Literary Journal Dos & Don’ts
I’ve been working for literature journals in various capacities since 2010, when I began as an intern at the University of Houston’s Gulf Coast. Though I was only an undergraduate at the time, I still had the opportunity to read for the journal, often spending half of my six-hour weekly commitment working my way through the slush pile. That was my first editing experience, and it was an eye-opener: For one thing, I learned that people like me—inexperienced, uncertain—can be the first ones to lay eyes on a submission. But even more surprising was the range of work I came across, both in style and quality. I read through thirty-page sci-fi manuscripts and heartfelt essays about war, bad love stories and stories about bad love. I ranked everything on a scale from 1-5 (with five being the best) before sending it on to a real editor, and by the end of the semester the number of fives I passed on was so low I could count it on one hand. And this is still the way I read today.
As an editor, one must have an over-critical eye. It’s a lot different than reading work from your friends or peers in workshop; I’ve loved stories my classmates have written, but I wouldn’t publish them. There’s a difference between thinking something is compelling and filled with promise and thinking it’s done, and I almost always end up questioning whether something is done. It’s the role I choose to play within my journal because someone has to, and I’m because I like playing devil’s advocate and asking, What if this isn’t as good as we think it is? But here’s the important bit of all that: There’s someone like me taking up a slot on every masthead. And if six people on staff think your story is okay but one person tears it apart, chances are you won’t make it into that journal.
Every editor looks for something different when they’re reading. Some, like me, are suckers for beautiful language and weird premises. Others want humor and quirkiness, and yet others just want not to be bored. For something to get published, you typically have to appease all or most of these tastes. It’s not an easy feat by any means, but it isn’t impossible, either. There are just some things to keep in mind:
Do research the journals you submit to. Every journal has its own distinct aesthetic, and just because one rejects your story doesn’t mean another won’t love it. If you’re considering sending your work somewhere, take the time to browse a couple recent issues. See what kind of writing they gravitate towards—are the majority of the stories traditional? Quirky? Realist? Fabulist? Glimmer Train doesn’t want the same stories as Ninth Letter, so know your audience before you start sending out, and focus your attention on submitting to those journals whose aesthetic aligns with your piece.
Do pay attention to your beginnings and endings. The most important part of any story is its beginning. The second most-important is the end. If a piece doesn’t immediately draw the reader in, the chances of us finishing it are pretty small—and if a beginning is lackluster, we’ll typically skip to the end. A strong ending will make readers go back and look at a piece with fresh eyes; it forces us to read all the way through to see how that ending came to be. If both the beginning and end are dull or weak, you’re done.
Do proofread and format your work. I know this may seem trivial, but it actually makes a huge difference in the way others read your work, even if it’s not a conscious decision. If I come across a single-spaced manuscript with an unpleasant font like Courier New, I’m immediately frustrated that I have to reformat the text just to read it. As for proofreading, it’s something you should do before you send anything out, period. I don’t expect every piece to be flawless—no one is immune to the occasional typo—but consistent errors imply sloppiness or carelessness. If you don’t care enough about your work to present it properly, then chances are, neither will your reader.
Do double-check your language. Clichés and tired metaphors are detrimental to the quality of your writing, whereas fresh images can really elevate it. It’s the difference between “eyes that sparkle like stars” (everyone) and “eyes like little droplets of tar” (Aimee Bender).
Do follow limits on word count, page count, and genre. If you’re submitting to a contest, obey the rules. I know that’s simple, but you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t bother to read how they should format contest entries or ignore a word count and send a piece way over the word limit. I’ve had people submit novellas for publication, some of which were interesting and well-written, but that doesn’t change the fact that we can’t publish it. Be a courteous submitter and follow the rules, and if you’re not sure about something, ask.
Do simultaneously submit (unless the journal explicitly states not to). Why? It’s just good practice. The chances of your piece being selected by any given journal are usually pretty slim—not because your work isn’t good, but because of the sheer amount of submissions they receive and the differences in aesthetic. If a piece is ready, send it out anywhere you think it may belong. You’re increasing your chances of publication and decreasing the amount of time it takes to hear back about your piece, and that’s never a bad thing. Holding out for your favorite journal to publish you is a nice idea, and you absolutely should keep trying there, but don’t close yourself off to the other possibilities. Just keep in mind one other thing: If you do simultaneously submit and get accepted somewhere, be sure to withdraw your piece from all other journals. I haven’t seen this happen yet, but it’s every editor’s nightmare (okay, maybe just mine) that they’ll accept a piece only to be told that it’s no longer available.
