Don't Be Intimidated by Literary Journal Guidelines

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One of the biggest steps for a writer is that moment when they decide to start submitting their work to literary journals. It's a moment in which the writer exposes their own vulnerabilities and opens themself up to rejection (and rejection will come, I promise you that). But there's also a subconscious minefield that writers need to navigate when submitting to journals. This minefield, if not navigated successfully, can crush a writer's confidence before the real work has even started. So, let's talk about what the issues are and how to address them. 

Rejection sucks, but getting rejected builds up a wall. It can be a mechanism for defeat or a mechanism for resilience. The truth is, you won't know how you'll react to rejection until you've been rejected. So, let's get that out of the way now. Start submitting. Don't submit shit. Make sure you've had other people read it. Make sure you're comfortable with it. But then, submit the shit out of that work. One of the things I'm happiest about from my two years in an MFA program is that I ignored the idea that we were not ready to submit to journals. I got rejected early in the program. I got rejected often. Then, by the time the program was over, I'd grown used to it. Each rejection was an opportunity, not a closed door.

But this isn't an article about rejection. There are a million of those out there. This is an article about those subtle things that can knock a writer down. But to find and overcome those subtle things, you've got to be submitting. 

When you set out to submit your work to literary journals, you're going to find a litany of submission guidelines at some journals and next to none at others. There will be, of course, plenty of middle ground, but the key is ARG.

Rejection sucks, but getting rejected builds up a wall. It can be a mechanism for defeat or a mechanism for resilience.

Always Read the Guidelines. 

What happens when you read those guidelines, though? Outside of understanding, or thinking you understand, what the journal wants, you might find yourself more nervous or hesitant than before you began. When journals throw out guidelines like "read the back issues to get a sense of what we like and only submit stories like those," a huge weight is placed on the writer—especially the new writer. That particular guideline makes sense. It's a good one, but it's intimidating. How does one judge their own work based on the work of others? We as writers are an insecure bunch, so to think a new writer can go read previously published work and say to themself "hells yes, my work is exactly this good" is misguided.

Of course, the suggestion is not for the journal to change their guidelines. Instead, we need to talk about how a writer should frame that guideline, how they should approach it. When reading past stories published by the journal in question, what exactly should you be looking for? This is actually much simpler than you might think. Don't worry about whether or not your writing matches the skill of the writers who were published before you. You'll never be able to appropriately evaluate that. Instead, focus on these things: 

  1. Is the genre a match—Are you trying to submit a SFF story to a literary fiction journal?
  2. Does the style match—Your horror story set in contemporary NYC is great for general horror, but does it fit that quirky horror journal with a focus on humor?
  3. Does the voice match—This one is most difficult so I'm going to break it down in detail below.

Voice is a made up thing. Kind of. I mean, it's writing, so what the fuck is voice? Words on the page don't speak aloud. True, but voice is an important part of writing and it is very specifically what makes your writing your writing (we're going to come back to this in a minute). If you want a crash course on voice, search the LitReactor archives. There are some really great essays on understanding voice and finding yours. But at its most basic level, voice is the way you tell a story through your writing. Are you lyrical and sarcastic? Are you funny and pragmatic? Are you abrupt and rough with your language? There are so many combinations that lead to your voice, and that's what makes it so wonderful and unique.

But if it's unique, how can you verify your voiceiness matches a journal's aesthetic? Simple. Read the stories and ask yourself whether or not you could have written something similar. Not the exact same voice, no. But similar. If the answer is yes, then the journal is probably looking for stories from writers with voices like yours. 

These are pretty basic guidelines for avoiding the intimidation that naturally comes when a writer decides to start submitting work, but there are some other journal guidelines and requirements that are less common and even more hurtful to an unprepared writer. For example, some journals will flat-out tell writers they do not want to see any more stories like "X". X could be anything. Could be mother-daughter stories, could be vampire stories, could be high fantasy epics involving enchanted swords and flying ox. Now, there's a fair reason journals drop in guidelines like this. They've likely received too many of one type of story and just don't want to sift through others like it.

Fair, but harmful to a writer who doesn't know what that type of requirement means. Imagine this: You're a newish writer. You're ready to submit your zombie story. It's polished. It's fresh (you think). You go to a horror journal, one that makes sense for a zombie story, and immediately see this: 

"We've seen enough zombie stories. No more zombie stories."

That can be crushing. The natural inclination would be to assume your story isn't original enough. It can knock you down, leaving you in a worse spot than you were before you decided to start submitting. If you feel like you're unoriginal, what motivates you to continue? So, to that I say, fuck those guidelines. I get them. I really do. But fuck them. Don't submit to that journal, but go find another one, because guess what? A journal may have seen too many zombie stories, but they've seen exactly zero from you. 

Nothing is original at its base level. Everything has been done. But nothing has been done by you

That's the key. You bring something new to the table, and if a journal is arbitrarily lumping all stories of a similar type into a group that should not be submitted, that's a shame. But fuck 'em. Submit elsewhere. I promise you there will always be a market for every type of story as long as you remember that your take is not the same as any other writer's take. 

I could go on about other things that might intimidate a writer, especially a new writer, but the point across the board is that you are not beholden to any one journal. Some might say the literary journal market is saturated. I say it can't possibly be saturated enough. As long as people are writing and as long as people are reading, there is always room for more journals. And there is always room for more writing. 

Especially your writing. So don't be intimidated.

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