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4 Tips to Avoid Having Your Short Story Rejected by a Literary Magazine

Since the publication of Let’s Write a Short Story, I’ve been talking to a lot of writers about writing, publishing, and yes, rejection.

A writer emailed me the following passage from the book:

Another said, “I’ve never submitted anything. And after I hit submit, I wanted to hide under my blankets. I still do.”

Submitting is hard.

“That’s exactly how I feel!” he told me.

Every writer faces the possibility, nay the probability, of rejection. So what can you do about it? How can you avoid having your short stories rejected by a literary magazine?

Here are four tips:

Fail

Photo by Chris Griffith

1. Write the Best Story You Can

At AWP last year, the editor of a literary magazine told me to, “Write the best story you can,” after I asked what would improve my chances of being accepted. This is the most annoyingly worthless kind of advice. “Ok, well, what is a good story? How do you define a good story? How does your definition differ from mine?” Useless.

However, the question people most often ask me is, “How do I know if my short story is good enough or even finished?”

The best thing I can recommend is to show your short story to a group of trusted readers. If your trusted reading group likes it, send it. If they mostly like it but have a few issues (especially if the issue is with the ending), consider tweaking it. If they unanimously hate it, go cry in the bathroom and then write another story.

2.. Find the Right Fit

It’s common to think if you’re story is good enough, any literary magazine will accept it. However, editors say they read hundreds of interesting, well-written stories which they reject because it wasn’t the right fit for their magazine.

If you want to avoid rejection, do your research. Read two editions of twenty literary magazines and take notes. It’s a lot of work, but you’ll save yourself the pain of a lot of rejection.

Here’s a list of forty-four literary magazines to start with.

3. Follow Standard Formatting

Literary magazine editor’s work long hours and are severely underpaid. Standard formatting makes their life easier by ensuring that everything at least looks the same. You don’t want to turn an editor off before they even start reading because you used Comic Sans.

We go into depth on how to format your story according to standard manuscript formatting in Let’s Write a Short Story, but another option is to pick up a copy of Scrivener, which will do all the hard work for you.

4. Embrace Rejection

Some of you quit writing when you were young because an adult criticized you. While talking to other writers about the book, I’ve heard a few horror stories. For example, one new friend told me he quit writing fiction because a teacher had written, “Too conversational,” at the top of his story.

I’ve been there, too. When I was a junior in high school, a writing teacher scolded me in public over an article I wrote. I still don’t think I’ve gotten over it, and the experience turned me off of journalism, and writing for other people, for years.

My greatest fear as a teacher is that I’ll be the star of one of those stories, that someone would give up on writing because of something I said. It reminds me of something Jesus said, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.”

However, if you’ve given up writing because of something a teacher said, it’s time to take ownership of your writing and embrace your fear. If you want to be a writer, you will be rejected. There’s just no avoiding it. Sorry. The question is not how to avoid rejection, but can you embrace yourself if you’ve been rejected?

Rejection will not change your identity. It doesn’t make you a bad writer. It doesn’t mean you won’t be published someday. But it might mean you have to work harder.

It’s up to you. Are you willing to do the work?

What do you think? How do you avoid rejection? Is it even possible?

PRACTICE

Get rejected. Today.

Submit something to a literary magazine or writing contest that you’ve shelved away. Send something that you’re not sure about to a group of writing friends and ask them to give you honest feedback.

Take a risk and embrace your fear. It’s the only way you can improve.

That’s all. Happy Monday.

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • Brian Hoffman

    This is excellent advice.  First, Scrivener is great.  One feature that is important to me is the ability to save a photo with my character profile.  I actually cast my characters using pictures from the web.  This feature makes sure my characters don’t change hair color in the middle of the story or other continuity errors.

    I’ve been holding a short story for a couple of weeks.  I’ll send it today.  Thanks for the motivation.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      YES! I’m so glad you’re going to do it, Brian. Let us know how it goes, okay?

