In Publish or Perish , Tony Tulathimutte dispenses subjective, unsolicited, and frankly sort of aggro advice on the practical aspects of a building a writing career.
If you’re reading this it’s too late: You’ve already read my last article about the different types of creative writing career paths. Now we’ll talk about submitting and pitching creative writing and freelance articles to journals, magazines, websites, contests, MFA programs, residencies, fellowships, and the dumpster. You’re about to get hit with a big damp sack of rules, cover letter templates, submissions resources, and gate-keeping arcana, but for starters, the two overarching rules of submitting your work are: Always follow the submissions guidelines, and don’t try to “stand out” in any of your submission materials, aside from the manuscript.
This will hurt.
It’s Called “Submission” for a Reason
As everyone knows, the most surefire way to get a story published is to be James Franco. If you are not him or his adorable underrated brother, then you should start by reading Lincoln Michel’s “ The Ultimate Guide to Getting Published in a Literary Magazine ,” which is 169 percent facts. As usual I’ve got more to add (more like penultimate guide hurk hurk):
Cover letters. Keep them short, informative, and uncute. Stylish cover letters don’t improve your chances of acceptance, but annoying ones might hurt them. All you need is a micro-paragraph to declare your submission, then a short bio (< 50 words) listing your best publications and relevant education. No need to mention your other careers, location, social media handles, or anything else, unless you’re famous for them. If you’re unpublished or lack writing credentials, don’t be all sheepish or try to inflate your resumé; just briefly state that you’re unpublished, or omit the paragraph entirely.
Your template, m’lady:
Dear Fiction Editor:
I’d like to submit my short story “Little Avocado Toast on the Prairie” for publication in Zoetrope . It’s about 5,500 words long. [If the guidelines require disclosing simultaneous submissions, do that here.]
My story “Dad Bod” recently won the Dimmer Train Fall Fiction contest. I’ve also written for McTweenies , Grampa , and The New Yonkers’ Sharts and Muumuus, and received a fiction MFA from Crippling Debt University.
Thanks for your time, Not James Franco
Anything extra risks irking the already unloved, underpaid slush pile reader. Back in the days of paper submissions, I once opened a folder and about a mouthful of glitter fell out. All over my keyboard and desk. All over my goddamn life. If you do that, I’ll murder you personally.
Form rejections. They blow, but once you get a few hundred of them (like I have, not exaggerating), you’ll eventually feel numb to your core, which is how a working writer deserves to feel.
Personalized rejections. These are four-carat diamonds. First, they’re flattering—an editor took time out of her day just to tell you she’s a fan. Second, and more usefully, your name is now in the editor’s head. Now, you’ll want to gauge how serious the praise is, so you can capitalize on it without annoying the editor. If the editor just wrote a few nice words, then you can refer back to it in a short line in the cover letter of your next submission. But if they write lots of praise, or explicitly invite you to submit more work, then you can try to flip that L to a W with a warm, personalized version of this email:
Hi [Editor’s Name],
I’m grateful for your considerate response. If you’re interested I could send you other stories, now or in the future; otherwise I’d love to hear about any other editors or magazines you think might be interested in this manuscript.
Thanks for your time, Not Dave Franco Either
Sometimes they’ll gladly look at more work; other times they’ll be too busy to jump the queue. If they give you a referral to another journal, you can mention that in your subsequent cover letter (“Jimmy Jameson over at Muffin Top Review said you might be interested . . .”), or ask for other stories, and all this boosts your chances of publishing something. You also don’t want to do this too often, because if an editor senses that you’re just spray-firing this email whenever you get a rejection, they’ll just chuck you. Still, I published like half my early short stories this way. If they don’t reply, then assume it’s a rejection, drive a hot pin into a voodoo doll, and take your story elsewhere.
Submission fees. Here’s why I don’t like story contests, even though I’ve won a few. They usually have steep submission fees, and all judging is arbitrary, so you’re basically buying a raffle ticket. Same goes for publications that charge ludicrously high submission fees—their business model is to take money from writers for the honor of getting a timely rejection. (This is why my lower back tattoo says NARRATIVE MAGAZINE’S $25 FEE FOR REGULAR SUBMISSIONS PREYS ON THE HOPES OF NOVICE WRITERS AND EXCLUDES THE POOR.) As I’ve said, publishing stories doesn’t do much for your career, so why burn the cash? A few respectable institutions charge smaller fees; personally I’d say never pay more than three bucks.
