Know What an Editor Wants Without Stalking Them

Sending your writing out for consideration can often feel like a guessing game. However, if you are submitting your work to a magazine with no idea if it has a chance of being successful then you’re probably doing something wrong.

Finding somewhere to submit to is easy. There are thousands of markets out there – almost 6000 listed on Duotrope alone. Submitting to these magazines is easy; it takes a couple of clicks to have your writing in front of an editor. So why should you slow down and make the process of submitting harder? Well, with a bit of research and work, you can significantly increase your chances of publication by getting inside the head of an editor.

Do your research

Increasing the number of markets you send a piece to only slightly increases your chance of publication. A much better strategy is to reduce the number of markets and increase the time you spend researching each one. This will mean the submissions you do send are much more targeted.

Believe it or not, it is blindingly obvious to an editor when a writer has blanket submitted their work to a large number of markets. It’s like trying to sell bananas to the whole jungle, instead of finding the monkeys and going directly to them. After that questionable analogy, let’s move on...

Read what they have published

The magazine itself is your best clue to what an editor is looking for. Read what they have published in the past and decide whether your writing would sit well beside them on the page. If so, you’re on to a winner!

Have you noticed how, in most submission guidelines, editors recommend reading their magazine? This isn’t just a sneaky technique to increase sales (though most lit mags could use the support!). Submissions from writers who actually read the magazine tend to be a much better fit.

Obviously you can’t afford to buy all the journals out there, but if you listened to the last tip and have done some cherry-picking, your shortlist should be short enough to allow you to buy and read some select choices. Plus, reading such a variety of short stories is only going to benefit your own writing.

Finally, if you think you’ve found the perfect location, ask yourself this question: ‘Why is this the right home for my work?’ If you can’t answer the question, then you’re not ready to hit submit. At Firewords, we've even considered adding this question to our submission form. We haven’t been brave enough to actually do it yet, but it would certainly make people think.

Listen to them

We covered this briefly in our Secret to Turning a Rejection into an Acceptance article, but if you are lucky enough to receive personal feedback from an editor then you have an invaluable insight into their thinking. Try to glean as much as you can from this and tailor your future submissions.

There's also the acceptable form of stalking: online! Follow them on social media, read articles they write and read their editor’s notes. All this will give you a look behind the curtain and see how the industry works from an editor’s point of view. 

Don’t write FOR them

All this research doesn’t mean finding out about what a particular editor wants so you can write a custom story just for them. You don’t need that added pressure when looking for an acceptance. It’s also going to affect your unique writer’s voice if you’re simply trying to please someone else. This whole process is about finding the best home for your existing work.

What do I want? 

Asking an editor directly what they want is probably not the best idea and, rather unhelpfully, it’s very difficult to say what we want until we see it. However, this is my article so I should probably try to answer the question!

For me, a story has to be each of these things: memorable, different and of a high standard.

  • High standard: Mistakes are distracting and I want to be lost in the story. Obviously, we proofread and edit everything we publish but, ideally, it’s not something I want to consider on a first read-through.
  • Memorable: A story needs to be memorable enough to be in my head after reading hundreds of other submissions. In our editorial discussions, the question ‘Which one was that again?’ is often followed by ‘Probably not.’
  • Different: Most of all, I want a story to take me by surprise: something I’m not expecting and don’t want to put down. I'm making an assumption here, but I’m willing to bet that's what all editors will be looking for.