    • http://www.yvettecarol.com/ Yvette Carol

      That’s a really good idea, Brian. I did exactly that in this WIP, changed eye colour a few times. Eeks!

    • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

      I keep a list of characters and locations in a word doc. I’ve pasted pictures of houses alongside the description for that same reason. I like your idea of casting your characters. Scrivener sounds like a pretty impressive tool!

  • http://kinswomans-pursuit.blogspot.com/ Casey

    It is probably time to take some of my short stories out of cold storage and start revising them.  It won’t do to send them out as they are.  I do have one story that is as complete as I can make it, but I’m pretty sure that it doesn’t qualify as literary.  But I should probably start making an effort to find it a home.

    I’ve also had a bout of fear about submitting again.  Doing it a few times has not made the thought of doing it again any easier.

    I’m really looking forward to your book, Joe.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      You’re so talented, Casey, that it would be a shame if you let you’re writing go unread. There are certainly literary magazines that don’t publish “literary” writing. If you want, send me your story and I’ll see if I can’t think of someplace. (Or I’ll just ask Mariane. She knows so much more about magazines than I do.)

      • pacunlaRhodalyn

        hello joe bunting you”re so talented ,casey,that ,it would be if you let you’re writing go unread …..

    • http://www.yvettecarol.com/ Yvette Carol

      I know what you mean, Casey. I’m the same, I keep writing, and adding to the pile, and forgetting to get them out into circulation. :-)

  • http://www.ordinaryservant.com/ Pilar Arsenec

    Embrace rejection… hmm… still have to work on that one I’m afraid. :)

    • http://twitter.com/JasonZiebart Jason Ziebart

      Think of it as the literary translation of Proverbs 27:17. 

      • http://www.ordinaryservant.com/ Pilar Arsenec

        You are the best, Jason.

  • http://profiles.google.com/andilit Andrea Cumbo

    “At AWP last year, the edi­tor of a lit­er­ary mag­a­zine told me to,
    “Write the best story you can,” after I asked what would improve my
    chances of being accepted. This is the most annoy­ingly worth­less kind
    of advice.”

    I actually think this is brilliant advice.  So often, we think there’s a trick or a formula to getting our work read, but there isn’t – we just have to write well. Sure, good is different for everyone, but if we do the best, the absolutely best writing we can do, then if we are rejected – and we will all be rejected if we send work out – we can move forward knowing we have done our best. 

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      You would know more than me, Andi. However, I do think it was a bit unnecessary. I wasn’t planning on writing a bad story.

  • http://twitter.com/MarlaRoseBrady Marla Rose Brady

    good stuff!  Finished the book this weekend, loved it.  Thank you again!

  • http://www.wildhorsechase.com/ Missaralee

    Scrivener is fantastic, worth every penny! I started using it on a free trial and now I’ve organized all my notes from two novels using it’s notecard outlines. The structured approach is helping me to figure out whether I shouldn’t just turn the notes into a series of short stories like Cory Doctorow’s Overclocked rather than traditional novels.

    • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

      Scrivener sounds like a pretty impressive tool. I can use all the organizational help I can get, I’ll have to check it out!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Ha great idea, Sara. :)

  • August McLaughlin

    Practical and inspiring tips, Joe. Rejection really is part of the game, and it can strengthen us if we allow it. Every time I got a “pass” reply to a query letter, I knew it was one ‘no’ closer to a ‘yes.’ And it only takes one ‘yes’ to launch us from one level to the next. If we receive the same feedback from multiple publications, it’s worth considering—and any feedback shows that the publication, editor, etc., sees potential and strength.

    The only “failure” for writers I believe in stems from giving up or giving in.Thanks for this post! I’ll share the link with my freelance writing tribe over at WANA. Cheers. :)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks, August. So good hearing from you.

  • http://www.cowpasturechronicles.com/ Sheila Good

    Thanks Joe, 
    I tend to hoard my stories but I’m taking your advice, and I agree Scrivener is a great tool.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Do it, Sheila!

