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A literary journal editor reveals the secrets of getting published

The blog The Review Review reviews literary magazines and seeks to demystify the submission process. "The editor wants nothing more than to read something so fresh and powerful and polished there is no question it must be in the journal," writes Lynne Barrett in a long post.

Barrett, the editor of the Florida Book Review, has exposed the process in "What editors want; a must-read for writers submitting to literary magazines," looking at it from all sides:

[T]he editor, having read 17 things this morning, keeps going, thinking: A run-on sentence in the first line! Oh no, another story with the character waking up hung-over and getting a phone call.  Why must they flash back before anything interesting happens? That isn’t really funny. We don’t publish travel articles. Does no one read the guidelines? This one gets good in the middle, but then the character just sits down and thinks about stuff. Wonderful minor character but the main one is self-pitying. Almost. Good scene. Pretty good. Not quite. Please can’t somebody just dazzle me so I can pick something and stop this?...

You, of course, are a writer. Let’s say you are just starting to send out. You are thinking, Am I any good? Will this make people I love believe I’m worthwhile? Is that third paragraph unnecessary as R said in workshop, but I still like it, and if I keep it, and my story gets published then that will show R, but what if R is right after all? Is this my first step to fame and glory? Am I a genius? Am I in fact too good for this magazine I’m sending to or not good enough?  Am I an idiot? Will my parents stop suggesting other jobs I could do given my education? Will strangers want to sleep with me because of my prose? Etc. etc.

None of this is of interest to the editor. Remember the editor’s deepest wish: Send something perfect for us, please.

So your job is to help the editor by sending work that is developed, complete, thoroughly revised, and — of great importance — appropriate for the magazine.

To do that last part of your job well, you have to read the magazines.

Yes, you do.

There is a lot more, and well worth reading. But that right there -- you have to read the magazine -- may be the most important piece of advice. From what I've heard, it's frequently ignored. Luckily, it's easy to remedy -- easier, probably, than turning a story that's "not quite" into something fresh and polished and powerful.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: literary journals. Credit: Carolyn Kellogg

Comments () | Archives (6)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Woooowwwwww..how helpful! An article that demystifies the age old question of, "How do I get published?" with the answer, "write something perfect." Thanks for that. Now I want my two minutes back.

Considering the garbage that is normally presented by, say... New Yorker as "quality" literature, Carolyn Kellogg's piece would make a pefect finalist for their selection process.

Easy to say "read the magazines," but when they're expensive, unavailable locally, and don't pay writers for the work they do accept, how are struggling scribblers outside academia supposed to find the time and money?

On the editorial side, I genuinely wonder whether asking writers to rely too heavily on their inner self-critics is a productive idea. Talent can be as blind to itself as mediocrity often is. Of course editors want to reduce the volume of crap writing they have to read, but it may not be logical to assume that the overall quality of the slush pile would increase if only the bad writers would exercise more self-restraint.

This editor, along with most others in the world, will be out of a job soon enough. They are the gatekeeper to a museum of fossils that nobody reads or cares about anymore. Good luck surviving the revolution coming. You might want to buy a Kindle to see what we're talking about, Lynne.

Way to repeat the most familiar canned lines in the lit mag business, and to do so in such vague, blanket terms! Great idea for a post, but a total waste of time, people. Get it together. Tell us something we all don't already know!

This piece says nothing at all. Still it does expose one tidbit: editors are vaguely searching for something that doesn't exist. The journals are ridiculous and small and dead.


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