Writers often wonder why their work was rejected. The answer is almost always obvious. After receiving more than 20,000 fiction submissions over the course of 8 years, I’ve seen every mistake a writer can make. I’ve also made most of them myself.

Editors complain about writers not following guidelines, probably because it’s such an easy and obvious thing to complain about. How hard is it to double space your story or save the file in a certain format? It shouldn’t take more than two or three minutes to get your manuscript laid out properly. If it takes longer, you should rethink how you format your manuscripts. Still, as often as editors complain about writers who disregard their guidelines, only a small fraction of submitters make this mistake.

‘You don’t have to send every piece out right away.’ Illustration by Josh Quick.

A more common mistake writers make is submitting without ever reading the publication. An editor can usually tell within the first page if the submitter has actually read some of the magazine’s stories. Quite a few submissions make editors say, “Wow, we definitely would never publish anything like this, and if the writer had taken ten seconds to read anything we publish, he or she would’ve known that.” It’s almost impossible to get an acceptance without knowing what the magazine publishes, but many submitters skip the content and head straight to the guidelines anyway. As common as this behavior is, it’s not the biggest mistake writers make when sending out their work.

Remember those 20,000 submissions I talked about before? Well, the vast majority of them were rejected because they weren’t ready to be submitted. They arrived in an unpublishable state. Certainly some of them could have been salvaged with a little proofreading. Others needed significant editorial work to become publishable. And a decent chunk of them were simply throwaway stories. Regardless of the specific issue, the overarching theme among these pieces was that they never should have been submitted in the first place.

That’s not to say they weren’t worth the author’s time or effort, but they certainly weren’t worth the effort of submitting to a lit mag. Submitting is an exhausting process. The time wasted looking for a venue and following the venue’s guidelines could have been better spent making the submission ready for publication.

This doesn’t apply to all rejected stories. Not even close. Many of the stories we rejected were publishable–just not by us. Remember, a lot of this is a matter of taste.

But the fact that many submissions aren’t ready to be submitted isn’t a matter of taste. It’s a matter of fact. Writers are often in too much of a hurry to get their work out there. They can’t be bothered to make it as good as it could be. Blame it on social media or the need for instant gratification. Whatever the reason, many writers think putting the final punctuation mark in place means it’s time to submit.

You don’t have to send every piece out right away. There’s almost never the need for a short story to be published instantly. It’s not breaking news. Sure, your story might have some timely elements based on current events, but good fiction is timeless. It doesn’t have to be published today to be relevant.

Aside from being a waste of time, this practice can also be detrimental to a writer. If one of those hasty submissions is actually published, your name is forever associated with a bad story.

It’s happened to me. Many times. I’ve submitted some really bad stories. And sometimes they were published. Looking back on it, I’m embarrassed by some of my published work, and I wonder how it has negatively impacted my writing career.

If you want a fighting chance at having your work published (while not looking like an amateur in the process), you need to make sure your story is 100% ready to be submitted. Not 99%. Given the fierce competition that exists in publishing today, you don’t have room for error.

So how do you know if a story is ready? Here are some signs you shouldn’t submit:

  • You haven’t read it over at least five times
  • You wrote it less than a week ago
  • You aren’t proud of it
  • You are contemplating sending it to an inferior lit mag because you are pretty sure they’ll publish anything
  • It started as a writing exercise and never really moved beyond that stage
  • It’s been rejected a dozen times or more with no positive feedback
  • You shared it with another writer and that writer didn’t enthusiastically tell you to send it out
  • It still has typos in it

Every bad submission you send out makes you less likely to ever be published by a specific venue. It’s your way of telling editors you don’t really care.

Only submit your best work. There’s no shame in having a hard drive full of stories that just didn’t work out. They don’t need to be submitted. And you don’t need to fill some arbitrary submission quota.

Even the best writers in the world have written their fair share of crap, but they don’t submit it. So you better hold onto yours. After all, you are what you submit.

