I'm still madly sending out submissions of my poetry and have hit a few bumps this year, so I thought I'd quickly go over some basic rules for submitting your work to magazines and some problems that might come up and how to solve or avoid them. Competitions and manuscript submissions to publishers follow slightly different rules which I won't touch on here.
If you're not familiar with the magazine, do some research. If you can't get a copy, go to their website, read their mission statement, the masthead, the About section, have a squint at any samples or online issues they have available. Learn what the editors are looking for and what their aims are for the magazine. Does your work fall into the style, genre, theme they're hoping for? If not, is it worth sending them that piece?
Then check out the Submission Guidelines. Read these very carefully. Some magazines are super picky about how they want the poems or stories formatted. They might have a limit for a word count or number of lines. Some want your name and address on every page, some don't want your name anywhere. Follow them to the letter, it's a shame when a submission is rejected just because you didn't follow a simple instruction. I've had one magazine reject my submission twice already because when they say don't put your name on the cover letter, they mean the cover letter, the title of the submission, the file name, everything. It has been returned to them with my name removed from everything, so fingers crossed third times the charm. If you have any questions about what the guidelines mean, contact the magazine.
It's always nice if you can find out the Editor's name and use that, but I've often found that magazines can have guest editors for certain issues, don't update their websites as often as they should, so I do just use the bland Dear Editor for most letters unless I know the editor specifically or they've contacted me previously about resubmitting work. Which some editors are nice enough to do - a short note of 'these poems don't quite make it, but I like your writing, please send me some more to consider'. And when they do take the time to say that they mean it. I had one editor say this and I thought they were just being nice. The next week they wrote me again and said 'really, I'm going to press soon, I want to include some of your poems, send something today if you can'. So I did. If you're not sure again, ask when they would be ready to see more, when the next submission window is, etc?
If you're doing a simultaneous submission (sending to more than one magazine, journal, competition at a time), double check their rules regarding this. I didn't submit work to more than one magazine for a long time, but have been recently quite a bit. I tend to only submit to 2 at a time unless something comes up that a poem would be perfect for while it's already out at two mags. Usually I haven't had a problem, I get so many rejections that there isn't much cross-over, but yesterday, I had to inform 3 different magazines that I was removing poems from my submission because they had been accepted by another journal. Luckily, they all said they encourage simultaneous submissions, so there should be no problem.
Picking and prepping your work:
This often takes the most time, finding poems that fit the magazine's remit, setting up the file to the guidelines and then having another look over just to make sure the poems are as good as possible. If there's no font recommended in the guidelines, use a 12-point nice clear font like Times New Roman or Arial. One poem per page, stories double spaced. Remember editors and their readers go through hundreds of submissions a week sometimes, so make it easy for them. Take the time to make your submission as good as possible.
If you only use Submittable, it keeps note of what is happening to your submission, but if you submit by snail mail or by email address or if the magazine has their own submission portal, it's important you keep track of when and where you sent it. I've had problems where I've used the wrong email, an old one for example, or where an email has gone astray somewhere between me and the editor so it's very helpful if you can say when you sent it, what poems and how you sent it, so they can check their records carefully.
I haven't used Duotrope, but I've seen it referenced on several blogs and sites. It seems to allow you to keep track of your submissions, but also helps you find magazines and read and write reviews on the magazines and their submission process. There is a charge of about 5 dollars a month which is why I haven't bothered.
I have two files, one Excel for the non-Submittable submissions and one just a general Word File about each poem, where it's been submitted, where it is currently which keeps me on top of things.
Chasing up late responses:
With the advent of electronic submissions the response time of most magazines has sped up exponentially, sometimes you get a response within the week. However, it's still not unusual for some to take months or longer to respond. I tend to chase up after 6 months, to make sure the submission hasn't gone astray or if I missed a response. I've had one magazines forget to tell me they were publishing my work this year, one that told me they were rejecting it and then sent me publishers' proofs, one that had gotten lost somewhere. Before chasing them up it's worth going back to their website and see if they've listed an update of why they're delayed. Sometimes magazines decide to fold, sometimes they need to take a break, sometimes they don't respond to rejections, so if you haven't heard within several months it's a reject.
Don't trust Submittable either, form letters are easy to mix up, technology glitches. I also have 3 poems sitting with In-Progress listed when I know they've been accepted for publication and I think the anthology has already gone out.
Be polite and include details of what was sent, how and when. If I get no response after a couple of weeks, I assume the piece was rejected though I've sometimes had magazines get back in touch after months to say they're still considering my work.
Remember: magazines are often inundated with hopeful writers' work and most are understaffed and underfunded. They do their best to stay on top of things, but it isn't easy and even with all the new technology they are human and make mistakes. Always be polite. I remember the huge pile of submissions to be read that came in every day in the post when I worked at a literary magazine in Scotland. I'm sure the full email/Submittable inboxes are equally daunting.
If you make a mistake: be honest and own up. Contact the magazine as soon as you notice and explain. I have sent emails without attachments (don't send submissions when you're tired) or to the wrong address. They're usually understanding.
I have also sent poems with mistakes or without saving changes I've made. Those are my fault and I don't ask to have the poems replaced or reconsidered. I accept I've messed up and that they will probably be rejected just for my own incompetence. I learn from it and move on.
Always proof your work even if you just sent it out and it was fine. Check again, spell check, save and update. Your work is your representative, if it's a mess with typos and silly mistakes, the editors are right to reject it on that basis alone.
Accept rejections gracefully and don't get into a debate with the editor about the merits of your work. I once accidently started a cover letter email with the Finnish word for hello 'Hei' as I had been writing Finnish emails that morning and hadn't totally switched my brain over to English. The editor then basically mocked my 'poor spelling' and apparent lack of formal writing style with his response. It was poor behaviour from the editor, but I left it. Yes, I made a mistake and yes, he was a jerk, but what was I going to gain by pulling him up on it? I've been on the end of an endless reading pile and used to get fed up with the poor spelling and inappropriate or impolite cover letters, so I can understand his frustration, but I always managed to maintain a civil facade, I hope. I probably won't submit to that magazine for a long time, but there's plenty of others out there who deserve my writing. Editors have their own opinions and ideas of what is good writing. They may not gel with what you think, but it's their little kingdom so sometimes you must back away respectfully and head off somewhere else.
Keep writing and keep sending things out. Somewhere there is a magazine editor that will love your stuff. Good luck with finding them.