Getting published is like a game of snakes and ladders. One wrong step and you could be back to square one. It is important to know what an editor is looking for and meet those requirements. That’s how you can form a winning strategy and reach your goal of getting published.
A Submissions Checklist for Writers is a great way to not miss anything. Different types of publishing need different checklists: One for submissions to literary magazines and another for publishing houses.
This Submissions Checklist for Writers to magazines is your perfect guide to this goal.
Introduction to a Submission Checklist for Writers
Writing isn’t always a stable career but editing and making your work the best it could be can help you become a published writer.
I have worked for major literary journals and magazines as a guest editor and reader, and I will be putting my knowledge to work in this post by telling you everything an editor looks for. Whether you write short stories, essays, book reviews, poems, or novels, editing will always be a part of writing.
Editing doesn’t end after you finish writing either. It’s an ongoing process that you would have to do until publication.
Submissions Checklist for Writers – 15 points to remember
- Use of language
By language, I don’t mean the native language of a group of people from a specific country, but the use of language components. Language can be defined in a multitude of ways by a multitude of people, but to make things easier, Let’s look at the definition of language from the Oxford dictionary:
Understanding and using language expertly is essential to bring your story to a better standing in the slush pile (slush pile is the unsolicited submissions that are sent to publishers).
A language is a tool you wield to master your craft. It’s difficult to write when you aren’t sure of the tone and language of your piece.
Employing different elements of craft like description, repetition, metaphors, and similes could help bring your story depth and make it more interesting. You should edit your story by keeping in mind the language you use throughout the narrative. It’s important to only use elements of the craft you know how to use and to only break the rules after you learn them.
The plot and narrative should never have any inconsistencies or plot holes. For example: if there’s a character called Arun but in the story, you go back and forth between referring to him as Arun and Darun (it happens more often than you’d think), then it gets confusing for the readers and editors. A lot of the time inconsistencies in the story come from plot holes.
For example, there’s a character that you mention died when the narrator is fourteen, but then, later in the story, you mention that that same character died when the narrator was twelve. This creates issues with the narrative and makes it harder to follow the story.
The story needs to be free of inconsistencies unless it’s an unreliable narrator, and it’s clearly done for the purpose of the narrative. Unreliable narrators (a narrator whose version of the events of the story isn’t believable or might not be true) are very interesting, but you should make sure your narrator comes across as unreliable, and not just as mistaken or wrong.
It’s not always easy to get it right, but editing can greatly help with this. For starters, re-read your story, and see where that takes you.
- Sentence structure
Sentence structure isn’t as important as removing plot holes, but it’s more important than correcting typos. Correcting typos for instance matters, but not so much that it hinders your chance at publication. Most editors can overlook a few typos (but more than that, it would seem like your story wasn’t well-edited, and that’s not a good thing).
Sentence structure directly ties into writing style (which we’ll talk about a little later) and it has to work in sync with the rest of the piece to make sense. By sentence structure, I mean its definition, which is:
Sentence structure isn’t always just about grammar though, there’s more to it. It’s about the way you craft each sentence and the way it serves the story (when it comes to creative writing).
Editing is hard enough as it is but looking at every sentence and correcting every word can be a hassle, but it’s imperative for your writing to improve. Editing can be a great teacher of writing, and you should focus on the various elements of craft and grammar as you edit the sentences in your story.
The meaning of the plot is simple. By definition, it’s the series of events that form the story of a novel, film, etc.
The plot of the story doesn’t have to be planned ahead, but it has to be something that the readers can follow, especially in longer novels. It’s not always easy to keep track of all the scenes, but it is important to make sure you know where all the scenes lead and the crux of the entire story while also knowing what each scene entails as you edit.
The plot line of the story doesn’t have to be linear, but it has to make sense (obviously). In the entire sense of the story, it should matter where the characters are and their actions, and it shouldn’t just be filler scenes (scenes that don’t serve the plot but are in the story for no reason).
