Understanding Lit Mags: How to Figure Out What Editors Really Want
By Julianne Palumbo
A lot is written about the fact that writers should do their research and “know” the publications to which they submit their writing. Finding a fit makes it more likely that a piece of writing will be accepted. But, many a writer will tell you that, for all of their research, it’s not always easy to determine whether or not their writing fits.
Besides, don’t journals and magazines want varied work? Don’t they reject pieces that are too similar in style or subject to something they just published? With so many journals out there, is it possible to study each of them long enough to determine exactly what they are looking for?
Most journals offer submission guidelines providing general information about the genres and themes they are seeking. Often these guidelines are more specific about the form the submission needs to take than its style or its content. So how exactly does a writer analyze a journal to determine whether her writing is a good fit?
Here are some guidelines that might help:
1. First, the obvious. Does the journal or magazine publish on a central theme?
The quickest way to determine this is to visit the site’s “About Us” page. For example, Mothers Always Write publishes writing about motherhood. When our guidelines suggest a monthly theme, the intent is that the pieces submitted will still relate the month’s specific theme to the general subject of motherhood. Always motherhood. Always from that perspective. Clearly pieces about marriage are not going to be accepted unless motherhood is still the central theme. “How did the marriage affect the raising of the writer’s children?” would be the relevant question here.
There are many other examples of publications that publish on a particular subject and, as a result, will always seek only pieces relating to their specified subject. A few examples of these are journals that publish on health, or wellness, food, or travel. So ask yourself, does your piece center around the overall theme of the publication.
2. Next, what is the journal’s preferred style of writing?
Let’s call this “voice.” If you read a handful of poems published in a particular journal, you should be able to hone in on the style. Are the poems realistic or abstract? Are they relatable or does the reader have to guess what they are saying? Are they positive or morbid?
The type of poetry published is one of the clearer demarcations between journals. MAW likes relatable poetry, for example. That does not mean simple or nonrepresentational. It means that the poems are not so abstract that the reader has to guess at their meaning. We are a journal about motherhood, and the purpose of our publication is to provide writing that mothers can relate to on both an intellectual and emotion level. Writing that is too abstract would not work for us because we’d lose the relatable factor.
3. Another criteria that a writer should take note of is the length of the pieces published.
Editors tend to like poems of a particular length. If you scan a publication, you’ll likely find that most of the poems are within a range of lengths. A much longer or much shorter poem would really have to be exceptional to be accepted. The same rule applies to fiction. Many journals tend to prefer longer pieces.
4. Now, let’s dig a bit deeper. What is the underlying tone of the publication?
Is it emotional? Positive? Cynical? Snarky? Does it strive to be unusual, artsy, smart, or simply real? What subjects does the journal avoid? Politics, religion, violence, profanity? Is it informational and “how-to” friendly? You might have to read a good handful of pieces to determine the tone of the publication. If your piece is a “How-to” piece or one with lists, do a quick search on the site to see if they have published those before.
MAW strives to be non-judgmental. We wouldn’t consider ourselves “informational” as we don’t publish listy or how-to pieces. At the same time we like pieces that cause the reader to re-think or challenge or that help the reader to process their own similar experience.
5. The level of writing published is an important indicator of what a publication is seeking.
The New Yorker is known for its high-level writing. It’s smart, witty, creative, but at the same time, informative, and perhaps a bit academic. Does the journal purport to be literary? In that case, the beauty of the language or craft (the use of figurative devices) becomes paramount. Check the level of formality of the writing. A site that posts blog-style writing will seek less formal writing—the use of the second person as well as slang words would be acceptable here. A literary journal seeks more formal language where short paragraphs, the informal “you,” and slang words would not be accepted.
6. Look also at the structure of the essays published.
Do they use physical imagery or perhaps anecdotal story to relay the theme and the message? Must the story line be strong? Is dialogue important to the editors? Do the pieces include much inner thought or is the story itself paramount? Are the essays “feature” pieces involving journalistic research and reference to reliable sources?
This sounds like a lot of analysis. I can hear you now saying that you don’t have countless hours to undertake an in-depth analysis of each and every journal in which you are interested. That’s okay. This work doesn’t have to take that long. Once you are comfortable identifying these elements of writing, you will be able to spot them quickly in most publications.
7. Here’s an exercise that will help you identify the differences between publishing sites.
Find a writer online that you admire, someone who has been published a number of times in one genre. Google that writer to find his or her bio and then read each of the pieces she has listed in her publication credits. Compare them. This exercise is helpful because it is easier to compare writing of the same type by the same writer. You will be able to better discern the differing styles of the various publications this way. You don’t need to do this every time you search, but undertaking this exercise a few times will give you a better eye for distinguishing between publications.
If you find this isn’t getting you the answers, read how the journal presents itself on the Web and search for what others have to say about the journal. Has it been reviewed? What is it known for in the literary world? Look for an interview with the editor that may appear somewhere on the site or on another site. Do a Google search for its announcement of writings that were nominated by it for awards. This will give you a sampling of the pieces the editors liked best.
If all else fails, send in your writing. Perhaps you can glean from the response you receive whether you were on target and if not, why not. Your next submission should hit it square on!
Julianne Palumbo is Editor-in-Chief of Mothers Always Write. Before turning to poetry, Julianne practiced law for many years. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published in Ibettson Street Press, YARN, The MacGuffin, The Listening Eye, Kindred Magazine, Poetry East, Mamalode.com, Literary Mama, and others. She is the author of two poetry chapbooks, Into Your Light (Flutter Press, 2013), and Announcing the Thaw(Finishing Line Press, 2014), and will be part of the HerStories Anthology: So Glad They Told Me. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize for her poem, “Stuffing Bears,” and received a letter of merit from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.