Full-length book manuscript contests should be a last resort. While “$4,000 and publication” sounds nice, it’s far less than most big publishers pay, and those publishers read manuscripts for free. For poets it’s different—poetry’s noncommercial status makes contests one of the more viable ways for emerging writers to get books published. Here’s a list of poetry book contests , which you can submit to once you’re done crying because life made you a poet.
Withdrawing. If your story gets accepted somewhere, you should withdraw it from anywhere else you’ve submitted to. Online systems like Submittable let you withdraw your story yourself; otherwise you’ll want to send this message to the same address you submitted to:
Dear Sad Broken Teacup Review Editor:
I’d like to withdraw a short story I submitted on 4/20, titled “Mrs. Dalloway 2: Clarissa Explains It All.” It’s since been accepted elsewhere. I indicated it as a simultaneous submission in the cover letter, per your guidelines.
Thanks for your time, Shia LeBeouf
Pitching Articles: or, How Not to Make Much Money
“It is true, I think, that these are times when the financial rewards for sorry writing are much greater than those for good writing. There are certain cases in which, if you can only learn to write poorly enough, you can make a great deal of money. But it is not true that if you write well, you won’t get published at all. It is true that if you want to write well and live well at the same time, you’d better arrange to inherit money or marry a stockbroker or a rich woman who can operate a typewriter.” —Flannery O’Connor, “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”
Ow! Yet the point of freelancing is not to compromise your art, but to supplement it. I’m going to show you how I submit nonfiction articles to magazines and websites. The major difference from submitting short stories is that you can pitch nonfiction—that is, propose articles you haven’t written yet.
Like the eternal punishment of Sisyphus, the work is absurd and exhausting, but simple. You can start either by thinking up an idea for an article and picking places to pitch it, or finding a publication you want to write for and crafting an idea targeted to it. I like the first approach, because you can usually pitch to several places. Before you email the publication’s editor, make sure they accept unsolicited pitches. If you can get a referral to an editor (say, by your agent, or someone who’s written for them), then you can introduce yourself that way, but more often you’ll be cold pitching.
Again, follow the submissions guidelines. In general, a pitch should contain a brief (< 250 word) synopsis of your entire piece’s argument, illustrated with examples. You’ll want to specify the piece’s length: Short pieces are usually around 800 words, medium ones are 1,200-2,500, and longform features are seldom over 8,000. Here’s one of my successful pitches for a Paris Review web piece, lightly edited to make myself look better:
I’d like to pitch a 1,500-word piece for The Paris Review Daily about fictional character names, and the strategies authors use to invent them.
I’ll start with Plato’s “Cratylus” dialogue, where it’s argued that names reflect character, like in Dickens. These days you can occasionally find “cratylic” names in ironic form (Mr. and Mrs. Bridge), or as allusions ( The Namesake ’s Gogol) and nicknames (Purity “Pip” Brown). But they’ve mostly given way to two camps: near-arbitrary “realist” names, and Pynchonesque absurdities. Names also get initialized (Josef K.), abstracted (The Judge), and withheld entirely. These share the same goal: to suggest as little as possible about the character, allowing readers to project onto them.
We also see names employed, sometimes offensively, as markers of gender, race, and nationality. And so, just as names can reflect a character, they can hint at the author—see the largely male tendency for writers to insert their own names (Marcel, Philip Roth) or allude to light (Hal Incandenza, Rabbit Angstrom, Chip Lambert). I’d end it with a brief mention of authors who have adjusted their own names for publication, short of using a full-on pen name—Saul Bellow, Defoe, Tennessee Williams—suggesting that authorial identity is subject to the same tinkering.
Short bio: My debut novel is Private Citizens , I’m a Stanford and Iowa Writers’ Workshop grad, and I’ve written for VICE, Salon, New Yorker online , Travel + Leisure, LARB , AGNI, Threepenny Review, and many other places.
Thanks for your time, Tony Tulathimutte
Most web editors are receptive and quick with responses, compared to literary editors—within a week, if they’re not swamped. It’s hard to catch print editors’ attention unless you’ve got an extensive freelancing track record, a published book, or fame; for print, you’ll want to pitch through your agent, if you have one. (I’ll cover agent-hunting in my next article.) Everything else you submit yourself.
