Five years ago I would’ve said I was on my way to becoming a novelist. Today, my novels-in-progress have been shelved, but my short stories have been published in several lit mags and anthologies, and I even manage an online literary journal—Compose: A Journal of Simply Good Writing . There’s just something about the short story form I’ve grown to love, and I do feel that this tangent from novels has made me a better writer.
If short stories fell off your radar on your last day of high school English, the world of lit mags may be one you know little about. You might consider yourself a novelist, but there’s plenty that short stories can do for your writing and your career.
What are lit mags?
The terms literary magazine and literary journal generally refer to publications that feature short stories, poetry, and creative nonfiction (although sometimes literary journal is also used to describe publications that feature academic essays about literature). Some lit mags are created and run by the faculty and students of university MFA creative writing programs, while some are privately run. Each lit mag has its own style and focus, and some publish certain genres such as science fiction and horror. For example, Ploughshares  publishes literary fiction, while Clarkesworld  publishes sci-fi and fantasy, and Ellery Queen  publishes mystery. Whatever you write, there’s probably a home for your work.
I write novels, so why should I care?
Last year I wrote an article for Writer Unboxed called “What Novelists Should Know About Short Fiction. ” My three main points were that
- Reading short fiction can make you a more knowledgeable writer.
- Writing short fiction can make you a more accomplished writer.
- Publishing short fiction can make you a more marketable writer.
Number 3 is important if you’re writing a novel or submitting a manuscript to literary agents or publishers. It’s entirely possible to get a novel published with no previous writing credits, but can it hurt to show agents and editors that you’re serious about perfecting your craft and seeing your work in print?
Writer’s Digest must agree, because they once ran an article called 12 Literary Journals Your Future Agent Is Reading. 
10 Steps to Getting Your Short Stories Published
Read on for a rundown of what you need to know to get started submitting to lit mags:
1. Read as many short stories as you can. In my experience, the very, very best way to learn to write better is to learn to read better. I’m talking about critical reading. I mean tearing those stories apart and putting them back together. Check out some popular short story collections from the library, and take advantage of those you can read for free online.
2. Draft your story. When it comes to short fiction, I believe you can afford to be a pantser instead of a plotter (pantsing meaning you write without a clear plan of where you’ll end up). You’re dealing with a few thousand words—not a hundred thousand words—and letting your mind explore as you write can lead to a deeper, more meaningful story.
3. Revise, get feedback, revise again, polish. Don’t be fooled into thinking short stories are easier to write than novels—many writers say they are more difficult. Editors are looking for a great story with an engaging voice, and that can take time to develop. Better to take a few more weeks to revise and polish than to get an outright rejection or have to withdraw your piece to make corrections. A critique group can help you identify your story’s strengths and weaknesses.
4. Find the right markets for your work. The Review Review  and Poets & Writers , among others, have free databases of lit mag markets. Record the titles and details of good matches for your work in a spreadsheet. I look for mags that (a) accept electronic submissions, (b) don’t charge any sort of reading or submission fees, and (c) allow simultaneous submissions. These aren’t absolute rules, but they ease the submission process. Be sure to only submit to journals that publish the genre of your story.
5. Choose your top 5-7 markets to submit to first. If you’re dealing with mags that accept simultaneous submissions, starting with the least prestigious markets is a good way to get a quick acceptance—but you could be cheating yourself out of a better publication credit. I always start submitting with a handful of my top choices, ones I would be equally happy to be accepted by. You still want to be realistic about where your work might find a home, but don’t just assume you need to work your way up from the very bottom.
6. Write a basic cover letter that can be customized to different pubs. This step seems to stump a lot of writers. Unless submission guidelines ask you for additional information, your cover letter for a short story should be limited to the following:
(a) An introductory statement such as, “Thank you for considering my short story “This Is Great Literature,” which is 2500 words long.”
(b) A sentence or two about you and your previous publishing experience, if you have any. This could be in the form of your third-person short bio (see step #7).
(c) Closing regards, such as, “Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to your reply. Best, Jane McLean.”
Some lit mags also want you to explain why your piece is a good fit for their magazine, as some sort of proof that you read their publication. If you do include that info, keep it to one line.
Resist the urge to describe your story; it’s a cover letter, not a query letter. Just be sure to change the name of the editor and journal to which you’re submitting each time.
