Open a copy of The Best American Essays series and you'll find a lot of essays that first appeared in literary journals. The same is true for anthologies of the year's best short fiction and poetry. How do writers with literary aspiration make it into these journals in the first place?
Before I started volunteering with literary journals, I had no idea how they were run or how pieces were chosen for publication. As an aspiring writer, I would send off stories and essays thinking the masthead editors read every submission that came in. I received a nice rejection now and then, but for the most part it was like sending work out into the void. More often than not there was no acknowledgment at all! It was discouraging, and like many writers I gave up trying.
It wasn't until I began an MFA program that I started to understand the process and finally got a couple of small pieces published.
There are a few things writers should know about literary journals to understand the process and increase their chances of acceptance. Keep in mind, most journals are held together with the tiniest of shoestring budgets, and the big name journals are crowded with pieces from well-known authors. That doesn't mean a great story or essay won't find a home. It just means competition is fierce and submissions have to be highly polished to make it past the gatekeepers.
Welcome to the world of "readers." Literary journals rely on MFA students and qualified volunteers to screen unsolicited submissions. Most journals, even the smallest, receive several hundred submissions each reading season. Readers sort through them looking for anything that might be publishable.
What makes a reader qualified? Each journal is different, but at minimum a reader is interviewed, trained and tested (yes, tested). Some have a full editing test, but usually readers are required to pass several rounds of test scoring to make sure they understand the editorial tone of the journal. Many volunteers teach at the college level, and this is useful because some journals require a short write-up detailing a piece's merits if it's passed up to editors.
Readers are volunteers, but that doesn't mean they don't give each submission serious consideration. Readers want submissions to get published! We sort through the slush hoping to find something to forward to an editor, because one of the best rewards of being a reader is seeing an author you "discovered" published for the first time.
Every submission – yes, every one – is read and screened. Some journals have a rating scale and others are strictly "yes/no." In either case, a piece has to be tightly written and be a good fit for the journal to be passed on to section editors. The section editors review all the submissions that made it through screening and choose the final pieces for the next issue.
The unfortunate truth is the vast majority of submissions are off-target or not polished, and never make it past the initial screening round.
Journal space is limited. Online-only journals or print journals with an online version have more flexibility to choose more pieces, but overall there are a limited number of editorial slots available for unsolicited submissions.
A certain percentage of each journal is commissioned by editors. That means well-known authors and writers are asked to contribute to an issue. Each journal is different, and each issue is different, but a certain number of pieces will come from "name" writers.
Journals that have a small percentage of space for open submissions have to be a lot more selective. For example, some prominent literary journals only accept ready-to-print pieces. The sheer number of submissions and the number of established writers vying for page space dictates that even a few typos will land a piece in the "no" pile. Smaller journals usually have the time and space to work with an author on minor edits if a piece is "close" but not quite there yet.
What about editorial fit? Before submitting anything, read the journal! It seems like a no-brainer, but it's vitally important to know the editorial tone before sending a submission. No matter how technically proficient a writer is, if the piece doesn't fit the overall tone, it's not going to be selected.
For example, some journals are highly experimental and welcome submissions with multimedia elements. On the other hand, many print journals are still relatively traditional. For essayists, note whether a journal prints essays with lots of facts and figures or whether they prefer a more intimate, first-person narrative style. Sending a completely subjective first person memoir to a journal that regularly prints fact-driven Malcolm Gladwell-type essays doesn't fit the journal's tone. The reverse is equally true.
Based on my experiences in four years as a reader for two different journals, I can emphatically say the biggest problem with submissions is that the author sent the piece before it was ready. There were three main kinds of problems I came across over and over again, and they're all issues that can be fixed or avoided.
The first problem, believe it or not, is typos and grammar problems. I don't mean one or two misspellings in the course of five pages. I mean grammar and spelling issues that interfere with clarity. Sloppy writing was by far the biggest problem with submissions, so any writer who avoids this already has a major leg up on the competition.
The problem was so frequent I often wondered if author had uploaded the wrong file, or if they forgot to save their changes before uploading. This is easy enough to fix with a few rounds of proofreading and a careful upload. Have someone else proofread the piece to catch all the "their," "there," "they're" and related issues. Also make sure the most recent version of the piece is uploaded.
The second most common problem was structural issues. So many essays and stories started out great for a page or two only to fizzle out and go nowhere. Or the opposite happened and there were six pages of snooze-worthy prose with one punchy page at the end.
Again, have another writer read the piece. Better yet, join a writer's group and have several people read it to catch any inconsistencies and issues with clarity and tone.
Although it's tempting (and we've all done this), resist the urge to ask non-writer family and friends to read the piece. They'll be so excited and proud to know "a writer" they'll gush and say it's great. Perfect, even! They won't have the objectivity to see what doesn't work. Ask fellow writers to be brutally honest, and then listen to the feedback.
Finally, sometimes a piece was technically great, but it just wasn't a good fit. Those were passed up to editors for a final decision, but they usually ended up with a nice rejection note from the editor.
If an editor takes the time to write a personal note, know the piece was seriously considered and try again with something else. A personal rejection is a form of praise in the literary world, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time. Try again and don't lose hope! Journal space is limited and competition is tight, but a strong piece of well-edited writing will get noticed and eventually find a home.
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