[NOTE: This post was originally published to coincide with the launch of our youth folio submissions period in 2021. We’ve since updated the content to be more generally relevant to any occasion.]
There’s nothing we love more than the start of a new submissions period—we’re always so excited to see your poems and art! Because we know that this might be the first time some of you are submitting to a literary journal, we thought we’d take some time today to discuss our best tips for navigating the submissions process. The advice below is geared toward sending your work to Lantern Review, but much of it will also apply to other literary journals. (Just remember that every publication is different, so be sure to read the specific guidelines for wherever you send your work!) Whether you’re new to sending out your stuff for publication—or you just want a quick refresher—these four key steps are an easy recipe to help you get started.
Step 1: Get to know the journal.
Before you begin, it’s a good idea to research any journal you’re submitting to. Take some time to read through past issues if they’re available, and look at whom they’ve published in the past to get a feel for the kind of work they like. (At Lantern Review, you can read our current issue here and browse our archive of older issues here.) As you read, ask yourself: What themes does this magazine tend to be interested in? Is there a style of work that they seem to publish a lot? Have they published any work in the past that seems similar to mine? Are there any pieces they’ve published that I really admire?
The idea is to get a sense of whether your work would fit well with what the journal usually publishes—as well as which of your pieces the editors might be most interested in. (For example, if the journal hasn’t published any poems that rhyme in the past, and you have some poems that rhyme and some that don’t—then you’ll know that you should send only unrhymed pieces.)
So what kind of work do we like to publish at Lantern Review? We talk about this and other related topics in our Submissions FAQ (which we highly encourage you to read!). But here’s what we have to say about our magazine’s particular stylistic preferences:
We love poems that surprise and challenge us; that are musical and filled with vivid, concrete imagery; that play with language in new and interesting ways; that take risks; that have something distinct to say. We tend to prefer unrhymed, free verse poems. Note: we no longer publish translations. To get the best idea of what we publish, we encourage you to read through a few of our past issues.
[. . .]
For visual art, we’re looking for abstract photos and digital or traditional work in mediums like watercolor, oil, acrylic, lino or woodblock, or collage. We like to choose images that we can easily juxtapose with text, either in the body of the magazine or as cover art. We’re fond of moody or earthy color palettes, striking contrast, and interestingly textured play with shadow and light. As stated above, the best way to get an idea of the type of art we publish is to look at our past issues.
Other journals will have different preferences than ours, but regardless of where you’re submitting, it’s a good rule of thumb to take a poke around a magazine’s website or blog for any information about what they’re interested in publishing (tip: you’ll often find it tucked away on the “about” or “submissions” pages)—and then use that to help you decide what to submit.
Step 2: Read the guidelines. (Yes, really!)
It might sound like a no-brainer, but we can’t tell you how many submissions we receive that we unfortunately can’t review because the submitter did not read the guidelines—from sending us work in genres that we don’t publish to attaching book-length manuscripts that are far too long for us to consider. No matter where you’re sending your work, it’s important that you follow the guidelines carefully! Editors and staff readers see a lot of submissions at once, so if an entry does not meet the guidelines, they might not be able to give it their full attention. Abiding by the rules gives your submission the fairest chance possible.
At Lantern Review, we have a set of general guidelines that apply to all submissions, as well as specific instructions that apply to work for each category (poetry or art). And as is the case for many magazines, you’ll need to know a couple of publishing-industry terms. Here’s a quick breakdown of what they mean.
Rights revert to the author upon publication of the work. Most US-based literary journals claim what are known as first North American serial rights. This means that the magazine reserves the right to be the first North American periodical to publish a piece. However, journals usually do not hold onto the rights to a piece after it’s published. When a magazine states that “rights revert to the author upon publication of the work,” it means that after the issue containing your piece comes out, you (the author) own the rights again. When a journal says this, it generally means two things. First, you shouldn’t submit any work to them that has previously been published. Second, you don’t need to ask the magazine’s permission to republish the piece after the issue comes out (though most journals appreciate a short acknowledgment in the republished version—something like “This poem was first published in Lantern Review“).
