A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Now or Later: Does it Make Any Difference When You Submit?

Recently a submitter to the fiction category mentioned this in her cover letter: I’m curious as to whether submission at the beginning or end of a submission period matters. It’s something I think about throughout each submission period, since it’s our goal to be fair to writers no matter when they submit. But as the reading period is four months, the process is subject to a variety of influences. Here’s how I handle the fiction for TLR. Keep in mind this is just me—I’m not speaking for the editors of other journals.

Since I read every submission myself, I have to stay on a schedule, which means reading almost every day of the period. As I read, I make notes on most of the stories, and I tab them for either a second round of reading, or for rejection[1]. At the end of the submission period I typically have about 30-40 short stories to read again. No matter when the story was submitted, if it’s good it will be read fresh at the end of the cycle.

But now the tough part: occasionally a submission comes in that’s so strong I know it’s a great fit for TLR, and I want to accept it right away. I worry that if I don’t, another journal may snag it before I can act. So now the considerations start: Is it so very, very good that I just have to have it? Do I really believe we won’t receive another story as good before the end of the period? What’s the chance another journal will take it first?

I have to keep in mind as well that every time I accept a story before the end of the period, that’s one less slot for publication open to submitters. Since we only have room to run 4-6 short stories in each issue, I have to be extremely careful not to close the door on writers who submit later. So I am constantly balancing the stories I would like to accept against the time left in the submission period. Experience has taught me not to accept more than one story before the deadline in order to ensure a decent opportunity for all submitters. That means I have to love a story before I pull the trigger early. And believe me, I’ve lost plenty of great ones to other journals.

Procrastination and deadlines also factor into when writers submit to journals, and I have to account for that as well. In a typical submission period, TLR gets a small rush when the categories open, and then submissions stay fairly steady throughout the period. But we get about 15 percent of our total during the last week, about 100 subs. When faced with that many submissions, it’s tempting to read and decide more quickly, but I don’t feel that’s fair to the submitters. Fortunately our submission fee helps keep the actual number of stories relatively manageable—100 subs are nothing compared to what some of the more famous journals probably get in their last week. And by reading nearly every day I avoid the backlog that would make binge reading and rejecting after only a paragraph or a page so tempting.

A lot of editing is learning to say no. Not just to submitters, but to myself. When we started the journal my tendency was to grab a great piece of writing as soon as I read it, because there was no guarantee we’d get many others. Three years in, however, and I’m usually faced with the opposite problem—more great writing than we can possibly publish[2]. I’ve learned restraint, but I’ve tried not to let the practicalities of curating lessen my love for great fiction.

But a lot of editing is also saying yes. Yes to the idea that every submitter is a person, a writer much like me, who’d like to believe that the editor reading the story is paying attention, and taking the time to evaluate the submission within the parameters of our stated guidelines. TLR charges a submission fee—higher than most journals—and I take that very seriously. Submitters are our customers, just as much as readers, and they deserve good customer service or they won’t come back.

So every time we publish, it’s a balancing act: the power of an individual story with the idea of fairness to submitters; the needs of the journal with the needs of the writer; the aesthetic of our readers with the diversity of offerings in the submission queue. It’s far from a perfect system, but to paraphrase a mentor of mine, nothing about writing can be perfected.


[1] My initial decisions are always reviewed individually before responding to the submitter; sometimes a second look changes my opinion.

[2] My tweets about producing a 300-page issue of only fiction are not completely in jest.

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Categorised in: business of writing, Fiction