When I applied for colleges, counselors and admissions officers advised us to sort our prospective schools into three categories: the reach, the match, and the safety. The reach is a school that you would love to go to, but to which the odds of acceptance are somewhat low. The match is a school you’ll probably get accepted to, and the safety is a school for which you’re an absolute shoe-in. It’s not a bad system for publishing, either, except there are no minimum SAT scores or GPAs to guide you.
Consider the match first. Your match is the level at which you currently publish. You may get some rejection letters, but more often than not, your work receives acceptance. Don’t know where your match is? You’re not submitting enough. Experiment a little. Don’t take rejection personally at this stage; you’re trying to zero in on the level and type of publication you should submit to. Once you’ve got a decent feel for the match, you can consider the reach and the safety.
If you’re just starting out, your reach is probably not the New Yorker, not even close. When I began trying to publish, I sent poems off to TriQuarterly. They were rejected. I was devastated, but I shouldn’t have been. TriQuarterly was way beyond reach for me. Your reach is going to be a publication a couple notches up from the ones you currently write for. They may have a larger circulation, better pay, or higher reputation. They may be a small print publication when you’ve only been writing for websites so far, or a national magazine when you’ve been writing for regional ones.
Your safeties are the publications who love you. They’re pretty much a sure thing. If you’re just starting out, they may be non-paying gigs, publications you submit to in order to build clips. If you’re a little further along in your career, they’re your source of steady income – a regular magazine column, for instance.
As you build your writing career, you should probably regularly submit to all three categories – it’s a bit like diversifying an investment portfolio. As you gain skills, experience, and clips, your reach, match, and safety will change. Work on stepping up to the next level, reaching a little farther each time you write.