The 5 simple steps of: How NOT to submit to a magazine

You wrote the perfect story and it is time you ship it off to a publisher. Easy, right? Just slap that sucker in an email, paste (with CCs) a bunch of submission addresses and wait for the magic to happen! Wrong. So damn wrong (I’m taking Twain’s advice and replacing my “very”s with “damn”s.) that it can crush a first time author. What follows are the top 5 issues to avoid whilst submitting to a magazine.

#5 Email Etiquette

I am the EIC of Ricky’s Back Yard. We have our first print issue launching in July and the deadline for submissions is May 4th (Yes, I am a Star Wars geek). I cannot count how many submissions I get that ignore basic rules of email etiquette. I have seen things like ‘Dear Magazine’ and ‘Dear,’. Those are the authors who at least had the idea to put a salutation in the email. Some authors would simply write, ‘Here’s my story.’  No introduction. No set-up for the story. No sign-off. No chance of me reading the story, let alone publishing it.

#4 Guidelines? We don’t need no stinkin’ guidelines!

My magazine’s guidelines are so few, it is almost comical. Send us a pdf attachment. Make sure you let us know if this is submitted elsewhere. No more than X words. No poetry! I sincerely think I just summed up our entire submissions page. So, it is puzzling when I see authors attach docs (okay, I can overlook this and I have never rejected anyone for not using pdf, but it is an easy indication that you didn’t read the guidelines). I scratch my  head when people submit the one area of writing I explicitly state we don’t publish. It makes me darn right sad when I see people submit novellas with a note saying “Hey, I know this is more than X words, but I am sure you’ll like it!”.  As you will see below, editors really don’t have an awesome amount of time on our hands. We (staff included) read the first paragraph–tops–on a first read and that is for pieces that actually fit the criteria. Imagine how much we read of the things that don’t come close to what the submission call requests? Let me give you the super secret industry scoop answer:

As you will see below, editors really don’t have an awesome amount of time on our hands. We (staff included) read the first paragraph–tops–on a first read and that is for pieces that actually fit the criteria. Imagine how much we read of the things that don’t come close to what the submission call requests? Let me give you the super secret industry scoop answer:


#3 YTpad. I mean Typos.

I’ve said it before. We read the first paragraph on the first, and sometimes second, review of a story. That’s it. That’s all. If two editors don’t think there is merit in that introduction we usually reject it. (I do have an editor who reads every bit of everything but don’t expect this from most magazines.) If your first paragraph is full of typos, then this is an automatic red flag. The story you submit should not be a first draft (unless you are Mozart); hell, it shouldn’t even be your second or third draft. The story you submit should be polished to the point where it comes down to a matter of artistic taste for publication. Do not let typos get in the way of your success. I can overlook weak writing. I can even give suggestions to fix the writing of a piece; however, I can’t overlook typos filling a piece. If you cannot be bothered to press spellcheck, then please do not be bothered to press send on that email. Save editor–and yourself–a whole bunch of grief.

#2 Lying

Yes, that’s right–lying. How many times have I seen a previously published work sent in as a “first print” concept? So many that our publishing contract actually has a $1,000 fine for an author who is caught lying about their work. This is a very simple item to avoid. If your work isn’t your own–don’t send it out. If it is published anywhere else (you know that personal website of yours? Yeah, keep your stories off of it until AFTER you are allowed by the publisher to post them) then don’t send it to a magazine requiring first print rights. Not only do you make the editor of the magazine sad (which, in turn, makes a unicorn impale a kitten) but you are also ruining your own name. Who wants to work with an author that lies about his or her own work?


#1 Abuse

You’ve been rejected. It isn’t the end of the world. It will happen. It will happen a lot. A lot. A lot. Most of the time, when I reject someone,  I send out form letters. I feel dirty about doing it, but it is the necessary evil of running a magazine. If I do want to see another story, it means I really want to see another story. Maybe the story you sent wasn’t “it” for our staff at the time. Maybe we want to see more (we did end up accepting someone recently after rejecting the author’s original submission, so never give up hope!).

No matter our response, do not write back with abuse. I have received hate mail for the things I’ve written before, but the hate mail I get as an editor deserves its own box in hell. One author, after being rejected, wrote back for me to f— myself, f—- my associate editors and that the author would kill my lawyer if the author ever saw them.  Needless to say, that was forwarded to the FBI. Unfortunately, that wasn’t even the worst response by someone being rejected.

