I remember the first time I read a description of The Review Review. It was in Writer’s Digest’s list of the top 100 websites for writers. It was early on in my life as a submitting writer, and I remember thinking, “What exactly is this? A review of other reviews?” Now I wonder what writers did before Becky Tuch started the site, which serves as the online Bible for submitting writers. In this installment of my series on how to submit, the guru of literary magazines herself, Becky Tuch, talks about her own experiences submitting and what she’s learned from founding and managing The Review Review.
How do you know when a piece is ready to send out?
I always need to have a piece read by at least one person, if for no other reason than so that I won’t shame myself should it ever appear in print somewhere. But assuming you have had the piece read and you’ve gotten feedback on it and you have done all that you can to make the piece as strong as it can be, a piece is ready to go when you want it to be published. You should really, really want an audience for that piece at the time you send it out.
What’s your process for picking which literary magazines to submit to? Do you make a list? What resources do you use to choose where to submit (websites, fellow writers)?
I start with eight or so of the most competitive magazines within my aesthetic and then, when the rejection letters start coming in, I send the piece to a broader range of magazines.
I use my own site, The Review Review. I go through the list of magazines in the database, sorting by online magazines if I want to publish something online, or else just looking at everything.
Occasionally I respond to theme issues or submit to theme-oriented mags, as I think that’s a great way to break in. I had one short piece rejected by a bunch of magazines before it was at last accepted by a journal that focused on a particular theme relevant to that story.
Do you have favorite magazines that you go back to over and over again, even though you’ve been rejected, and what makes them your favorites?
Oh yes. There are some magazines that I simply would love to break into. I love what they do, who they publish. I want to be part of their cadre of contributors. I admire the prestige of the magazine and the reputation the journal has created over a long time. Very often I am seduced by layout—both print and online. Artwork does a lot for winning me over.
If a journal has a great reputation, looks beautifully polished, and I love the work they publish, then yes, I have and will submit to this journal over and over again (unless the journal has a policy against this.)
Are there certain types of magazines you avoid and why?
I avoid magazines, both online and print, that look sloppy. With online mags, I avoid those journals that look like they took about a day to throw together, and which might be taken down just as quickly.
Through The Review Review, I’ve also had the chance to meet and correspond with many editors. If I know an editor to be unkind or uncool in some way (and thankfully, so few are either of these things), then I won’t submit to that magazine.
I also don’t submit to magazines that don’t like my aesthetic. I wouldn’t say I avoid these mags, per se. I just try not to waste everyone’s time by sending in work that so obviously won’t be a fit for that market.
How do you feel about contests?
I love contests. I enter them as often as I can.
Some people don’t enter them, and I think that’s fine. It makes sense, as contest fees can really add up, and the competition is so high. But personally, contests have done me a lot of good. Contest deadlines push me to polish my work and send it off by a fixed date. I need that.
How do you feel about non-contest submitting fees?
I wish writers didn’t have to pay them. Likewise, I wish lit mags weren’t in such dire economic circumstances that they had to charge them. I don’t think anyone likes submission fees. No one is profiting from them, for the most part. They’re just an unpleasant dimension to market changes. If I can afford to pay, I do. If I can’t, I don’t.
Do you re-submit to magazines that have already published your work? Why or why not?
I haven’t yet, though I am not averse to this. There are a few magazines, particularly online, that simply have great platforms. If you have a piece of writing that you like a lot, that you think is funny or important or awesome or whatever, why not send it to the place that will give it the best space to shine, regardless of whether or not they have published you before? There’s also a lot to be said for cultivating long-term relationships with editors.
Will you edit a piece that’s already been submitted somewhere or do you stop once you send it out?
I often look at work that I’ve already submitted. Sometimes you don’t see what’s required until you send the piece into the world and imagine an actual professional reading it. Seeing it through that person’s eyes, you can see all sorts of things you missed before.
Would you say you have an overall, long-term strategy to how you submit, or is it more just fly-by-night, make it up as you go along?
I don’t have a very rigorous strategy. Basically, if I have a piece that I think is ready to go, I will look for magazines that I think publish similar work. Then I send it to those magazines. If/when it gets rejected, I send it to more magazines.
