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Understanding Submissions Calls

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Ring, ring…. Is that your friend calling to dish some drama, or a telemarketer claiming you’ve won a “free” vacation to Hawaii? No, it’s a call for submissions! 

So far during our Year of Courage, we’ve focused on better understanding what you write: your writing’s audience, pacing, perspective, and message (with more topics on the way!). Understanding your own writing allows you to grow into your practice and gives you the confidence to persevere in your goals. 

For many writers, the ultimate writing goal is to get published. That’s our ultimate goal for you, too.

The prerequisite for submitting work is understanding your own writing. The next course level? Understanding submissions calls.

You can be a certified expert on your story (and we want you to be!), but if you don’t know how to decipher what it is that publications are looking for, you’ll likely be met with some unpleasant rejections—and no one wants that. 

So, put that call on hold for just a few minutes as you learn how to answer it.

Who’s calling?

This is the very first question you want to consider when submitting your work to a call. The type of publication will determine what you submit, how, and when. Let’s look at the most common ones:

  • Literary magazines and journals – You can find lit mags and journals for general fiction and poetry as well as hyper-specific journals that specialize in, I don’t know, historical romance flash pieces or LGBTQ sci-fi western stories, to list a few. These publications typically accept shorter pieces, and often have a theme for each call. (Poets and Writers has a great searchable database of nearly 1,000 active literary magazines here!)

  • Anthologies – Similar to lit mags and journals, anthologies are writing collections that typically revolve around a central theme. They often publish less frequently and accept longer pieces. 

  • Presses – Book publishers and individual editors may call for query letters for full-length manuscripts. Editors often have specific genres and themes they’re looking for, which are usually listed in their bio on their press’ website. 

Many publications and organizations will also run writing contests that have separate submissions calls. Contest submission guidelines often differ from general guidelines, so it’s important to read both carefully and be sure you know what you’re submitting to!

Anatomy of a submission call

Publishers love their rules. And while they sometimes seem arbitrary, submission guidelines do serve a purpose.

Guidelines are intended to make it clear what publications want to receive. They also help publications organize their submissions to streamline the reading and selection process. 

With comprehensive guidelines, editors don’t have to blindly sift through countless submissions that may or may not align with their Vision. It saves them time, and it saves you time, too.

Here are the main guidelines you’ll find in most submissions calls:

  • Types of work – First, and most importantly, be sure that the publication accepts the type of work you want to submit. Publications may publish any or all of the following: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, reviews, (screen) plays, artwork, and more. 

  • Length – Many publications have strict word count and/or page count limits. (If a literary magazine only publishes haikus, don’t send them a 5,000 line epic that Homer would be proud of.) Additionally, many publications will only consider one story or a handful of poems from a single writer for each submission cycle. Depending on how large a publication’s staff is, they can only read so much!

  • Submission formatting – This seems like the simplest rule to follow, but it’s also one of the easiest to break. Common rules can include document format (Word doc, Google doc, PDF, etc), font size and spacing, page number placement, header information, and more. If you don’t adhere to basic format guidelines, the editors may assume that you didn’t take the time to read the entire call, and that your submission probably doesn’t follow the more important rules, like the theme. Always quadruple-check that your submission is formatted correctly.

  • Themes (sometimes) – For my college literary magazine, we formed a theme naturally around the pieces we received and accepted. But for many publications (like WayWords and Tales here at The Writer’s Workout!) the theme is stated in the call for submissions. Themes can be single words, a question, a prompt—whatever the editors’ hearts desire. And when they say theme, they mean it. Don’t throw the theme word into the title or a line of dialogue and then not incorporate it into the fabric of your story. They won’t like that. (Brush up on themes and messages in my past posts.) 

  • Deadlines – Most publications have strict production schedules, which means they can only accept submissions for a certain amount of time. Some publications will have an annual deadline date, various submission windows throughout the year, submission caps, or even year-round rolling submissions. Don’t fret if you miss it; it’ll roll around again soon. 

Whew! That’s a lot. Did I say that publications love rules? To be more accurate, they love making their own. 

Not all submissions calls will follow the same format. Some will have more information, some less. But when you know what to pay attention to, you’ll never be caught off guard—and more importantly, you’ll be putting your work into the hands of a publication who asked for it.

The unspoken etiquette of submissions calls

The truth is, even if your submission follows all the explicit call guidelines to a T, it won’t be published unless it…fits. Publications will attempt to describe themselves in the submission call, but some tend to use wishy-washy language that doesn’t fully capture what they’re all about. 

Instead, brush off your research skills and dig into their archives—that’s where you can truly sus out the vibe. Read a few of the works they’ve previously published and compare them to the piece you want to submit. Ask yourself:

  • What genres do they typically publish?

  • What common themes are present? 

  • Who do they publish? Emerging writers, or seasoned pros?

  • How do the stories sound? Do they have a distinct voice?

One thing I didn’t realize when I first started writing and submitting work is that the writer-publisher relationship goes both ways: publications want to publish work that fits them, and as a writer, you should want your work to be published where it fits, too. 

This is why understanding your writing is so essential. If you don’t know the peg shape, it’ll take a lot of forceful pushing before you find the hole it fits through. Knowing your story and its place is the key to avoiding rejection. 

When you read a submission call, you’re vetting that publication as much as the publication will vet you if you choose to submit to them. Think about it: this is potentially where your story will live—you want to be sure it’s a good home. 


Now, instead of letting the phone ring, or sending it to voicemail, answer the call. And if you need us, we’ll stay on the line with you.


About the author:

Lindsey has a BA in English and creative writing from Brandeis University and recently completed the Columbia Publishing Course, nicknamed the "West Point of publishing." She loves writing short stories and has more recently taken an interest in writing poetry. For three years she was an Editor-in-Chief for her school literary magazine, Laurel Moon. You can usually find her reading, crocheting, or bothering her cat, Sister. She hopes to be a writer and an editor in the future to continue to help others improve their work.


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1 Comment

Sofa Blum
Sofa Blum
Jun 25

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