Simultaneous submissions. A simultaneous submission is a piece that more than one journal is considering at the same time. As long as the guidelines say so, most magazines (like us!) are fine with this; they’ll just ask you to tell them which pieces are simultaneous submissions—and to inform them if another magazine accepts a piece before they do. There’s also an unstated etiquette rule here: it’s really bad form not to tell a magazine when a piece is no longer available because another journal’s accepted it first. So be sure to write or message the editors right away if you’re lucky enough for this to happen! (Don’t worry; no one will be offended—in fact, they’ll probably congratulate you on your news.) And rest assured: even if you withdraw a piece from consideration because it’s been accepted elsewhere, most journals (like us!) will still read and consider the rest of your poems.
Once you’ve read through the guidelines, you might find that you still have some questions. If that’s the case, you should first refer to any FAQs (here are ours) that a journal may have available on their website. If you can’t find the answer there, then go ahead and email the editors—if they’re anything like us, most will be delighted to answer your questions!
Step 3: Prepare a cover letter and bio.
In the literary publishing world, it’s normal to send a cover letter with each submission. Fortunately, this isn’t the high-pressure sort of cover letter that you send with job applications! In a literary cover letter, you usually just need to introduce yourself and your work and let the editors know of any important special information (like if some of the pieces are simultaneous submissions). If you’d like a great basic template to help you draft your letter, we suggest looking at this one from Adroit.
When you’re writing your cover letter, try to use slightly more formal language, and make sure that you’re addressing the editors accurately in your greeting. Many people begin their cover letters with just a simple “Dear editors,” but you can also look up and include the editors’ first names in your greeting if you like. If you do this, be sure to double check your spelling, and avoid adding titles like “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Dr.” unless you know the editors and their preferred titles personally.
Many journals will also ask you to include a short bio with your submission. Lantern Review asks you to put this information in your cover letter, but other magazines might ask you to include it in a separate field in the submission form. Literary bios are usually short and are written in the third person (i.e., not “I” or “me”). Most include some information about the poet or artist’s identity and/or location, any notable past publications and awards, and even (sometimes) a couple of fun facts—like about pets or hobbies. Here’s a great example of a bio from a student we published in Issue 4:
Susan Li is 18 years old. She was born and raised and still lives in Brooklyn, where she graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School. She is currently attending Hunter College and pursuing a degree in Creative Writing and Philosophy, with a minor in Asian American Studies.
Step 4: Put together your best work and send it in!
Take a look at your work and choose a few pieces you’re proud of and think the magazine editors might like, too. How many you send is up to you—but definitely don’t send any more than the maximum number allowed (for Lantern Review, that’s four). We also think it’s a good strategy to send more than just one! Not only does sending more than one piece help editors to get a better sense of your work; it also gives them more options to choose from. For example, if the Lantern Review team gets a submission with three pieces in it, we might like the second or third piece even if we don’t want to publish the first. If you only send one poem, you’re only giving yourself one chance to get our attention.
If you’re a poet (the following doesn’t apply to visual art submissions), combine the pieces you’ve chosen into a single document (editors call this a manuscript or an MS or MSS), in whatever format the guidelines suggest. While you’re compiling your manuscript, it’s also a good idea to think about the order you want editors to read each poem in. If you can’t decide, at least try to put the strongest poem first!
Give your cover letter and manuscript one last, final proofread—then head on over to the submission form, and hit “send.” Congratulations; you’ve just submitted your work!
Extra Credit: Say “thank you” when you get your reply.
After you submit to a journal, you can generally expect to wait anywhere from several weeks to a few months before you get a reply. Most journals will give you an estimate of their response time (ours is eight weeks after the close of the submission period). If you don’t hear back within that time, it’s okay to send a polite message asking for a status update! But once you do get an official acceptance or rejection, it’s really nice if you can send a short reply. For acceptances, you’ll usually need to reply in order to give the journal written permission to publish your work. For rejections, replying is totally optional, but if you get a personalized rejection (which is when an editor writes back encouragement or feedback or asks you to consider submitting again), that’s considered a compliment—so it’s generally a good idea to write back with a quick note of thanks!
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We know it takes guts to put your work out there—but we hope that this breakdown has helped make at least the submissions process at Lantern Review feel a little less intimidating and mysterious. We encourage you to check out our Submissions FAQ and to email us at editors [at] lanternreview [dot] com if you have any questions. We’re here for you! And we’re ready and waiting to read your work.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, The Age of Phillis (Wesleyan, 2020)
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As an Asian American–focused publication, Lantern Review stands for diversity within the literary world. In solidarity with other communities of color and in an effort to connect our readers with a wider range of voices, we recommend a different collection by a non-Asian-American-identified BIPOC poet in each blog post.