If your pitch is accepted, the piece will be either “commissioned” or written “on spec.” “Commissioned” means that they’re committing to publish the article, assuming you file it before deadline and deliver on the pitch, and if they ultimately decide not to run it for whatever reason, they’ll offer you a modest kill fee. Writing “on spec” means they’re just inviting you to submit a finished piece, and the editor can turn it down as she would any other submission, with no kill fee. So even after all the trouble of writing a piece, you can still get rejected. But don’t despair—now you have a complete pitch and article in hand that you can submit to other publications, which boosts your chances of acceptance. If it gets turned down everywhere, you can shelve it and try to publish it in the future (if it’s not time-sensitive). If all else fails, you can publish it on a free platform like Medium, where it might at least draw some readers.
Be sure to know which places are looking for what kinds of writing. Many of the larger general-interest publications like VICE, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Time, Newsweek, etc. have “verticals,” or topic-specific departments: For instance, VICE has the women’s interest site Broadly, the video game site Waypoint, the music site Noisey, and so on. Other publications, like Travel + Leisure, Outside, and WIRED are entirely dedicated to specific audiences or interests.
No matter who you’re writing for, most places want writing in some way related to (or in publishing-speak, “pegged to”) current events and topics—a popular TV show, meme, scandal, etc.—or subjects of perennial interest: celebrities, politics, outrages, work, sex, drugs. At its worst this means thinkpieces, hot takes, and clickbait: 800 words of armpit-farting on a thought that should be a tweet. But most big magazines don’t prefer clickbait; they settle for it. You will probably default to writing with more style and polish than someone who’s used to churning a half-dozen takes per day, unless you suck. And not all places are looking for topical frippery: Truly dank lit mags like N+1, The New Inquiry, The Paris Review, Literary Hub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, most small journals, and this here Catapult specialize in inventive, stylish, and / or deep work whose quality and content take precedence over clicks. Most don’t pay much, though.
Some fair warnings:
—You rarely have any control over the headline, photo, or other aspects of presentation—you may not even know what they are before it runs—so be prepared to get criticized, for stuff you weren’t responsible for. Elif Batuman’s critical essay about MFA programs ran with the headline “Get a Real Degree”; you can imagine the cataracts of saline spilled over that.
—Most places don’t like interesting literary style and will edit your work into “clean and concise” house style. You can expect to have some of your bon mots shredded, but you can still try to bargain with your editor on things you think are important. Just don’t stet the small stuff.
—For all my PoC, female, queer, disabled, and other routinely shat-upon writers: Don’t be surprised when you face subtle pressure from editors to write “from your perspective,” especially personal essays about your trauma, and to see your takes on identity-based issues valued more highly than anything else you might care to write. Nothing’s wrong with writing about those things; just beware of the real likelihood of pigeonholing, tokenization, and angry tweets from strangers who only read the inflammatory headline that you didn’t write (“Why All Asians Are Better Than All You Other Ugly Stupid Idiots,” that sort of thing). Not that I know anything about that, frog emoji, teacup emoji.
—It is grotesquely common for publications to be disorganized, late, and even delinquent in paying freelancers. If it’s been a week since you published with no pay, send them a quick follow-up email asking what the status of the payment is; take an increasingly terse tone with each successive weekly follow-up. Don’t worry about being annoying—it’s those greedy cheats who are out of line. Some useful resources on payment include Who Pays Writers , an “anonymous, crowd-sourced list of which publications pay freelance writers—and how much,” and its vigilante cousin The Shit List , a similar directory of untimely payers; they note that “More than 70 percent of freelancers in New York alone report that they have trouble getting paid for their work,” and that “On average, freelancers were stiffed $5,968 in 2014.”
A Free Thing I Made for You and You’re Welcome
How do you keep track of the dozens of submissions you’ll make? With this Google spreadsheet template I made for you, because I love you, ya big dummy! You can use it to track which pieces you’ve submitted where, when you’ll hear back, what the status is. Submittable automatically keeps track of this stuff, but not every place uses Submittable, so I like keeping my own comprehensive records. The spreadsheet’s also got a starter list of publication info (for more exhaustive lists, check out the directories at Poets & Writers , Duotrope , and Literistic ), and a sheet for tracking your contacts: Agents, Editors, Recommenders, and so on.
See you next time. The article is over. Let go of my leg and get back to writing.
Sign up for Tony Tulathimutte ’s next Catapult workshop here.