    • Li

      It looks like they haven’t made a version of Scrivener for iPad…too bad it sound great.

  • http://www.yvettecarol.com/ Yvette Carol

    Dear Joe, yet another quote for the Great Quotes file, thank you! Nice job. I can’t imagine how a story you’ve written would ever be rejected, you’re just so good, however, there you go. This is it. Rejection touches all of us, no matter how great we are. And I thought your words, it’s not whether we’ll be rejected but how we embrace ourselves when we are, that were sheer poetry. Such a sweet way of putting it too. I like that. We all need help in the acceptance dept! I read about an Australian author some years ago, who said that even with numerous books published, he still would have books rejected. In the end, he grew so tired of the submission/rejection process that he took the plunge and started his own publishing company (still going strong too, I hear). The rest of us, who don’t want to start our own companies, or in some other way self-publish, must still walk the long & winding road. 

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Yvette! Trust me though, if you saw some of the stories I’ve written, you’d reject them too :)

      Good wisdom, Yvette. “Rejection touches all of us.” Well said.

  • ms v

    Well, I did it. Sent off my first piece to a competition. The chicken version of embracing rejection — if they don’t like it, I won’t win but they also won’t tell me what they hated! Been reading your posts for a while now and have used some of the exercises. All good, all appreciated.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I’m so glad you did, Ms. V! Exciting! Let us know how it goes, okay?

  • http://forgottenflix.com Joel G. Robertson

    Great post Joe! I could relate, ahem, *cough* to the example about the teacher referring to the writing as “Too conversational.” ; )

    In hindsight, it seems such a silly thing, but it affected my view of myself and my writing for years. Of course, it wasn’t the only incident contributing to my writer’s malaise, but for some reason, it’s always stuck with me. 

    I love your idea to “embrace rejection”! As one who spent years (and I do mean YEARS) not putting myself “out there” for fear of being rejected, there’s a strange satisfaction in the idea of not avoiding rejection, but accepting and growing from it. I really love that! 

    Keep up the great work inspiring others and I look forward to learning more from you and your community of writers!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      You’re an inspiration, Joel. We’re all wounded. Heros get up and keep going.

  • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

    I’ve just sent my novel off for her first round of editing. Now I have time to start practicing the art of the short story! Actually I’ve already started one that I’m really excited about, we’ll see where it goes. I was thinking about publishing it in installments on my blog. Is that a problem if I then decide to submit it for publication?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      No way! Congratulations, Beck. I had no idea!

      Good question about the installments. It depends on the literary magazine, really. Some don’t mind as long as it hasn’t been published to more than 5,000. Others want to have it first, no matter what. However, for all of them, the rights eventually revert back to you, so you can always post it afterward, if someone accepts it. My suggestion is to send it to close readers rather than post it on your blog. Then, after it’s published, post it on your blog with the added authority boost that it was validated by a lit mag.

      • http://beckfarfromhome.blogspot.com/ Beck Gambill

        Thanks Joe! I’m excited about this stage in the book process. I hope to start looking for an agent when I get back from Serbia this fall.

        Thanks for the advice. I’ll see where the short story path takes me!

  • tamyka

    I get over my fear of rejection by occasionally sending a contribution to a student magazine that suffers from a lack of submissions. It concerns me that editors seem to like my poems but hate my short stories. Targeting appropriate publications is made more challenging in Australia by the way so many of our magazines say they will select a theme once the submissions come in… right. They even do this when it’s their first edition. So who knows what they’re looking for?

    One of my short stories just went out to a critique group of complete strangers, but it’s part of a course I’m doing, and the critique session will be facilitated, so no matter how harsh they are, I trust that they will be fair. And I will keep in mind Joe’s advise to ‘go cry in the bathroom’ if they unanimously hate it, which is very possible (as it has already been rejected).