I don’t have files on this. I’ve never made a spreadsheet in my life. It’s all just written down long-hand in a notebook. When a piece gets rejected, I cross that journal out.
I could be better about this. I could be better about a lot of things.
How do you know when a piece should just be put to rest?
A piece should be put to rest, I think, when you move on as a writer. When you’re no longer interested in what the piece is saying, when the work no longer resonates with you. If you don’t feel excited about a piece or that there is some urgency to its being read, why send it out? I think it’s perfectly okay to let go of pieces once they don’t seem meaningful anymore. Not everything has to be published.
As the creator of The Review Review, what’s your sense of what’s generally most frustrating to writers about the submitting process?
The lack of information on one hand, and the abundance of choices on the other. There are thousands of lit mags on the market today. So many of them say “We want your best work” with little more explanation in terms of guidelines. Or else the editors implore writers to read the journal to get a feel for it before submitting. Though that’s good advice, it’s simply impossible for a writer to read every magazine out there. I started The Review Review precisely for this reason, to help writers winnow down their options to a cluster of lit mags that interest them. It’s hard for writers to know where to submit, or even where to begin reading.
I also think writers get frustrated with what seems to be an implicit power-dynamic in the process. I have a colleague who is always chastising me for using the word “submission” as he feels the word just reinforces this authority versus supplicant relationship. The process of “submitting” work and waiting for some perceived gate-keeper to vote yea or nay on it can feel very demoralizing. I think a lot of writers simply wish they had more agency and power in the process.
Has doing The Review Review changed the way you view literary magazines and the submission process and if so, how?
Oh my god, yes. For one thing, I spend way more time advising people on where and how to submit than on actually submitting!
I really have a much deeper understanding of lit mags now. I am so grateful for that. I truly feel that I have a grasp on the aesthetic of so many, many magazines. It’s a treasure trove of knowledge to have acquired over the past six years.
Also, I have been consistently amazed by how many people create cool little projects for no other reason than to celebrate certain kinds of work. I mean, sure, maybe it’s good for their careers or their resumes or whatever. But there are some seriously dedicated people out there, people willing to spend a lot of time and money just to create a showcase for, say, broadsides with nature imagery, or edgy essays about film, or international flash fiction…People just love making stuff and helping other people make stuff. I’ve always known that, but I’ve just been amazed at some people’s fierce and often obscure passions.
I also know editors now, and that’s very cool. To be able to put an editor with a magazine, to know that this editor has grandkids, that editor hates wintertime, those editors are all vegetarians, etc., just personalizes the whole process. Even simply knowing a name makes a difference, as the entire process feels more personal and, because of that, more meaningful.
What’s the record for the most rejections you’ve gotten on a piece that was eventually accepted somewhere?
I don’t really have one piece that I’ve submitted to a ton of places. Either a piece gets picked up or I kind of take a break from sending it around. But I did recently have a story rejected by several magazines that I really admire. I got discouraged about the story and stopped submitting it, period. I decided the story was amateur and childish and I just shouldn’t bother sending it out anymore. I took it off circulation, thinking it was destined for the garbage heap.
Then, a few months later, a national magazine called me to tell me it won first place in their 2013 fiction contest, which I’d entered the previous winter.
It was funny because as soon as that happened I looked at the story again and thought, “Oh, yeah, it’s a great story!”
And here I thought I was thick-skinned and all that. I guess the moral is that you’ve got to keep sending out your work, sending it out and sending it out, and never ever mistake rejection for an assessment of quality. (Sometimes it is, but very often it isn’t.)
Becky Tuch is the founding editor of The Review Review. She has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and The Somerville Arts Council and invitations to residencies at Ragdale and The Vermont Studio Center. Her fiction has won awards from Moment Magazine, Glimmer Train, Briar Cliff Review, and has been short-listed for a Pushcart Prize. Other writing has appeared in Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, HTMLGiant, Hobart, and elsewhere. She lives in Pittsburgh.
Robyn Ryle spends much more time than is probably healthy checking Submittable. She has short stories in Bartleby Snopes, Cease, Cows and Pea River Journal among others. You can find her on Twitter, @RobynRyle.