Don’t submit cliché or overdone stories. This is kind of controversial for me, but it’s worth including because it’s something that a lot of readers condemn. In the recent past I’ve heard people complain about stories with the following tropes or plotlines: abortion, infidelity, a recently-deceased parent/sibling/lover, prostitution, and rape. (I know what you’re thinking: What’s left?) There’s also a lot of reader fatigue with second-person and first-person plural points-of-view, which are increasingly common these days. Now, that’s not to say that you cannot or should not write about any of those things—but you should be aware that stories about cheating spouses are a dime a dozen, and yours has to stand out in some way. When deliberating about whether or not something should be accepted, editors look for weaknesses in a story, and if handled incorrectly, these tropes can mean the difference between an acceptance and a nice rejection. Look at every situation you write about with fresh eyes, and ask yourself how you can make your readers see it that way too.
Don’t overdo your dialogue. Using dialect or affectations of speech in character dialogue is fine, but know where to draw the line between enough and too much—it’s a fine balance. Dialogue is one of the easiest things to detect weakness in because readers know when something feels inauthentic, and if your dialogue is bad, they’ll usually make the unconscious assumption that the rest of the piece is, too. There’s no need for your Southern character to drop every “g” at the end of a word, and you don’t have to mimic a British drawl syllable-for-syllable in your writing—an instance here and there is enough to get the point across.
Don’t just mimic your favorite writers. If there’s one thing you should know about editors, it’s that they’re typically pretty well-read, and they can tell if you’re just trying to rip off George Saunders or Lorrie Moore. One of my favorite professors once told my class, “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.” That’s a pretty common quote among workshops, but what does it mean? Don’t just pay homage to writers you admire through imitation; take an idea and make it your own through some twist. Be bold.
Don’t use your bio to name-drop, list every publication you’ve ever been in, mention your eight Pushcart nominations, or show off how snarky you can be. I never read a bio before I look at a story because I don’t want it to color my judgment, but I do dislike coming across one that comes across as boastful or tries to be too clever. Editors receive hundreds of submissions each month, and the honest truth is this: Your writing is what makes you stand out—not how many publications you have or awards you’ve won, not where you went to school, and not the famous writer you studied under. If you’re going to spend extra time on anything, spend it on your submission, not the comments box that an editor may or may not see.
Don’t be impatient. Most journals have a certain length of time you should wait before contacting them about your piece—obey it. As someone who has worked behind the scenes and been the one answering those inquiries, there’s little more frustrating than logging in to check a submission and seeing it’s only been in the queue for a month. It can take anywhere from 3 to 6+ months to hear back from a journal, so be patient and wait the suggested length of time before getting in touch. On the flip side, if you submitted eight months ago and the journal website states that you should hear back in five, you should absolutely email them. If it’s been longer than the suggested wait time, you have every right to inquire about your work—9 times out of 10 it’s just that the editors are swamped, but occasionally a piece can get lost in the shuffle and forgotten, so it’s worth checking.
Don’t bombard journals with multiple submissions (unless stated otherwise in the submission guidelines). This is just a matter of courtesy, both to editors and to fellow submitters. If you’re clogging up a journal’s submission queue with three pieces at a time that means you’re delaying a response for those who only have one submission out—in other terms, it’s sort of the journal equivalent of cutting in line. Don’t be that guy!
Don’t get discouraged. If you only take one thing from this, let it be that. I have a professor who told us in a Q&A that she waits for a piece to be rejected 40 times before she considers going back to revise it. This is a woman with an MFA and a PhD whose first collection won a major book prize, and she expects as much rejection as anyone. She told us that if we believe in our work, we should stand behind it—and so should you. Ten, twenty, thirty rejections later, if you are proud of your piece and believe it’s good, just keep trying. Work gets rejected for all sorts of reasons—reader fatigue, differences in aesthetic, disagreements among staff—but if a story is truly strong, it will find someone who will fight for it. As critical as I am when I read, I’ve been that editor before, and the result was a unanimous acceptance. Publication is a long and frustrating process, but take heart in your near-misses and kind rejections—they mean that somewhere out there, someone is rooting for you.