  • Michi Lantz

    Good post and advice! I recently submitted a short story in a writing contest for a magazine. The winners (1, 2, 3) will be announced in Sept. Ahhh, the mixed feeeling of excitement and the urge to vomit the second I hit the submit button. I found myself thinking a lot about the “verdict”, having dreams about my writing (which is good) that turned into subconscious expectations (which is not good!). So I decided to let go. I have written a good story (according to my trusted group of critics) and I have done my best. But it’s out of my control now. I see it as even if I don’t “win” and get published, I still consider myself a winner. I wrote, I submitted, I crossed the finish line. So I have started to write a novel. When I get stuck…I get back to write short pieces. Who knows, maybe one of them will be good enough for submission. So I agree, embrace rejection, because it’s all part of the equation. :)

  • http://www.ordinaryservant.com/ Pilar Arsenec

    However, I will say I was rejected recently.  I submitted something for a contest at a writer’s conference.  Of course, I didn’t win. I sat there as they called the winners, and I was sincerely happy for them. I felt a twinge of sadness, but then I said to myself, “hey you, this is the first time you ever submitted anything in your life, so get over it will ya.” And I mysteriously felt better. :)

  • Michelle Woollacott

    Hi I’m Michelle, a writer and nanny new to blogging. I’m looking for great blogs to follow. This one seems right up my street. Any similar recommendations?  Thanks, Michelle

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Hi Michelle! 

      Welcome to the wide world of blogging! Good for you for getting started. 

      Yes, there’s tons:

      goinswriter.com
      copyblogger.com
      wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com

      Those might be enough for a good start. :)

  • Puffy

    I actually don’t have much of a problem with rejection because my mom always said that even if I become the greatest writer I can be, there will ALWAYS be someone better than me. So, I assume that I was rejected because the winner of the contest or the guy getting published was better.

    However, my problem is that I’m too much of a perfectionist. When I’m just writing for fun in my top secret Word Documents which nobody dares touch unless they have a death wish, I usually don’t mind the imperfections. (Emphasis on “usually.”)

    But if I’m showing my work to somebody else, it’s a different story. One moment, I think it’s my greatest masterpiece and can’t wait to show it to my friends. The next, I spot every single error and think it’s a bunch of garbage.

    Well, that’s an attitude that came from not showing my stories to anyone but my brother for five years. Trying to get rid of it though :)

  • Pingback: 17 Reasons to Write Something Now

  • http://www.raidahshahidil.com/ Raidah Shah Idil

    This is a great post! I’m a strong believer in the fact that you can’t escape rejection – in life, and definitely in writing. Coping with rejection builds writerly resilience…but I do agree that doing your research makes acceptance far more likely. If you don’t try, then you won’t get rejected, but you won’t get anywhere either!

  • Li

    I have enough internal rejection coming at me to make anything impossible. I’m trying to work through that by participating here. It’s a safe way to get feedback, good and bad, and try unusual writing excersizes.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      That’s funny. We usually say “anything possible.” I like how you’ve reversed it.

      I’m glad you’re here, pushing through the discomfort, Li. :)

  • http://twitter.com/JewelsCat Giulia Esposito

    Wonderful advice Joe. I’ll have to keep this in mind for the future :)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Giulia.

  • http://twitter.com/ThePressingPen Salmon Ammon Cheney

    The quote you shared from Stephen King “The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.” says it best. In fact my psych prof just informed me that a journal rejected his research article and I shared this with he and the entire class. A rejection is proof of the effort you have made; it is proof that you are a writer because no published writer is without the prerequisite documentation of a rejection letter. I internalized this further with rejection I have received from graduate programs. I ended up being accepted, but only after finding myself beaming over a small stack of rejection letters. :)

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Thanks Salmon. I got a stack of those recently, too. There’s always something to push through on.

  • http://www.ipaintiwrite.com/ Pamela Hodges

    Great article Mr. Bunting. I will write the best story I can.

  • Mikaela

    3Elements Review is accepting fiction and poetry submissions! http://3elementsreview.com/submission-guidelines.html

  • Sahba

    Hi
    It is really helpful i was thinking about translating this to persian ,my first language !
    Sahba1hosseini@gmail.com