Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Submitting a piece for publication in literary magazines or literary journals can be incredibly tense. You’re letting yourself in for a long period of waiting and hoping, one which frequently ends with rejection. Understanding this rejection is key to growing as a writer as it allows you to improve for next time, but sometimes you know things should have gone differently.
Sometimes your story is a great example of the given theme, your writing is fantastic, and the editor is vague enough in their feedback that you don’t understand what the issue was. Well, even if you were within the word limit, there’s a good chance it was the length of your work.
The literary magazine word count lie
The misleading thing about word counts is that they’re presented to authors as a binary process; either you’re over/under the word count and disqualified, or you’re fine.
In fact, there’s a big difference between where you land in the allowed word count, and it can have a huge effect on whether or not your work sees publication. How huge of an effect? The fact is that sometimes making your story shorter will help its chances of getting into literary magazines even if it diminishes the quality.
How can this be?
Why would an editor choose a shorter, worse story over one which is longer, but better? Like all terrible things in the world, it comes down to the numbers.
The mathematics of publishing
Imagine you have two stories in front of you. One is five thousand words, and a solid 9/10 for quality, the other is three thousand, five hundred words and an 8/10. Which do you choose to publish? In this scenario the answer is obvious: the longer, better piece.
Now imagine you have three stories in front of you. One is five thousand words, and a solid 9/10, but the second and third are both around three thousand words and 8/10. What’s more, the shorter stories are very different. Now the choice isn’t so clear. Those readers who like the first story might like it more, but the shorter stories are also great and combined they appeal to a wider audience.
Now imagine your publication is packed with articles, advertisements, poetry, competitions, and even more stories and you can see why editors might exclude great stories based on their length. In fact there are numerous benefits to publishing two stories: readers feel like they’re getting more for their money, the publication gets twice the publicity from featured authors, and they can afford to take more risks – if one long story fails then it’s a bad issue, if one short story fails then the next can make up for it.
That doesn’t mean literary magazines are going to publish every thousand-word story that comes their way, but it does mean they’re prepared to compromise when it comes to putting together the best overall product.
So how long does your work need to be to stand a chance?
The perfect length for literary magazines
When it comes to short stories, three thousand, five hundred words is usually the upper limit. Again, this is true even when the maximum word count is higher. It’s all about making it easier to choose your work. Let’s say a five thousand word max competition has set aside enough space for around ten thousand words of content. They can get two 5,000 word stories in that space, or three 3,500 word stories. The longer stories will definitely be considered, but now they have to be good enough to justify losing content (and the ability to advertise that content). In comparison the shorter stories come with all the benefits mentioned earlier. If they’re close to being the same quality then it’s no contest.
Likewise poets should consider limiting individual poems to one or two pages in length, allowing the editor to choose their work and still have maneuverability with the formatting.
The common sense addendum
Of course there is a balance to be struck. It’s no good getting a story published if it’s been gutted of everything that makes it good. Instead, writers should begin the writing process aware of that three thousand, five hundred word limit. They should also diligently edit their work to make it more compact, and therefore more flexible and more marketable.
The truth is that this should actually be win/win for authors. Brevity tends to concentrate the intent of a piece rather than ruin it, and there are few authors who can claim with a straight face that their piece couldn’t lose anything without crumbling to pieces.
So if ‘shorter’ is the goal, what can you do?
Making your writing more marketable
There are a lot of ways to make your writing more compact, and we’ve discussed them at length elsewhere, but in the interests of helping those who want to submit to literary magazines here are some of the best.
Use descriptive verbs instead of adjectives:
She strode across the room is both shorter and better than She walked proudly across the room.
Swap phrases for single word:
Imagine works just as well as think up.
Don’t tell us what we’d already assume:
“This is fantastic,” she said is better than “This is fantastic,” she said, smiling broadly.
Write in a more informal style:
They’d been friends since university does the same job as He had been a good friend, and a stalwart companion, since their days at university for far fewer words.
One long word can do the job of five short ones:
He was melancholic is better than He was experiencing a deep, crippling sadness.
When you’ve done all these, then it’s time to trim description. Authors generally use too many words communicating their own vision in places where readers would prefer to provide their own. Dialogue is another place where there’s usually a lot of pruning potential. Unfortunately the prouder you are of a section, the more likely it is that it’ll survive some trimming. Authorial ego tends to manifest as verbosity, so it’s the parts you think are perfect that will have the most to offer you in terms of excess.
If this is starting to sound scary then don’t worry. Like anything else in writing, aiming for a lower word count is an acquired skill. Trim stories down a few times and you’ll gain a better understanding of what they need and what they don’t. This will translate to your writing, which will in turn need trimming, in a (hopefully) unending cycle of improvement.
In fact this is such a great tool for aspiring authors I’d recommend ‘trimming’ your work down to a prescribed limit whether you’re submitting to literary magazines or not. Ask any frog: to really see how something works, you need to dissect it.
Of course for those of you who are aiming for publication in literary magazines there are a lot of resources for cutting your story down to size. Check out Are you killing your book with too much detail and explanation? and Is your dialogue just characters talking? for tips on editing your work, or move up a level with tips on compacting plot and characters with What is story filler and how much is necessary? and Don’t let fake minor characters ruin your story.
Are you happy trimming your stories down for publication, or is every deleted word an arrow to your heart? Let me know in the comments, but maybe contact a cardiologist first.