Getting Published as a Teen Part One
By Ishita Shah, Lara Katz, Daniel Boyko, and Zoha Arif
Sometimes I have a feeling that the geniuses who birthed the English language got a kick out of not only devising a thousand exceptions to every grammar and conjugation rule, but also out of creating pairs of words that ~sometimes~ sound the same, are used in the same realm, and refer to roughly the same concept, but mean slightly different things (i.e. affect and effect, weather and climate, alligator and crocodile, college and university). And yet, the distinction between a writer and an author is something that I ecstatically thank these language geniuses for creating. I hate to be cheesy, but writing, like life, is quite a journey. And it’s nice to have a few crowning memorials and title achievements to work towards when you’re a new writer whose endeavors, so far, exist only in a folder full of Google Docs. Naturally, when you get that first acceptance from a literary magazine or a publication agency and are no longer a writer, but an author, it’s a milestone of a celebration — the rough equivalent of morphing from a teenager to an adult.
It’s no argument that getting published is one of the pinnacles of writerhood. However, as with all things on the journey of life, the hard part is getting started, and the complicated matrix of the publishing industry can make it seem futile to even begin. Like any starry-eyed young writer, you need a gentle nudge. So, how do you push your boat into the sea of writing, initiate this fateful journey, and transform from an amateur writer into a burgeoning author? Let’s find out…
It’s taken you a few days, maybe even a few weeks or months (possibly even years), but you finally have a piece you’re entirely proud of. Whether it’s poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, or something else altogether, it’s a piece that you’ve labored over, loved, and dedicated yourself to. It’s a part of you now—a big step on your journey to becoming the next Pablo Neruda, Stephen King, or Lee Gutkind.
So, you think your piece is ready to be submitted somewhere? You’ve read over every line with meticulous care, and you feel that it’s finally time to try to give this Google Doc a new home. At this point, you’ve edited the piece so, so much that it gives you a headache to keep staring, to keep searching for a misspelling of your instead of you’re. What happens next?
Step One: Research and find literary magazines to submit to.
There are many species and tiers of literary magazines. On the elite peak of the literary magazine mountain, there are prestigious, respected magazines honored by national anthologies like New Yorker, Poetry, Ploughshares, and Kenyon Review that regularly publish work by renowned, prize-winning authors and maintain single digit acceptance rates. Generally, these are the magazines that also have phenomenal circulation traffic. Below the elite, there are middle-tier magazines such as Crazyhorse, West Branch, and Electric Literature that are fairly well-respected, but not as impossible to get into as the elite magazines. Then there are lower-tier magazines that still publish great work, but do not have a large circulation and great respect in the publication industry and that, generally, do not capture work by renowned prize-winning authors. Of course, then, there are plenty of literary magazines that live in between the three general tiers. Besides prestige, however, there are other attributes that distinguish literary magazines into their own subgroups. For example, some magazines are purely online, others are only in print, many are both. Some publications pay their contributors, though this is rare because the general point of publishing work in literary magazines is to increase your readership and possibly capture the attention of a publication house or agent.
There is, however, another species of literary magazines separate from the mainstream three tiers of magazines: high school (or high school-focused) literary magazines. Much like our very own Polyphony Lit, high school literary magazines are a great place for teens to taste the professional publication pipeline. Though getting published in a high school literary magazine may not sound like the explosive literary debut you’ve fantasized about, it’s still quite an accomplishment, and the experience with the professional publication pipeline that you gain in the process is something that you can use later in your writing career when you begin applying to more elite, renowned magazines.
Before you begin submitting your work, it may be helpful to compile a list of high school literary magazines and their requirements of publication. Some literary magazines have age restrictions (i.e. only high school students between the ages of 16 and 18 can submit), others have grade level restrictions, and some magazines are solely for poetry while others for prose. Most also have a line or word limit on the length of a piece, especially for poetry or prose; some also have a theme that all pieces accepted into their publication must contribute to. When choosing literary magazines to submit to, it’s also a good idea to read through previous editions of that publication to get a feel for what type of pieces it tends to publish.
Remember: writing is distinctively flavorful. Like any good treat, it is packed with varying amounts of sugar and spice to reflect the tendencies and preferences of the chef who tenderly prepared it. Some of us powder our writing with sugar and sprinkles to leave our readers a sweet, touching indulgence. Others choose a more doleful mix, stirring enough anguish and sting into their recipe to evoke a more gut-wrenching and disconcerting response. Whether it be uplifting or enigmatic, your exclusive writing style often determines your success rate with various publishers. It is essential that young writers discover and develop their style before choosing publications to submit to. Even if the language is eloquent enough to make Shakespeare stir in his grave, a publisher isn’t necessarily going to print your work if it doesn’t match the content and basis of the publication. Thus, before submitting your writing for consideration, I recommend browsing through a platform’s previously published work, mission statement, and submission guidelines to gain a thorough understanding of what it is searching for. Moreover, while a publication may not provide any content-specific guidelines for writers, it may also be notorious for publishing a limited variety of subject matter or a few specific formats. This is something to look for. When hunting for a publication to submit to, attempt to find one whose purpose and content is geared toward your individual goals and brand. Repeatedly submitting your fervent tirades on global warming to a publication that is primarily interested in addressing international human rights crises will not only waste your precious time, but will leave you increasingly frustrated with your work. To maximize your chances of getting published, it is optimal that you choose publications that embody and welcome your style and content.