The plot line doesn’t always have to be clear, but it has to be consistent with the story and create a cohesive narrative. Your plot shouldn’t have inconsistencies and should always make sense in the larger context of the story. Re-reading and writing down all parts of the plot you remember can help make sense of the entire narrative and make it easier to edit the story later on.
- Craft of storytelling
The way a story is told makes all the difference in the larger context of the narrative. A story can be told by a frog or a human, a prince or a fairy, it could essentially be told by anyone. There’s a lot of freedom when it comes to storytelling, and that can be scary for many. You should pick a narrator that makes sense for the story, and then choose the scenes and craft a plot. It’s a lot. It can also be very fun if you focus on what you love about it.
Storytelling is an art, and you must prioritize different elements of it at different times to be able to write in the way that best suits the story. Some stories are plot-focused and others are character-focused. Most of the time, genre fiction (romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction, horror, etc) are plot focused and literary fiction (books like God of Small Things and Girl, Woman, Other) is character-focused.
You should figure out if your story is plot-focused or character-focused or both, and then edit it accordingly before you send it out to magazines that accept your specific kind of story. It’s important to only send your writing to magazines that accept your kind of writing as it makes the editors’ job easier while also protecting you from the inevitable rejections.
- Structure of the story
The structure of the story is closely connected to the plot line of the story, but it deserves its own point. A narrative can be linear (each scene is connected to the next and the one before) or disjointed (each scene is not connected to the next or the one before, and can sometimes be difficult to follow), and both are great in different ways, but it’s important for the structure of the story to serve the narrative.
Each story has a specific structure, and the writer should always be aware of that as they write. It is very important to be aware of the kind of story you are telling when you edit.
Writers should always know more about their story than anyone else, and it is important for you to know the way your story will progress, and what it means to the story as you write it. The structure of your story can be further worked on as you edit, and it doesn’t need plotting (the act of determining, forming an idea, and creating the scenes of a story before you actually write it). The best stories have a structure that feels natural for the story, and that serves the story in its best form.
A disjointed narrative is in no way lesser than a linear narrative, but it is harder to get it right. Most stories follow a linear narrative, but you should always do what is best for your story, and you’re the only one that knows that.
- Timeline (if specified, and if not, the lack thereof)
The timeline of a story doesn’t always have to be specified, and the dates don’t always matter, but a story happens at some point in time, and acknowledging the passing of time can make it easier for a reader as they read the story. The lack of a timeline isn’t a disadvantage to the story, and if done well, can come across as a great addition to the rest of the narrative.
It’s important to be aware of your story’s timeline as you write though as the timeline helps shape the events of the story unless it is speculative fiction (horror, science fiction, fantasy, etc).
This isn’t a hard and fast rule though. The important thing about time is the passing of it, as that matters more in the context of a story. The passing of time can be directly felt by the reader, and you don’t have to denote it in hours or months but adding transition scenes (short scenes that take the reader from one important scene to the next) can help a reader discern the time.
The lack of a timeline isn’t always done well, and needs more attention and focus for it to be done in a way that suits the story, so you should be more careful when writing stories without a timeline. The passing of time is easy to acknowledge and the story can benefit from that (even a simple season change is an acknowledgment of the passing of time).
Checklist for Writers
- Writing style
Opinion on the writing style is very subjective, so take this with a grain of salt. I recommend you only submit to magazines and publications that frequently publish prose and poetry on topics or themes that you write about. Some magazines are genre-based and your writing style will affect the way the genre of the piece will be perceived for that specific story.
Every editor and reader has an opinion on the writing style that they prefer to see in submissions, and I think writers shouldn’t worry about how editors see their work and focus on how they see their work. People don’t always look at our writing the way we want them to, and that’s fine.
You should write something that’s authentic to your writing style and make sure editing doesn’t wipe away the authenticity. Focus on everything you like and dislike about your writing style, and work on making the best parts of your writing shine.
