Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

I've started submitting to literary journals and haven't heard back. The wait is excruciating. Why does it take so long?

Response times can be quite long, sometimes well over six months. When you're eagerly checking the mail every day for your self addressed stamped envelopes, the wait can seem torturous. But rest assured that your work is not languishing—forgotten—in the back seat of some editor's car and it hasn't been tossed in the trash unopened. Some insight as to what happens to your submission once it reaches the journal's offices can help make the wait more understandable.

Most literary journals run with a small but dedicated staff. This can slow the process, but it ensures that your work is closely considered by editors and readers who know the journal well and are invested in its success. Additionally, journals receive a large number of submissions. One Story receives close to 100 submissions a week. Ploughshares receives over a thousand a month. That's a mountain of reading and it's bound to result in a longish wait.

When your submission arrives at a journal's offices, it's logged and put into the slush pile. This is the holding area where your work waits its turn to be read after the submissions that have come in before it. (Sometimes submissions bypass the slush pile based on something in the cover letter—a submission may have been solicited from a particular writer, or an editor may recognize a writer's name and want to read that work more quickly.) Generally, readers or assistants often do the first read through of the slush pile, completing a write-up about the submission's quality and fit with the journal and recommending action to be taken. These get passed on to editors who make the final decision. Stories that don't make the cut may be rejected after a second look. Those that do will be circulated and read by additional editors. Editors—and sometimes advisory boards—gather to discuss final selections. This process varies from journal to journal so there may be extra steps or fewer players at your favorite literary journal.

On-line submission managers, which are becoming more popular, are changing this process a bit. Instead of submissions waiting to be picked up at an office and read, submission managers allow all readers in the process to access work on-line. This has reduced the reading time at many journals. And it's worth noting that with both on-line and mailed submissions, there are some journals that take pride in the fact that they respond to authors quickly—within weeks. Some journals have even limited how often an author can submit in order to respond in a timelier manner.

All this being said, if you find a submission has been out longer than seems reasonable, check the journal's policy in their writer's guidelines. Most indicate how long it will take for a response and if your submission has been held longer, you can write a letter or email inquiring about its status.