Guest Post: Why Every Writer Should Work for a Literary Magazine

December 16th, 2013 by

Good writers are always looking for ways to improve their craft. While writing for hours every day seems like an obvious way to become a better writer, it may not be the most important thing. Often, the best writers are also voracious readers, but the act of simply reading has its limitations. Writing takes a command of language that can only be developed through repeated interaction with that language. For me personally, my writing improved dramatically when I started editing for a literary magazine.

The Range

Working for a literary journal, you will read some of the worst things ever written. You will see sentences that make you wonder if they let anyone in the world into an MFA program. You will wonder if some of these submitters spend more than forty-five seconds on a draft, or if some of them failed third grade English.

You will also read brilliance. You will think, I must publish this once a day. You will feel like you’ve won small lotteries over and over. But the majority of your learning won’t come from either of these types of submissions.

The real learning will come from the average submissions, the ones that present the many errors and mistakes that you feel like you are reading over and over. Improper pacing, clichéd characters, telling instead of showing, passivity, too much unnecessary detail, underdeveloped characters and storylines, etc. You will spot a million things that will frustrate you, that will make you say, “Why does everyone make the same mistakes?” or “Ah, this would have been brilliant if only the writer had done this instead!”

You will learn because the next time you write something of your own, or the next time you reread something you’ve written, you will finally notice that you are committing the exact same sins. Your characters are underdeveloped. Your stories are poorly paced. You often resort to telling when you should show. You, like the many sinners you cast out, are also guilty of heinous writing crimes like being too wordy or cliché. As editor of a literary magazine and spotter of the common writer follies, you will get a better grasp of your own writing flaws. You will know how to reject your own stories before you even submit them.

The Constraints/Industry

The benefits of editing a lit mag don’t end here. Another vital role of the lit mag editor is the glimpse into the publishing world. You will start to understand that some incredibly good writing doesn’t get published, You’ll learn that good, but not the right fit is often just as hard on the editor simple because of constraints put on an existing issue.

And you will also see the many approaches of writers. You will see that some writers are conceited, some are relentless, some have no confidence, and some let their writing do all the talking. You will figure out how to be polite, how to appreciate the work of the lit mag editor—especially because you will likely have no monetary compensation.

The Humility

But wait, the learning isn’t finished. You will also have the valuable lesson of humility. As great of a writer as you thought you were, you will realize that you aren’t doing anything unique or impressive, which hopefully will make you actually try to do something unique and impressive.

Okay, I’m not quite done. You will also develop more connection to the community of writers that will help you see that the best things written are not on the bestseller list, and that you don’t have to appear in a high school or college curriculum to be a brilliant or successful writer.

If you want one more bonus, as an editor of a lit mag, you can count yourself with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Barthelme, Charles Bukowski, Gordon Lish, Hettie Jones, Dave Eggers, and many others. Yes, they all worked as editors of literary magazines at some point in their careers.  

When you put this all together, you will become the complete package as a writer. You will understand what can be done with language, what shouldn’t be done with language, and how important it is to reread your work a dozen times before you send it out to any literary magazine (because even the slightest little typo can make your story look like a disaster, especially if it’s in the first sentence of your manuscript).

Yes, working for a literary magazine will take away plenty of your precious writing time. It won’t pay any bills, and it won’t make you an overnight sensation. Even though you’ll make plenty of friends, many of them will never buy your books. But, it will teach you almost everything you need to know about being a writer.

Of course, when it all comes down to it, the only way to be a better writer is to write, after you’ve done the other things first.

 

Nathaniel TowerBIO: Nathaniel Tower is the managing and founding editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. His short fiction has appeared in over 200 online and print publications. In 2014, Martian Lit will release his first short story collection, Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands. He is a former high school English teacher and the former world record holder for the fastest mile running backwards while juggling. He currently lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. Visit him at nathanieltower.wordpress.com.

  • T. L. Sherwood

    <3 this! I couldn't agree more. Great article.

  • Christopher Garry

    I wrote this a long time ago in an editor forum and I think it bears repeating here…. This job feels like gardening except you have to tell all the pretty flowers that only one will get picked. The rest are for the goats to eat. The flowers get really pissed and start arguing. But angry or not, they taste the same to the goat. And the one that is picked gets pressed into a book to live forever.

    THAT makes editing the best job in the world.

  • Paul Lamb

    Great insights. I wish this post could have been about five times longer so more info could have been packed in.

    • Nate Tower

      Thank you, Paul. I definitely could have gone on for quite a bit longer about this topic. There is so much value to being an editor. I truly believe it has made me a much better writer. It also creates unbreakable ties to the literary community.

