Someone who is fairly new to submitting short stories has asked me about querying when they are overdue, and I actually know something about it, so I figured I would answer where others can see. Querying can be stressful for writers but shouldn’t be. If you aren’t obstreperous about it, editors should not get mad at you, and if they do, it’s not your fault. So:
1. Look into their average response times. This information is available online. Wait a bit longer than their average before you query. So if you’re looking at a publication with a week-long response time, it’s okay to query at three weeks, but if you’ve submitted somewhere that routinely takes nine months to get around to responding to short stories, don’t query until a year or more. Don’t query at their average. Average means average. It means that some things take a shorter time and some things take longer. If you query at exactly their stated response times, they will roll their eyes and be mildly annoyed. If they say, “Please do not query before [stated time frame],” go ahead and query at the stated time frame; they said it, they should mean it.
(I probably wait too long to query, mostly, so don’t ask me exactly how long. It’s not a science. If you think a market takes too long to answer, you don’t have to submit there in the first place. On the other hand, if they’re taking much longer to reply to you than they do in general, they probably know that and should not get grumpy with you for a polite query.)
2. Be brief, neutral, and to the point. Use the salutation you’d usually use in addressing the editor or editors, whether that’s “Dear Editors” or “Dear Dr. Chao” or “Hey Chris.” Here’s the basic form I use:
I’m writing to check on the status of my short story, “This Is Awesome And You Should Buy It.” My records show that I submitted it on 1/2/13[, and your system gave it the tracking number #123ABC]. Is it still under consideration? Thanks. Best, Marissa Lingen
Obviously, if they don’t give tracking numbers or if you didn’t save that information, leave that part out. If you don’t keep precise records, I suppose you could say, “I submitted it in January of ’13,” but the more information you can give them about what the heck this story is, the better chance they have of being able to track down whether they responded or are still thinking about it.
Earlier in my career I felt like I should add all sorts of hedging stuff about whether it had maybe gotten lost in the ether, you know, these things happen, I totally understand, or, like, anything that might have happened like that…yeah. No. You don’t have to do that. Emails do go awry, and so do postal letters. That’s what you’re trying to find out. They know that. Just ask.
3. Try not to read too much into a long response time. I know. Trust me, I know. If they always answer within a week, and it’s been a month…or if there’s a submission tracker that shows that everything around your story has gotten an answer and yours hasn’t…it’s so easy to spin fantasies about how the editor has fallen in love and is just trying to find space in the budget. And sometimes that’s true! And sometimes the editor just had time to read the twelve 3000 word stories that came in around yours in odd gaps of time and did not have enough time to read your 6000 word story. Or yours is the first in a long run of stories they are not getting to. Or else they were absolutely sure they hit send on that rejection letter they wrote, and instead they hit save. Or they are trying to figure out exactly how to phrase their very constructive encouraging rejection letter, because they really want to be constructive and encouraging to a promising young writer, which is important, but, from the standpoint of you, the promising young writer, not nearly so important as the acceptance letter, contract, check, fame, glory, and impending awards ceremonies. Editors take the time they will take. The query is just there to make sure they’re still taking it. Breathe. Be matter-of-fact. Send it.
4. Once they answer, a brief thanks is fine, but you don’t have to get into a long discussion unless the answer is, “Yes, we’re buying this, and here are the edits we want.” “We show that we rejected that two months ago,” should get, “Okay, thanks for letting me know,” or “Okay, thanks for your attention.” Similarly, “Yes, that’s still under consideration,” can get a reply of, “Okay, thanks,” or “Glad to hear it, thanks.” Longer replies give you more of a chance to trip over your own feet. Do not get tempted by them. If the editor says something specific such as, “Yes, my mother was attacked by a herd of rabid moose, and I’ve fallen behind while I help her convalesce,” resist the urge to say, “Moose bites can be pretty nasty, you know,” as every nerd the editor knows will have said it, and in this field that will be a lot of nerds. But it’s fine to say, “I hope she’s back to full strength soon. Thanks for letting me know.” But again, keep it brief, keep it professional.
If the editor is a personal friend and you already know that their mother was attacked by a herd of rabid moose–or if they have been quite open about it on Twitter and you follow them–then wait a little longer before querying about your story. On the other hand, it is still entirely permissible to query about your story. You are still a professional, and so are they, and one of the hazards of the modern internet is letting too much of the window on each other’s personal lives interfere with work stuff. Are they still working as an editor of their magazine? Then query. Politely, briefly, professionally–waiting a bit longer than you otherwise would, to account for the moose attack–but query. The bit above, about how you should address the editor as you otherwise would, can modify your query letter as much as it otherwise would. If you would address it “Dear Editors” or “Dear Dr. Chao,” you should probably not write, “How’s your mom? I hope they hunted down the last of the moose herd, those foaming drooling bastards.” If you’d usually write “Hey Chris,” you can use your own judgment about making things more casual, but if you’re not close with the editor in question, just stick to the business basics.