Reading for a literary journal

How wading through someone else’s slush pile can improve your own chances at publication.

Reading Literary Journal Submissions

Sending your work to a literary magazine or online journal for consideration is not for the fainthearted. The outcome can feel as random as a coin toss: Heads you’re accepted for publication, tails you’re not. 

When you’re on a submissions streak, optimism fuels every story and cover letter, but that high wears off once the rejections roll in. In theory, you’re not supposed to take it personally. In reality, you do. You ruminate, agonize, second-guess. Was that opening too weak? Did I miss by a comma or by a mile? The standard response provides few clues. You’re left wondering: What do “they” want? Why didn’t my piece make the cut? 

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Want answers? You can get them by reading other people’s work – not the stuff that’s published but the stuff that isn’t. When you read for a literary magazine or online journal, you’re exposed to the good, the average, and the awful. The more you learn to identify each and separate out the three, the more you’ll understand what to do – and what not to do – in your own writing. 

Nearly all publishing outlets are swamped by hundreds, even thousands, of submissions. Many rely on first-level readers to wade through the slush pile and net a manageable handful for consideration by an editor or next-level reader. 

To do this type of winnowing on a large scale, it’s not necessary to be a New York Times literary critic, but you do need some experience. 

Training acquired through writing classes, workshops, and conferences is helpful for getting the gig, as are examples of your own published pieces. Aside from bragging rights among writer friends, there’s no glamour in reading for a literary journal. The work is unpaid and reading hundreds of pieces can be tedious. You’ll have to put in long hours (especially as the submissions period ends), reliably meet deadlines, and – in the case of close calls and squeakers – trust your gut.

Literary magazines are typically affiliated with university MFA programs, arts collectives, or regional writing centers. If you are or have been enrolled as a student, that’s an in – readers are frequently chosen from their ranks. Contact these programs to ask about their policies and express interest in serving as an early-stage reader. 

While earning her MFA in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College in Brookline, Massachusetts, Joanne Carota started reading submissions for Solstice Literary Magazine as part of a six-month internship. After it ended, she continued in that role. 

“In the beginning, I was vigilant about reading all the submissions. After becoming seasoned, if the first paragraph didn’t grab me, I stopped reading,” she says. Some topics prompted an immediate rejection: “Extreme violence [or] super-raunchy stuff didn’t cut it for me, either.” When considering a piece, Carota took into account the writer’s credentials but ultimately, “the editor had full control of what went into the magazine.” After four years of reading submissions, “my brain seized from reading too much,” and she stepped down. 

Today, Carota teaches writing at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell. While reading for pleasure, “I really notice the writing,” she says, but reading for a literary magazine is entirely different. “With the submissions slush pile, I was not reading as closely for the perfect openers as if the piece actually grabbed me. Most submissions were well-written, so that was already a given.” 

Poet Phil Memmer oversees Stone Canoe, a literary journal that showcases the work of writers with a connection to upstate New York. To cull submissions, he relies on first readers who “narrow down the field of manuscripts for the issue’s guest editor.” In each genre – poetry, fiction, nonfiction – he selects three first readers to review each submission. For Memmer, three is a deliberate number: “One or two wouldn’t give us the breadth of responses we wish to provide the guest editors, while more than three might bog down the editorial process.”

After reading each piece, each reader weighs in with a ranking of yes, no, or maybe. “All manuscripts are then passed to the appropriate guest editors, who may choose not to review any manuscript that has already received three no votes.”

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Memmer finds potential first readers through his full-time role as executive director of the YMCA’s Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse, New York, one of the most successful YMCA community-based writing programs in the country. “We select first readers from amongst our advanced students, our faculty, and our board of directors.” He looks for writers “who are well-read, serious about their own craft, and interested in learning about what goes into publishing a literary journal.”

Those who are chosen know it’s an unparalleled opportunity to see the process from the inside. “Every first reader has told me that the experience was valuable for them,” Memmer notes. “Most have not had past involvement with literary journals, so it can be eye-opening to see the quantity and variety of submissions we receive. It’s also directly relevant experience for anyone seeking to get their own writing published…the behind-the-scenes vantage point is a great learning opportunity.”

Serving as a reader for a literary magazine over the past four years, I now know what it takes to stand out from the slush pile. In my first year, I questioned if I was being too picky. The initial wave of submissions seemed unremarkable, and I struggled to find pieces to approve. The most common error was the result of laziness; writers who hadn’t bothered to read the publication didn’t realize their tone, style, or voice wasn’t a good fit. Submissions that were too academic, esoteric, or amateurish were the easy rejections. 

The difficult ones were more subtle. Some contained passages of insight and intelligence; others featured intriguing characters. What they all lacked was forward momentum: a reason for the reader to continue. Like Carota, if I wasn’t grabbed by a piece, I passed on it. 

Several times during that period, I thought, I’m the problem. I’d rejected a former Pushcart Prize winner, an essayist I’d followed and admired, and a good friend whom I knew could do better. Then came a piece I couldn’t let go of. I lingered over the language, trying to figure out how a simple narrative about a family’s summer cottage could be so vivid and bittersweet. As the submission deadline drew near, more of these remarkable stories surfaced. I thought my Spidey sense of language had been dulled, but the opposite was true. No matter how slight the facet, a first reader can distinguish the brilliance of diamond from cut glass. 

If being a reader sounds interesting but you lack any college or university affiliations and no writing programs or centers are nearby, see if you can read for an online literary journal or genre fiction site. These internet-only outlets operate similarly to print publications by relying on their communities – engaged, active followers – to provide potential readers. If you’ve been previously published, or you submit on a regular basis and are active in these online groups, you have a good shot. Reach out to the editors and see. In the long run, the effort is bound to be worth your while. 

 

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Linda Lowen teaches craft workshops at writing conferences and festivals, and is the founder of AlwaysWantedToWrite.com, a writing studio in Syracuse, New York.