7. Perfect your short bio. Your cover letter should include a couple of sentences describing yourself and your writing experience (see step 6b). Good things to mention are where you live, what writing contests you’ve won, previous publications, education, etc. If you don’t have much to say, it’s perfectly fine to write something like, “Joe Schmo lives and writes in New York,” or “Joe Schmo is a student at Awesomeness University. He is currently working on a collection of short stories.” If you have one great credit and other lesser ones, you could write, “Jane McLean’s work has appeared in The Missouri Review and others.” This short bio will probably appear alongside your published piece if you’re accepted, so put some thought into it.
8. Track your submissions. Always keep track of what mag you submitted to, the date you submitted, the date you received a response, and the final outcome. You will especially need this if you’re submitting several stories to several publications at once, because when a simultaneous submission is accepted by one mag, you need to immediately withdraw it from all the other markets that are considering the piece. If you’ve submitted through a management system such as Submittable , withdraw your piece within that system; if you’ve submitted via snail mail or email, email the editors to say the piece has been accepted elsewhere.
9. Let rejections and feedback guide you through further revisions. This is where it becomes a bit of a guessing game. If, thus far, you’ve received only the kind of form rejections that say, “Thanks, but no thanks,” it could mean your piece isn’t strong enough, or that you’ve submitted to markets that are too competitive, or that your piece just wasn’t successful this time around. If you’ve been lucky enough to get any personalized constructive criticism along with a rejection, you might want to revise your piece based on editors’ suggestions. That is, if you agree they have a point.
10. Choose your next group of best-matched markets and submit to those. Continue submitting in small batches and tracking as you go until you get an acceptance. (If that acceptance doesn’t come, put the piece away for a few months and work on another story.)
Dos and Don’ts for Submitting to Lit Mags
Here are some other general tips to keep in mind:
- Read and follow all submission guidelines. If no detailed guidelines are available on a mag’s website, present your manuscript in a plain 12-point font, with your contact information and word count in the top corner. Assume simultaneous submissions are fine unless stated otherwise.
- Study potential markets to see what type of piece they typically publish. Print publications often have samples available online that you can read for a better idea.
- Have a decent headshot of yourself ready. A mag might ask for your headshot to appear on their website or alongside your story.
- Read all contracts thoroughly. Ask questions if you don’t understand the terms, and if no contract is offered, ask what rights the mag acquires. Generally, you want to be sure rights revert back to you upon publication so you can later publish the piece in your own collection or in an anthology.
- Withdraw simultaneous submissions from other lit mags within 24 hours when your story is accepted elsewhere. This is common courtesy to editors who might still be reading and discussing your piece.
- Grab copies of your print publications. Sometimes you’ll be offered a couple of free contributor copies of your work, but if that doesn’t come as part of your deal, do buy yourself a copy. They’re great to pick up when you need some encouragement and handy if you ever want to take part in a public reading.
- Link to online publications from your website or portfolio. Don’t forget to direct people to where they can read your short stories online. Most people won’t have access to your print publications, so this is a good chance to show them samples of your writing.
- Fire off your submission to dozens of publications at once. It would be a pain to withdraw all of those submissions if you get accepted elsewhere, and you don’t want to get in the habit of sending every story you write to the same mags over and over.
- Get snarky with editors. Rude notes in response to rejections or long wait times won’t get you anywhere. Just move on to the next market.
- Obsess about what rejection letters mean. Some lit mags have tiered rejections: a piece that isn’t a good fit gets a basic form letter, while better stories that receive more editorial attention get more encouraging form letters. If you get a positive rejection letter, great! But not all magazines have tiered rejections, and busy editors sometimes don’t have time to worry about which letter to send, so don’t over-think it.
- Try to decode response times. Just because a lit mag takes forever to get back to you doesn’t necessarily mean they’re spending all that time agonizing over whether or not to publish your piece. They could be behind on reading or on sending out rejections. On the other hand, they could be considering your piece more carefully, but there’s no real way to know.
- Expect payment. This is one market in which the “never write for free” advice is irrelevant. Most lit mags can’t afford to pay contributors, and editors are generally volunteers. If you are paid at all, it will likely be a small sum.
The most important thing to remember is that the story is the most important thing. You can only control so much about the publication process, so focus as much as possible on writing the best story you can.
Getting short stories published in literary magazines can help boost your confidence and give editors and agents a sense that you’re a seriously dedicated writer. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Which lit mag might your future literary agent be reading right now?
Photo courtesy of Illinois Library  via Flickr