  • Ashley SnowStrider

    Having worked for a couple mags, I couldn’t agree more! And now I’ll start a tangent: in my experience, it was actually staggeringly hard to get involved in one after I left the academy.

    Is there a job board anywhere for mags seeking editors, readers, proofreaders, volunteers, etc? If not, should I start one?

    • Nate Tower

      Ashley, that would be a great idea. Maybe Submittable could even incorporate that feature. What do you think?

      • Michael FitzGerald

        Hi guys (Ashley that is a rocking last name.) This is Michael from Submittable.

        Ashely, I know there are editorial job boards, but not sure if there are lit specific ones.

        If you do start one, let me know and we’ll help promote. We are planning some more ‘centralized’ features in Submittable some day soon. I’d be happy to work with you.

        Nate: thanks again for the great post.

        Best,
        M

        • Nate Tower

          Thank you, Michael. I feel honored for the chance to write a guest post for you.

          Ashley, I would be happy to help develop the lit mag “job” board with you. I build and optimize websites all day, so this could be right up my alley.

          • Ashley SnowStrider

            Man, I like this idea more and more! Michael & Nate, thanks for the encouragement. I’ll start scheming (and Nate, I’m sure I need the help!).

  • Mike Joyce

    Thank you for writing this, Nate!

  • Matthew G. Miller

    Unlike Ashley, I don’t yet have the (literary) academic credential, but I would volunteer myself as an editor for the learning experience as an writer.

    Nathaniel, great post.

  • Eileen Drennen

    Great post, Nate and brilliant idea, Ashley — I’d love to help you get such a board started, if you’re looking for volunteers!

  • http://hermanstudios.com/ paul herman

    I don’t know whether I feel encouraged or disillusioned by the fact that a founding editor of a literary review, albeit digital, is capable of phrases like these: “As great of a writer as you thought you were,” ” like being too wordy or cliché” “some of these submitters”

    I found the writing on the Bartleby Site just as sloppy. I don’t mean to be rude but really, Nate, I think you should take your own advice if you want writers who haven’t “failed third grade English” to apply to your e-zine: “how important it is to reread your work a dozen times”

    • Nate Tower

      Paul, thank you for reading and commenting. It’s pretty obvious in this “literary game” we play that everyone has different tastes and styles. I’m not sure what you’ve uncovered on the Bartleby Snopes website that suggests writing below the third grade level. We are quite happy with the quality of the writing we publish, and (until now) we’ve received nothing but positive feedback. We receive around 2500 submissions per year, and most of those submissions are from published writers.

      The good news is that there is something out there for everyone. If you don’t like Bartleby Snopes, then there are hundreds of other literary reviews that might satisfy your literary appetite. Rather than publicly dumping on the ones you don’t like, you could invest more time into the ones you do like. Regardless of how you choose to spend your time, I appreciate that you at least looked at the Bartleby Snopes site.

      Luckily, writers are capable of creating the phrases that fit into a particular piece. Just because you don’t think a particular phrase is sophisticated enough doesn’t mean it’s sloppy. The writing should fit the topic, style, audience, etc. Not every piece we craft has to be overly complex or attempt to break new ground.

      • http://hermanstudios.com/ paul herman

        Hi Nate,
        Thank you for reading & commenting on my comments.

        To anyone who is serious about writing or, for that matter, reading, the phrases I quoted from your post will be painful to his ears not because of “style” or even “sophistication” but because they show incorrect usage of the language.

        Writers are allowed to make mistakes like these just as editors are allowed to reject their work because of it. The owner of a literary mag, however, is not. Not, at least, if he wants writers to trust his judgement of their work.

        It is discouraging to me (though, luckily, not that common) that a person who puts himself in the position of arbiter of taste, does not realize that the literary use of English which Bartleby Snopes is supposed to champion, uses English which is sloppy because of errors in basic syntax & tense. Especially someone who presumes to teach us to revise our work before dumping that advice in a public place.

        • Nate Tower

          Paul, perhaps you could enlighten us. To my knowledge, none of the phrases you quoted contain errors in syntax or tense. “As great of a writer as you thought you were” correctly uses past tense throughout the phrase. It could have been “As great of a writer as you think you are,” but the choice of past tense is meant to show how you will have changed as a result of reading so many submissions. Perhaps you feel I should have said “as great as a writer” instead. If you have studied the English language extensively, then you are aware that both uses are perfectly acceptable. The phrase “like being too wordy or cliche” contains nothing even close to a syntax or tense error. In the case of “some of these submitters,” the words “some”, “these”, and “submitters” are all in agreement. While I admit that none of these phrases are complex or brilliant, I fail to see any errors, especially not any errors that take away from the readability of the piece.

