What Are Literary Magazines? Plus 5 Things They Look For in Submissions

Submitting your work for publication in literary magazines can be nerve-wracking. They outline what they’re looking for when they open for submissions, but it can still seem pretty vague.

Here’s everything you need to know about submitting to literary magazines, plus a few things they generally look for when searching for the next stories they’ll publish.

What Are Literary Magazines?

A literary magazine—or lit mag—is any publication that focuses on literary or visual art instead of traditional magazine material. Their content can include fiction, non-fiction, and visual art instead of things like interviews with local businesses or news stories.

There may also be interviews with authors and book reviews, depending on what the publication likes to include in its editions.

Sometimes these magazines are privately owned and receive funding from ads placed by local businesses or lit-world clients. Other times, they find sponsorships from grants, subscriptions, or the universities where they founded their brand.

These are different from publishing houses because they’re smaller and focus on timely magazine publications instead of buying and selling books. They’re great resources for writers keeping up with the latest authors and indie magazines. Plus, you can build your publication history by submitting to their inbox when they open for submissions.

5 Things Literary Magazines Look For in Submissions

Every literary magazine will want something slightly different when they open for submissions. However, they often look for these key pieces in every submission because they’re signs of a talented writer.

1. A Story That Sticks With Their Submission Requirements

Literary magazines plan their editions at least a month in advance, if not more. They may create new editions based on a theme, a seasonal motif, or another connecting idea that pulls every story and visual design together.

Always check the submissions page of each magazine for their requirements. If a magazine wants to create a spooky edition for October but you submit a heartwarming historical fantasy story that has no spooky elements, you won’t get selected.

Requirements also include essential details like page length, word count, and formatting instructions. The editorial teams know how much time they have to read submissions and how much space they have for selected stories in their upcoming edition. Following these requirements makes you much more likely to get published.

2. A New Perspective

People don’t buy literary magazines to read the same stories over and over again. They’re looking for new perspectives and points of views in stories that have fresh ideas. The editorial team also doesn’t want to read the same types of stories every time they open for submissions.

You can bring a new perspective or twist on their required themes or story details by thinking outside the box to connect with your readers while bringing something fresh to the table.

3. Vivid Characters

It’s almost impossible to enjoy a story when the characters don’t feel real. You can avoid that by creating character profiles or outlines for your cast. Imagine their backstories or write scenes from the most important moments of their life.

Also, consider what they want from your story’s plot. What’s their goal? What will they learn? Vivid characters are dynamic, so they should grow into a different (possibly better, but not always) version of themselves by your story’s resolution.

It’s also helpful to use free online tools to create characters. I have a huge list on this blog post for generating their faces, mapping their world, and inventing other details so they feel like real people to you and your readers.

4. A Meaningful Purpose

You might write a story just to get published, but that might lead to a story that lacks meaning. Published short stories have some kind of meaningful purpose to make them matter to the editorial team and readers.

Your readers might learn a life lesson from your work or process some shared human emotion or experience through your characters. It’s helpful to consider a theme for your story before writing it so it always has a clear purpose.

5. Unexpected Plot Elements

Readers want to be entertained. Entertaining stories sell magazines. Remember to add a few unexpected plot elements or twists as you’re writing a story with the intent to publish it.

I have a few ideas in this blog post that might inspire you, but you can also create plot twists by shifting your perspective.

If a story has a character who stops to talk to someone in a crosswalk, your readers will likely assume they’re about to get hit by a car or pushed into traffic if the scene has rising tension. Counter their expectations by asking yourself, what’s the opposite of what they’re expecting? Your character might face an oncoming car with a distracted driver by lifting it over everyone as it’s about to crash into pedestrians. Maybe they learn how to fly or lie flat on the road as the car passes over them.

Purposefully thinking about what your readers will expect and choosing to do the opposite is a great way to add unexpected plot elements that also pique the interest of editorial teams.

When Do Literary Magazines Usually Open For Submissions?