Note: The opinions expressed by guest bloggers at the Submittable blog are theirs alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Submittable.

new headshotNathaniel Tower is a former English teacher who now spends his days as a content writer and brand strategist at a web design company. When not at work, he writes fiction and goes for long runs while juggling. He served as the managing editor of Bartleby Snopes literary magazine for eight years before closing the publication to focus on other literary pursuits. He is the author of Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands, a collection of surreal tales about married life published by Martian Lit in 2014. Visit him at http://nathanieltower.com/.

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  • Michaele Jordan

    Most of what you say is reasonable. But always read the venue first? There are hundreds of magazines out there, just in my genre. Many appear or disappear on very short notice. And it takes more than the 10 seconds you recommend to read a story (unless it’s flash.) It takes a long time just sorting through formatting rules as the formatting requirements do change from magazine to magazine. So do the length requirements, not to mention submission periods. It can take me all day–a day I should have spent writing–to read a whole story at every mag I am considering submitting to, and that’s assuming they offer a free sample, which many don’t. And many just say send us something we’ll love. I have one magazine I’ve been reading for years, and I still don’t know what the editor will love. (And neither does he, as he has admitted to me.) I read and try to stay within the general guidelines: Hard SF or SF/F, horror only or no horror, dark or positive, no erotica or fanfic or excessive gore. If the editors don’t give clear guidelines, reading one story in the magazine won’t help.

    • Nate Tower

      I know that reading is time consuming, but how can you know what to send, or even if you want to be published by a venue, if you don’t read what they’ve published before?

      Writers have to be readers. It’s impossible to be a good writer without reading a lot. It’s not like you have to read things you don’t enjoy. If you don’t like a story that a venue published, you don’t have to suffer through it. Move onto the next story. If you don’t like that one either, then the venue probably isn’t for you. Would you want your story published alongside a bunch of stories you don’t like? I sure wouldn’t.

      I definitely agree that editors should have clear guidelines. I don’t understand why an editor wouldn’t make the guidelines painfully clear. Clear guidelines save the editors more time than they save writers. Everyone wins when the guidelines are clear (except for those writers who choose not to read or follow guidelines for some reason).

      • Amagezi

        Michaele Jordan just wrote my mind. Rejection is no death sentence. I’d wager rejection ‘cos I didn’t familiarise myself with them archives than the grind of scouring every prospect to ‘get a feel’. No two art pieces can be the same. So how do I get my work which has gone to bed to conform with a mag’s aesthetic? And that is assuming aesthetic is capable of specificity. I love those editors who say ‘We don’t know what we want, but we know it when we see it.’ The perspective from the writer is different than the editor’s.
        However, the point about one’s piece being ready for submission is well made – and taken.

  • michael

    Here is the real problem for some of us—–we write comedy. For some reason you literary types think ALL humor is worthless and not worthy of any consideration. It is the tyranny of sadness. You want to win, and I am serious, just write dead baby story. No, make it TWO DEAD BABIES and you are sure to win. It is so easy to write some sad story or dysfunctional family story. Try making people laugh. You sad story writers CANNOT write humor, you do not have the intellectual capacity.

    • Nate Tower

      Michael, thank you for reading and commenting. As someone who mostly writes absurd, satirical, or downright bizarre stories (that aren’t quite bizarro), I feel your pain in finding the right places to send my work. As an editor, I despised dead baby stories. In fact, that was listed in our guidelines as a surefire way to be rejected!

  • Kelsey K Larson

    Thank you for this article, so helpful! I copied down that bulleted list on my writing practice doc so I will have to look at it every time I start something new 🙂

    • Nate Tower

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Kelsey. Glad you found the piece helpful!

  • Moreen Halmo

    Terrific article and encouraging rather than discouraging!

  • Dave LaRoche

    I like what you said, if only you’d said it more quickly. What I dislike, I’m an editor, is the wordy mouthing that bores even though ideas included are worth consideration. Think about that and trim.

  • Antonius

    yes, BUT SOMEONE ONCE told Dante according to Boccaccio’s requiem book, that that chapter he was playing with about the Italian version of Romeo and Juliette,Paolo and Francesca would never see the light of day, as unlike his scholarly works because it was written in Italian gibberish and not scholarly Latin. See, sometimes the middlebrow just dont know what they are talking about.

  • Dimitrios Otis

    Good article, straight up and with no weasel words.