The writing style is an important thing that editors see, but don’t worry if yours doesn’t seem unique enough. Most of the time, it doesn’t matter if a specific story isn’t the most unique piece out there, it just matters that your writing style is polished and serves the narrative of the story. Hone your craft and make it shine.
- Word count
Word count is very important when you submit to literary magazines. Most magazines have a specific word count limit and others look at the length of every piece they publish. Longer stories have a harder time getting published as a lot of the time, they don’t keep the attention of the reader till the end.
The other thing is space, most print magazines run on limited funding, and cannot always afford to print longer stories, and accepting longer stories means less space for the rest of the stories to be published.
That doesn’t always mean it’s easier to publish flash fiction. Some magazines do not accept flash fiction – it isn’t always captivating and doesn’t always tell an entire story in such a short space.
It’s very difficult to write flash fiction, and you need to make sure whatever you write, it needs to be well-edited before you send it out to magazines as a lot of the large magazines have less than a 1% rate of acceptance.
It’s difficult to get published, and you should make sure when you submit that your submission doesn’t cross the length restrictions of the magazines you submit to. Edit your writing to make it shorter or longer, but the length of the piece should always serve the story, and you should remember that.
- Research (or lack thereof)
Research is an important part of writing, you wouldn’t want to make the mistake of getting the states of a country confused or mistaking one culture for another. Writers can be misinformed too, which can make researching a lot harder as you would have to tackle your biases and focus on the facts. Research can take different ways, it could involve you searching for a specific thing, or thinking about the environment of your scenery in detail.
Research also doesn’t have to be boring. Reading books is a great way to research, and look into the different aspects of what you want to know as books can be very detailed. Picking a book on the other hand can be difficult. You should look at the synopsis to determine if the content of the book would be right for researching before you use it to research.
Closing your eyes, and thinking of the different aspects of your story (magic, scenery, characters) can also help you learn more about your story and have a deeper understanding of your characters. Most stories require both types of research, and it’s important for your research to serve your story.
A mistake that a lot of emerging writers do is that they info-dump all the research they did into the story. Know that most of your research won’t make it into the narrative, but do it anyway as it is important for you to know your story more than anyone else. The research will help you stay authentic to the story without being offensive to any culture or group of people.
- Cultural validity and Stereotypes
Culture is a huge part of a person’s journey and life and getting that mistaken in your writing can end up getting your work rejected. It’s not always easy to research a culture you don’t know of, but cultural validity isn’t just about research, it’s about who can write about what culture.
There’s a lot of conversation going on around the topic of who can write about what culture, but as writers, we are used to writing and reading about cultures different from our own. That’s not a mistake, art doesn’t have to be restricted, but there are things that people outside of a culture do not understand.
Everyday life, for example, differs by country, and we need to be careful how we portray a character’s family and everyday life. Stereotypes are rampant in the media, and as writers, being careful about what you write and making sure your biases don’t affect another culture are very important.
Showing a culture through the lens of stereotypes makes me (and many of the editors I’ve worked with) feel as if the piece isn’t strong as it affects culture and a specific group of people. It takes research and careful examination of our biases to write a character that doesn’t belong to our culture, and writers should always be mindful of that.
- Offensive or not, and the way it challenges the conventions
I have read a lot of stories submitted to literary journals, and most of them aren’t offensive in a direct way, but there are some stories that can be very offensive to the reader. Writers have to be mindful of who we’re willing to offend, and who we shouldn’t, which in this case translates to never be offensive to historically marginalised and discriminated people.
It’s a definite no from me and most editors when a writer’s work centres around hurting historically marginalised people. If you’re going to take anything from this post, then remember to be mindful of who you are offending.
There are several ways to do this: look at articles by historically marginalised people about things that can be offensive to them and learn to tackle your biases, send your work to a sensitivity reader (a reader who reads your work and tells you everything that’s offensive and everything that isn’t), be self-aware as you write.