Lit mags open for submissions throughout the year. Some are open most of the year while others are only open for a few weeks. It depends on how many editions they print and how many pages they have to fill within each edition.

You can find open submission periods on each magazine’s website. There’s usually a Submissions tab in their menu or a post pinned on their homepage outlining the submission deadlines. The same page or post will also detail what they’re looking for, specifications, and how they prefer to receive manuscripts.

How to Submit Your Writing to Literary Magazines

There are a few ways to submit your writing to literary magazines. First, it’s always crucial to double-check the magazine’s website to abide by the magazine’s specific rules. They almost always select one of the following methods, but the specifications will change with each publisher.

1. Submit Through Their Website

You can always start your search for submission opportunities by looking at each magazine’s website. I’ll walk you through the process.

First, I googled “most popular literary magazines.” You’ll see a range of options immediately on your screen. Places like The New Yorker are harder to get into as a new writer, but you can always review their submission requirements to take your shot.

[If you’d prefer, you could google “literary magazines for new writers” and find more beginner-friendly publications like these.]

I selected Granta as our example magazine. When you click on their “Submissions” tab, you’ll see the following:

Note the first Granta makes clear—they’re open to unsolicited submissions. That means you can submit your work via their website and not through your literary agent. Unagented writers should stick with magazines that welcome unsolicited manuscripts, since magazines that only work with agented writers will automatically dismiss anything from an unagented submission.

Next, you’d have to see if you can fit their submission fee into your budget. Granta offers financial help to low-income writers, which is great. Some places charge submission fees and others don’t. What you decide to do is up to you based on your financial capabilities.

Double-check that your work falls under their welcomed genres (non-fiction, fiction, and non-fiction proposals) before moving forward with their guidelines. 

Check the calendar! Is today’s date within their open submission periods? If not, make a note on your calendar to return when it is.

The last bullet point list is equally as important as what came before it. Editors need submissions which specific spacing, word count, text size, etc. to process submissions in a timely manner. These details also reveal what else they won’t accept, like book reviews.

This is the last thing on their page:

The submission system is within the Granta system. You’d click that link to enter their submission system and proceed with whatever forms and document files they need to complete your submission.

Many literary magazines and other publications use Submittable. It’s a site that streamlines submissions for editors and writers. You can’t create an account until you find a magazine that uses Submittable for their submissions.

When you do, you’ll have prompts to create your account while submitting your work. Afterward, you can bookmark your Submittable dashboard. It will have information like each publication you’ve submitted to, when, and the status of your submission. It’s incredibly helpful once you get started with it.

3. Send an Email

Some magazines have a small staff handling submissions (or other personalized reasons for preferring email). Their submissions page may have an email address for writers to use when sending their work in.

If this is the case, ensure that you’ve formatted your email according to any requirements, used the correct header label, and attached your work in their preferred document form.

4. Mail Your Manuscript

You may not find this very often, but sometimes magazines have options to mail printed copies of your manuscript when they’re open for submissions. If you prefer that method, get tracking information for the packet you send so you can ensure it arrived before the submission period closes.

You can also keep track of your mailed submissions with a homemade spreadsheet containing the same info as a Submittable dashboard. (The date you mailed your entry, the story you sent, the genre, the publication, the deadline for submissions, etc.)

Start Looking For Submission Opportunities

It’s also important to remember that you’re likely submitting a story alongside hundreds if not a thousand other writers. It depends on how popular or well-known the literary magazine is.

You can write a great story and still not get published because a big part of that experience is getting lucky. You have to hope the right editor who will appreciate your narrative style and story choices will be the one to open your submission.

Sometimes writers take years to get published. Give yourself some grace as you send your work off. Whether or not your stories get accepted, you’re still learning from the process and developing your writing skills. Eventually, your work will shine in the place it’s meant to be.

And if you want to polish your skills in the meantime, check out my free resources for writers of all skill levels. There are also weekly writing challenges to browse when you need some inspiration.

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