Ten Ways Working for a Lit Mag Can Boost Your Writing Career
By Robin McCarthy
Recently, I’ve been noticing calls for volunteer readers at literary journals. I’m always perplexed why these positions aren’t more coveted among new writers. I suspect that time volunteered to a lit mag is erroneously perceived as an act of altruism; an additional distraction to the real work of writing that must be jammed into the over-achiever’s schedule. I fear that many new writers overlook the ways reading for a literary magazine can improve the career of the volunteer in both direct and tangential ways. Like reading for craft and establishing a sustainable creative process, like dissection of narrative structure and a folder of fancy rejections, like dark-rimmed glasses and the box of blank journals received for every birthday since winning that first short story contest in grad school, reading for a lit mag should be an essential and invaluable part of every writing career.
Journals are one of the most valuable tools MFA programs have for expediting the development of mature and professional writers, but opportunities to work on literary magazines aren’t limited to those enrolled in an academic program. Lots of independent journals exist around the country, and they are often eager for online readers. If you’ve ever considered reading for a literary magazine, but felt you didn’t have the time or skill, it might be worth weighing how working for a literary magazine can make you a better writer and lead to greater publishing success. Here are ten benefits I noticed when I began lending my time to the other side of a literary magazine’s submission manager.
1. Telling fresher stories.
Reading submissions for a literary journal exposed me to hundreds of examples of writers offering up their best work and I quickly realized how similar many of them were to each other. We all start out reading many of the same books, stories and poems. Homogenous reading experiences mean that a lot of the work I encountered in the submissions queue hadn’t yet broken away from some very well-used themes and ideas. As a reader, this became boring, but as a writer, it was a shortcut past all those overused tales. I realized I needed to vary what I was reading, and I learned to see when I was moving toward tired ideas in my own writing. I developed a sense for the kinds of stories that set themselves apart from the crowd, and also learned to be wary of cleverness serving only to draw unique attention to an otherwise expected story.
2. Finding favorite lit mags.
If you’ve been submitting your work, you’ve likely had it suggested to you by a journal that you familiarize yourself with their publication before submitting. And if you are like most writers, you would like the money, access, and time to subscribe and read to every journal you submit to, but it’s not logistically possible. Reading for journals is great for narrowing down the universe of lit mags to a few you should pay the most attention to. For instance, every time I love a story, even if other readers and editors aren’t fond of it, the writer tends to list three or four magazines that have published her work previously. Over time, I began to notice that the writers I was drawn to had many of the same publications in common. Those were the journals I needed to be reading and submitting to. The other perk of reading for a magazine is that it’s possible the managing editor is sitting on a couple exchange copies or back issues of the very magazines you’re interested in, which cuts down on costs and waiting for sample copies.
3. Making friends with writers.
Lit mag editors are usually writers, too, and they are writers who spend a lot of time practicing how to discuss and improve writing. The people I read with for lit mags became my friends. They’re writers whose judgment I trust and whose taste I’m well acquainted with. They’re excited about my success and have experience with the editorial process. I also get to be that kind of reader for my friends, which is as helpful to me as it is nice for them.
4. Recognizing mature writing.
When I first sat down to sift through dozens of submissions, I began to notice the level of polish and attention invested in the work by the author. Over time, I was able to recognize a writer who simply needed more time to practice writing within the first couple of lines. One of the most eye-opening parts of reading submissions was realizing that my own writing fell into the “needs practice” category. It was demoralizing at first, but ultimately it pushed me to keep writing, to close the gap between my own work and the best stuff I found in the submissions queue.
5. Adhering loyally to submission guidelines.
The more time I spent reading submissions, the more aware I became of the importance of a magazine’s workflow. I saw the extra time and accidental oversights that happen when submitters bypass submission protocol. I always thought I followed all the submission guidelines, and I also thought that since my work was unlikely to be accepted anyway, a missed detail here or there wasn’t the end of the world. It didn’t take long to see that a missed detail can completely change the way an editor approaches my work, whether intentionally or not. I like to think that these days I follow editorial rules more closely, and that more of my work is read by happy editors.
6. Connecting with new writers.
Just as I started to recognize common topics and overused titles in the submission queue, I also began noticing submitter names. I recognized the lady from Pittsburgh whose short stories always made me cry, or the guy from down south whose lyric essays routinely left me gasping. And because I read for a literary magazine, I could actually contact these human beings in a sincere and meaningful way. Sometimes it was just a nice note to tell them that while the magazine could not accept their work, I really admired it. Other times I was able to invite writers to contribute an interview or craft essay to our mag’s blog. The important thing was that I was discovering new writers I admired and engaging with them in a way that was positive for me, the magazine, and the writer. This is the sort of behavior that makes the literary world go ‘round.
7. Improving cover letters.
Just as reading submissions helped me develop my preferences quickly, I also started to notice how I responded to different cover letter tactics. I spotted cover letters that made editors pass on a story because the author came across as difficult to work with. I learned what information is welcome in a cover letter, and what information editors don’t care about. Soon, I submitted my own work with confident, succinct cover letters intended to help readers make decisions about my work.
8. Practicing literary kindness.
It never occurred to me to send a thank you note for a rejection until I learned how much time often goes into a personal rejection or invitation to send more work. Even a standard rejection has likely received a significant amount of time from readers. Reading for a magazine fosters empathy for the people taking the time to read my own submissions, and it’s clear when I’m reading which submitters have a healthy respect for the time it takes a volunteer to sit down and assess their work. I learned to recognize the kind of submitter whose work I felt privileged to read, whether or not I loved the content, and I began striving to be that kind of submitter of my own work. My approach to suggested edits and thoughtful rejections shifted, and I like to think my interactions with editors, however small, are positive experiences for both parties every time.
9. Putting rejection in perspective.
Once I immersed myself in a submission queue, I was humbled by the sheer volume of writers in the world and the surprisingly high caliber of their work. Even the rejected work. In many cases, especially the rejected work. I both overheard and actively participated in conversations in which brilliant work is rejected for reasons the writer could never have anticipated. Sometimes the work is thematically similar to something we accepted recently, or an editor on staff is not drawn stories about Connecticut, or there simply isn’t enough space in the next issue for another twenty-six paged story. Editors pass on work they love all the time, and while writers hear this, I didn’t comprehend it fully until I was regularly voting not to accept stories I really liked.
10. Networking with established writers.
Most literary magazines are very interested in giving volunteer readers—whom they love and respect—the opportunity to connect with writers they adore. Many readers have the opportunity to write introductions, interviews and book reviews for a journal’s website or print edition. In some cases, magazine editors will work with readers to solicit the work of their literary heroes for the magazine. Taking advantage of these networking opportunities isn’t just good practice; it’s also immensely encouraging for a new writer to have a productive conversation with a writer who makes her swoon.
Robin McCarthy is co-managing editor at Passages North, where she navigates the spaces between readers, writers and editors as they build a magazine and design promotional cat videos. She volunteers with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, NPR, The Sonora Review and Green Mountains Review.