Why Every Writer Should Work for a Literary Magazine

Working for The PinchFjords Reviewand now Nightjar Review, I’m always reminded of why it’s important every writer work for a literary journal. This article covers the basics, but I’ll add my few thoughts.

As a reader or an editor, you will develop a fine eye for what’s good and what’s just terrible. You’ll realize with utter horror how many of the mistakes you’ve read in these submissions (typos, errors, terrible pacing, useless line breaks) that you’ve made yourself, and you, with God as your witness, will cry that you will never make those mistakes again. That is the best part of working for a literary journal. You will learn with humbling certainty what not to do. You’ll learn exactly why you were rejected over and over again because you’re a lughead who kept sending out poems that were filmy and drab from all the superfluous words you’d added. You will learn to cut and trim because no, you will not get rejected like an idiot again by sending out work not ready yet.

Also, you’ll discover how important it is to have an idea of a journal’s aesthetic before submitting your own work to them. If a journal only accepts sestinas about constipation and you send in a prose poem about your mother’s funeral, you’re going to get rejected. When you work for a journal, this is so clear. “We only accept lyric poetry! Why are you sending in narrative??” It’s so clear you’ll never read the journal or what it posts online before submitting again. 

You’ll also see the greater picture that we, as submitters, never get to see. For example, we at Nightjar Review have received some absolutely stunning poems, but they are too similar thematically or stylistically to other works we’ve already accepted to be selected at this time. When we’re only showcasing 7-10 poets an issue, we have to be very very choosy about the poems we select. They can’t all tell the same story the same way. This is why there are different tiers of rejections. We don’t want to send someone whose work we really liked a form rejection. We’ll send them an encouraging one instead. Yes, we want more, but we want it later when maybe we haven’t accepted already too many octopus poems.

Sometimes great writing isn’t accepted just because an issue is full or it’s too similar to another piece; it’s never because some scornful God is out there hating you/your creations. Sometimes good writing, but not great writing, is accepted because it fills out an issue and/or is different from everything accepted before. Sometimes bad writing is accepted because of the name attached to it or, again, it fills out an issue when a deadline is looming.

The nature of literary journals is that they are political in their selections, so the next time you find yourself in a foaming rage because such-and-such-journal published such a crappy piece by so-and-so or some no name, think back to this and understand that it’s no reflection on your work that they rejected; it’s all about that greater picture you aren’t clued into. If you worked for a journal, you would have that understanding, and that understanding could go a long way to cooling your temper.

Another benefit to working for a literary journal is you become (somewhat) free of insecurity of what you are. Editors and readers are just normal writers trying to make it like everyone else, but suddenly you’re getting a ton of submissions that address you as Ms. Mulroy or Mrs. Mulroy or Editor Mulroy, and it feels really legit. It can feel very ungrounding being a writer. You’re constantly being rejected: no NEA this year, that journal who loved your last submission sent you a form rejection this time, ANOTHER semifinalist nod from a book contest, the residency you had a fellowship to last year only offered you a meagre scholarship this year. When you’re an editor or a reader for a journal, that’s a stationary thing generally. Some graduate-run journals do change positions every semester, but for Ruth and I, we started this baby and we are going to be editors for it until we decide not to be editors for it anymore. Our “job title” is stationary. We don’t have to deal with the same swaying force of, “Am I a poet/writer? Am I any good?” No one’s rejecting us for our editorial skills. And journals are always looking for volunteer readers/editors, and they’ll probably love you as a volunteer for as long as you’re willing to do it.

You also start to feel a little like a somebody, especially if you’re an editor. Don’t let it get to your head, but you’re suddenly on the other side of the writing world. Instead of sending your little work out, palms up and vulnerable waiting for someone else to decide on it, you’re doing the deciding. People might re-tweet your tweets! They might ask you for interviews or to judge contests. You also have a real reason to talk to those fancy writers you’ve quivered just being near before: “Hey, I’m editor for __________, and we really love your work. Would you consider submitting?” I did this one year at AWP, running around chatting up fancy people and, if anything, it gave me an icebreaker. Saying, “Hey, I’m a poet, and I really love your work” has a chance of not going anywhere. They could just look at you and say, “Oh, that’s nice” and turn away before seeing your heart crumple in your chest. An invitation is inviting and could at least get you a response like, “Oh, I’ll think about it. Thanks for asking,” which is at least one sentence longer than that other response.

The other part of being an editor/reader is the humbling part. Yes, your ego can inflate indefinitely if you enjoy playing God, deciding the “fates” of each of the pieces sent to you, but you will also read submissions that widen your eyes and make you think, “How did this person write this? I can never do this, so I’ll just never write again.” This is especially disheartening when, for some reason or another, you have to reject that brilliant piece. If they’re getting rejected, what hope do I haveyou might moan in your head. But then there are days when you read something that sets off the nerves in your fingertips and all you want to do is write and write and write, and it doesn’t matter that so-and-so wrote that brilliant something because today you were reminded of why you love writing and why you chose a gig like working for a literary journal in the first place: to be around and share great writing, and maybe some other journal will get fired up about your great piece and want to share it too.

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