Learning Your Audience: The Benefits of Submitting to Literary Journals, Grants, and Residencies (Even If You Don’t Get In!)

by Rachael Warecki

Two years ago, I decided I needed to focus my submission process. I’d received acceptances from some wonderful journals, but I’m ambitious as hell and I wanted to take my writing and submission goals to the next level. Around the same time, I also decided to apply for grants and residencies, so I started to target my submissions and applications more strategically.

As I’ve written previously, this approach has had some success, mostly in the form of personal rejections. But the editorial notes and feedback have given me more than just warm, fuzzy feelings of validation—they’ve given me a better sense of my most receptive audience. In the two years since I decided to submit more strategically, I’ve discovered that my writing seems to appeal mostly to editors and directors who are women. The judges and editors who’ve written me the warmest rejections have identified as women or represented women-centric organizations, or both.

And although I haven’t received any top-tier acceptances (yet, as Toni Ann’s recent WWS piece on perseverance reminds us!), the knowledge that my narratives seemingly appeal more deeply to women readers is just as important as the notes I’ve received on the technical and craft aspects of my work. This knowledge now serves as an additional piece of data, one I can use to connect more purposefully with editors, judges, and readers who might appreciate my work the most. I’ve started to build relationships with some of these editors, to the point where a few have solicited work from me and passed it directly to the rest of their editorial teams. Heading into my third year of “serious submissions,” I plan to target women-friendly residencies and grant organizations more exclusively, and to more actively seek out mastheads predominated by female editors and interns.

If you’re relatively new to submitting and haven’t received any personal rejections or acceptances yet, you can adapt this strategy when approaching potential beta readers. It’s always good to have a diverse group of first readers—especially if you’re writing characters outside of your own experiences—and these trusted betas can also provide a sounding board in terms of enthusiasm level for aspects of your work. Think of these readers as lit mag editors to whom you can actually respond when they send you a personal rejection. Ask them to be honest about what resonated with them and what didn’t, and then catalog and use those responses to target your submissions to journals. If you already have a basic idea of your ideal audience, then you’ll be able to submit widely but strategically right from the get-go.

Additionally, if you attend writing conferences where editors and agents are present, don’t be afraid to ask them point-blank if they’re actively looking for work by writers like you, work that reflects the characters and themes and settings you’re writing about. If you’re able, look through the contributors’ notes in back issues to make sure these editors are walking the walk as well as talking the talk. The process of discovering more information about an editor’s perspective could be as simple as sitting in on a panel: during the recent LitFest Pasadena (which is free, open to the public, and a great resource for writers local to L.A.), one panel moderator/literary journal editor mentioned that, since she’s from Salt Lake City and hasn’t found many narratives set there, she’s excited whenever she comes across a story that uses that setting. If I ever write a story based in SLC, I’ll be sure to send it her way—and mention her comments from that panel. That hypothetical submission may not get accepted, but it may receive a personal rejection, which is the first step in building a relationship with an editor.

When you start to accrue rejections from judges and editors, then you can confirm or reevaluate what you’ve learned about your audience from your beta readers. As impersonal as they may be, repeated form rejections from a lit mag you thought would be a good fit for your work are also educational: maybe that journal or that editorial team isn’t as ideal an audience as you originally thought. In 2011, an early short story of mine received a contest honorable mention from a highly regarded literary magazine run by an all-women editorial team that touts its record of publishing emerging writers. However, in the five years since, despite the fact that my work has gotten stronger and my submission process has gotten more strategic, I’ve received only form rejections (including one that arrived on Christmas Eve). This year, I decided to stop submitting to that market, despite the fact that on the surface, it appears to be a strong fit for my work. It’s nothing personal—we’re just not as good a match for each other as I’d originally supposed.

If you’re receiving personal rejections from multiple sources, pay attention to where they’re coming from, to whom the eyes that are reading your work belong, and if there’s a common denominator among them. Know the editors on those mastheads and learn their literary intersections: if, along with narratives from emerging writers, women writers, LGBTQ writers, writers of color, writers with disabilities, writers from different socioeconomic backgrounds, writers from different religious traditions, and/or writers from certain parts of the country or world, they’re also searching for work from the genre in which you write. If you’ve received a personal rejection from an editor with a certain literary intersection and want to submit that piece elsewhere, look for editors at other magazines with similar intersections.

Ultimately, work that is never submitted will never be accepted, and every submission response, whether it’s an acceptance or a rejection, is an opportunity to learn more about your most supportive audience. Target the audiences that appreciate your narratives and build relationships with them. You may receive an acceptance letter sooner than you think!

1091093_347757792022433_1818843801_oRachael Warecki’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Masters Review, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere, and she holds an MFA in Fiction from Antioch University Los Angeles. She can be found in person at literary events around L.A., and online on her website, her Facebook page, and her Twitter feed.

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