest are never heard from again. Likely because the literary journal is no more.
With those odds of acceptance, it’s going to take even the best writers time to find the perfect home for their work. Theme matters a lot; it’s not just a fluffy way to say no.
While pursuing publication is a tiring process at times, you’ve just got to stick with it. You’ve got to push through the demoralizing stretches, let the rejections slide off your back like water, and keep submitting.
Don’t lose your confidence. There are a lot of why editors say no and it doesn’t have anything to do with your skill as a writer.