Writing can be difficult, and you wouldn’t want your work to end up getting rejected because of a mistake you oversaw. Offensive work often gets declined by literary journals as it can be very harmful to the people affected. Your work shouldn’t hurt anyone, so be mindful of that as you write.
- If it can stand alone as a unique piece
Every short story or poem or essay accepted for publication has to stand alone as a unique piece and should not need author notes at the end. Author notes are explanations left by the author at the end of a piece, and most publications do not accept that.
A story or poem shouldn’t need context or specific notes to understand it. It should be able to stand alone as a strong piece without the use of an explanation even if it’s an excerpt from a novel in progress. The prose should have a clear beginning and an end that doesn’t seem rushed.
The end should feel like an end, and not like the continuation of something longer (this rule doesn’t apply to experimental prose and to poetry in general as good poetry and experimental prose can have ends that seem like they aren’t truly ending or conclusions).
Your story should be strong without the help of an explanation. If the prose or poem couldn’t stand alone without endnotes, then the piece wouldn’t be considered for publication as most readers do not enjoy reading endnotes.
- Meaning and tone of the piece
The meaning and tone of your story matter a lot as every story or poem has a specific meaning to its narrative. The tone of your piece should always correspond to the meaning, they should work together to create a cohesive narrative.
The meaning of your story must be clear and the narrative must show the meaning and not merely tell it to the readers. Show don’t tell (the act of showing actions through words rather than telling them to the readers) really comes into play when we talk about the meaning and tone of a story. The narrative should show the readers the point of the characters or a third-person narrator telling the story.
Why are they telling this story now? What is the reason for this story to be told? Is the story important to someone in the narrative? There are a lot of questions you could ask yourself when dissecting the meaning of a story, and I recommend you focus on the tone and meaning when you edit and not just when you write.
It can be hard sometimes to discern the meaning of a piece, and if that’s the case, you should focus on finding the meaning and editing the story to bring the meaning of the story to the readers. The tone of the piece should also be clear. Who is telling the story? Why are they telling the story? Why are they the right person to tell this story? All of these questions can be answered as you reread your story.
- Follow the Submission Guidelines
Editors and readers are always aware of the submission guidelines as they read a piece, which means that you should never ignore the submission guidelines. It may seem pointless to keep your writing in 12-point font or in times new roman, but it’s important to follow the guidelines as it makes the long process of reading hundreds of submissions easier.
It will also help editors and readers make a quicker decision on your piece as they can read your writing in an easier way. Each magazine, journal, and publication has a specific guideline for submission, but I’ll list some of the most common ones below:
- 12 point font
- Times New Roman or Arial
- Double-spaced for prose and single or double-spaced for poetry
- 1.25-inch margins
- Page breaks for every additional piece (for flash fiction and poetry)
- Only one submission per writer (does not apply to contests)
- Submit in MS word, not as a PDF (if attaching)
You should also only submit to magazines that accept the length/word count of the piece you’re submitting as it’s an instant rejection otherwise. Most publications allow simultaneous submissions (the process of submitting the same piece of writing elsewhere while still in consideration at one publication), but some don’t, and you’d have read the guidelines for that too.
Following the guidelines can be boring, and most writers skim past the submission guidelines page, but to give yourself a better chance at acceptance, make sure to follow the guidelines.
In the end, writing has no rules, and you definitely do not have to follow these, but these tips make it easier to edit a story and bring it to publication. Publication can be hard, and I want you, as a writer, to know that it doesn’t always have to be hard.
Focus on writing and editing, and I hope you keep this Submission Checklist for Writers handy as you edit and then submit. Good luck!
Mrudhula is a writer focusing on fiction and poetry. Her work has previously appeared in Oyster River Pages and she’s a reader at Harvard Review and The Masters’ Review. She was a literary apprentice at BreakBread Literary Project and was the guest editor for Inlandia Journal’s volume XII teen issue. She’s been writing since she was six and she absolutely loves reading. The time that she doesn’t spend reading and writing usually goes towards her poring over history books.