Below is a starter list of some great high school or high-school focused literary magazines to check out:
The Apprentice Writer
The Daphne Review
Up North Lit
Rising Star Magazine
Blue Marble Review*
The Telling Room
Live Poets Society
One Teen Story
*Blue Marble Review pays its contributors $25 per piece.
Literary Magazine Lingo
As you search through different literary magazines, chances are you come across words that seem intimidating, often because they aren’t used in day-to-day conversations. Below we cover some commonly used terms with definitions to help facilitate the literary magazine-hunting and publication process:
This refers to submitting the same submission to multiple different publications. Some publications have rules about this, so I'd be sure to review them before submitting. Regardless, because it hugely enhances your chances of publication, you probably want to simultaneously submit whenever possible.
According to Oxford Languages, a cover letter is "a letter sent with, and explaining the contents of, another document or a parcel of goods." In the context of literary magazine submissions, this usually means a brief (maybe a few sentences) introduction to you, the author, whatever you're submitting, and some kind of acknowledgement of your gratitude to the publication for taking the time to read your submission. It's also good to make sure that you address the letter to the right people. If a publication requires one of these and you feel unsure about how to write it, I would recommend doing a little research online. The internet is full of examples. (Other websites even have how-tos! Check out: here, here, and here)
A query or a query letter "is a formal letter sent to magazine editors, literary agents and sometimes publishing houses or companies. Writers write query letters to propose writing ideas. In this sense, the query letter is an author's first step toward getting his or her manuscript published" (Wikipedia). Check the publications to which you are submitting to see if you need to write one of these! For most short (e.g., stories less than twenty pages) submissions, you won't need to write one of these, but if you do, I'd encourage you to do your research and read some examples/how-tos online before crafting your own.
Solicited and Unsolicited Submissions
This is mostly relevant when submitting to "elite" publications like, for example, the New Yorker, but it's still important to be aware of. Sometimes, magazines will actually solicit (i.e., request or commission) submissions from authors—that's right, the author has to decide whether to accept the magazine, not the other way around! As a result, it will likely be much more difficult to get published in this magazine without being solicited, or even impossible. If a magazine accepts unsolicited submissions, it means you follow the ordinary path to publication with that magazine.
You likely already know what this is, but if you don't, no worries. This is essentially a brief third-person write-up about you. Publications may ask for these prior to publication (i.e., as part of the submitting process) or if you are accepted. Be sure to provide it when it is asked for and to follow the publication’s guidelines, which may relate to content and word count.
"In publishing, a masthead is a list at the top of a page that includes the names of editors, writers, and owners, as well as the title of the newspaper or magazine. You'll usually find the masthead on one of the first few pages" (Vocabulary.com). These are probably not the people who will read your submission, personally, but they might be the people who prepare the final issue. If you're especially hoping to appeal to a particular publication, it might be worth looking up its masthead to see what kind of writing they've had experience with or might be interested in. Conversely, if you're unsure of whether to submit to a publication, you can look up the masthead to see if they impress you or are the sort of people you want publishing your writing.
Proofs and Galleys
These are essentially the same thing—it's the version of the final product (i.e., the final publication) before it's actually published, which is possibly still under construction. If you are lucky enough to get published, you may be sent the publication's "proofs" or their "galleys" to check it over and make sure your name is spelled correctly and your submission appears exactly how you want it to. This is a kind of "speak now or forever hold your peace" moment for you as an author, so be sure to take it seriously.
This refers to the quantity of unsolicited submissions magazines receive, and through which the editors must wade. I'm not a massive fan of the term, but it's important to know because some magazines may refer to it in their guidelines/website information.
This is dangerous—don't submit to any magazines asking for "all rights." That means that the publication wants 100% complete control over your work, with no wiggle room for you. That's really the biggest one you should be aware, of but if you want to learn more about copyright, click here or here.
Now that we’ve covered the basics, stay tuned for part two…
Lara Katz is the Editor-in-Chief of Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Zoha Arif is a Second Reader at Polyphony Lit and the Managing Editor for Voices.
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Managing Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Ishita Shah is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.