What the FBI found him doing…

There is Zero call/room for/tolerance of abuse. I’m not sure what in society changed to say “hey, it’s okay to make threats! It’s only online!” but I do not put up with this (nor should anyone else). You’ve been rejected. It happens. If you want, ask the editor Why–that’s perfectly fine. The editor, if he or she has time, should (hopefully) respond. I know I would respond to this in order to help out writers. We don’t get into editing for the money (aaahahahahahahahaha…money? In print?! Seriously? Ahahahahahahahaahahaha) but because we love the art. We want to help people. We want to give them a platform for their voice. We don’t want to hurt people. We don’t reject things out of a humbug (but maybe we read your story on ‘the wrong day’–it happens). We’ll help you understand our view and how to ‘fix’ your story if you ask. However, keep in mind, we are people. Treat us like people. You can be frustrated–it is natural to be frustrated–from a rejection letter, but don’t attract more attention for the abusive letter you write back than the actual story you were rejected on.


I will leave you with the following. A real rejection letter I sent out to a real author. I have removed the name and identifying material for fairness. Maybe this letter will explain a bit about your own writing and rejections. Maybe it will offer you guidance. Maybe not. I think it is worth a read though.


Dear ______,
I have reviewed your short story and, unfortunately, cannot offer it  a spot in the Cult issue. Usually, I send a form letter for this, but I wanted to go over a few things with you so you can have a better chance finding a place for your story.

The first thing I see for you to work on is your email. The email is (usually) the first (and sometimes only) contact with the editor. Introduce yourself and your work. “Dear __________, I am submitting my story, ________, to your magazine. It is about (briefly describe) and is approximately _______ words long.   Thank you for…etc.”  That is the basic bare bones of it all. Of course, if you can point out that you have read the magazine before (obviously not a strategy for our magazine since this is a call for first issue submissions) and why (you could do this for every magazine, first issue or not) you want to submit your story to that magazine, then you will have a better chance at making a connection with the editing team.

The second thing I notice about the email, and this is a lesser sin, is that you attached a doc file where the guidelines state to attach only pdfs for verbal text. This tells me that you didn’t read the guidelines. Furthermore, three editors are listed (one is for graphic art, so really two are of concern) but the email isn’t addressed to either of the verbal text editors or even a generic “Dear Editor”.  Again, this is your first contact with someone you are asking to publish your work. Make the first contact work for you.

As for the story, the first thing I noticed is a typo on the first line.  (You also have a typo in your address line, but I really couldn’t care less about that; however, the story itself needs to be a clean print.) Usually, unsolicited material gets read up to the first paragraph. That’s it. That’s all. You have the first paragraph (tops) to impress the first reader. Seeing a typo in the first line is a red flag for an editor and seeing additional typos (you have at least two more typos) will certainly close down any opening for publication.

The story is a skeleton.  Show–don’t tell. Character A does this or that. Show it. Show the process. Break it down. Take your time. Bring me there. Make me go “Oh my crap! Don’t do that! Get away from the _____!!”. The story, as it is now, is a skeleton. It has a basic structure but it is missing the sinew to hold it together; it is missing the muscle to manipulate the parts; and it is missing the flesh to protect the form.

My advice, and it’s free for a reason, is to re-write this story. Re-vision it into a true piece of horror. You can do it. It takes time, but you can do it. Make me feel blood soaked. Don’t say they are blood-soaked, but make me want to take a shower after reading the story.

I invite you to resubmit a re-visioned piece–don’t microwave the text–use a slow cooker. Let the meat fall from their bones. Remember, your plot line has been done (this is okay, what hasn’t been done before?) so you will have to put something into it that makes it jump off the page. Make it drip.

Remember, this is only one person’s advice. Take it. Leave it. Tell me “thank you” or tell me to “bug off”. It’s up to you. Either way, I wish you the best.


Dr Jo

2 thoughts on “The 5 simple steps of: How NOT to submit to a magazine”

  1. Dr. Jo,
    This has got to be one of the best articles I have read to date. What you have laid out and how you have explained things is off the chart. The rejection letter is so well done. Not only did I relate to what you were saying, but I think I actually learned something from it. (Go figure)

    I look forward to your rejections my friend.

    Best regards,
    Joseph E. Bishop

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