          Perhaps you could rewrite this post in the “correct” way that you imagine the English language should be. I am sure we would all be grateful for that.

          By the way, I found your sentence starting with “It is discouraging to me…” to be rather sloppy and overly wordy.

          Of course, I think you missed the whole point of the post. Being an editor of a lit mag is not about nitpicking some oddly perceived mistakes in a story. The focus is always on the overall quality of the submission. A basic mistake in syntax or tense can always be overcome by a round of editing.

          • JP Reese

            As a professor of both Composition 1 & 2, and an editor for two lit. magazines, I find nothing wrong with the casual approach in Nate’s essay. It’s genuine and folksy. He is writing to other writers or wanna-be writers. I do, however, have a problem with a writer using “he” in the singular to refer to all humanity when he means “people’s,” “individuals’,” “a person’s.” Females in the USA constitute 51% of the population, and few of them would refer to themselves as “he.” Unless the responder is also a Brit, judgment is spelled “judgment.” Thanks for writing an insightful and generous piece, Nate.

          • Michael Mattson

            Good article, Nate ~ couldn’t agree more. The most important thing I learned was just how subjective the process can be, even for well-written work. ” Good, but not a right fit” is something I came to loathe.

            Paul: What you should do us take a page from my playbook — launch your own journal, wait eagerly for Nate to submit his work, then shred him in a highly personal, snark-infested letter. You’ll have the best of both worlds, really: the sense of superiority and power that attend self-aggrandizemenet, without the nagging internal voice that invariably accompanies displays of pedantry before the watching world. As an added bonus, you won’t waste everyone else’s time.

            By the way, if in the future you should feel compelled to quote multiple “errors” when posting comments on articles, please do the world a favor and use proper punctuation.

          • Neil S.

            I’m a professional lexicographer. What is considered “correct usage” is often quite arbitrary, and what works for a legal or technical document is not necessarily going to be appropriate for a blog post or a literary journal.

            I assume Paul’s issue is with Nate’s use of intrusive ‘of’ (“As great of a writer as you thought you were” vs. “As great a writer as you thought you were”). With the exception of severe prescriptivists like Bryan Garner (who writes with an eye
            toward legal clarity), most usage commentators don’t have a problem with this;
            they call it established idiom, and I would certainly expect the editor of a literary journal to demonstrate his grasp of idiom. As a writer, I would be more likely to question an editor who felt that strict adherence to legal/technical syntax would strike the right tone for a lit mag.

        • Anthony_Martin

          Hello,

          Possible syntactical and grammatical errors aside (by the way, you missed this typo: “often just as hard on the editor simple because of constraints put on an existing issue”), it is a bit hypocritical to disparage the editor of a literary magazine about “dumping [...] advice in the public space” only to (in the same breath) make a superficial, rather limited review of Bartleby Snopes in the Comments section of a blog. What, from your pompous response to this blog and Ivory-tower critique of Bartleby Snopes, would encourage readers to put any stock into your criticism, especially when it embodies the very do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do spirit that you criticize the author of?
          Like Nathaniel, I feel you’ve missed the point of the post.

          Fortunately for you, there are outlets for your half-baked review of Bartleby Snopes, such as The Review Review. However, the standards at places like The Review Review rather high, so you might think to read a full issue of any magazine and then fully develop your review before you venture to submit it.

          When you get to that point, I recommend coming back here and re-reading this blog–it might increase the odds that your criticism will be taken seriously.

          –AM

    • Bob Meade

      As a contributor to Bartleby Snopes, I have found Nate very willing to work with submissions and to reconsider them after revision. He’s a breath of fresh air. I would not describe the writing as produced by those who “failed third grade English.”

      • Don Wong

        Hey Nate,

        Was I wrong thinking Bartleby Snopes was a detective agency? If so, could you send back the pictures of my wife in that Cadillac SUV with the black gentleman strong forward for the Sacramento Kings please? Thanks,

        Bildo

  • LisaRomeo

    Agree!
    Another completely selfish side-benefit: if you edit (or even just read) for a journal that uses Submittable, you get an inside look at how your own material will appear to the editors at the journals to which YOU submit your own work. Almost immediately, you will have a huge new appreciation for the importance of formatting your documents, wording your cover note, and following the submission guidelines exactly.

  • Gloria Garfunkel

    Professionally I was a psychologist for thirty years to make a living and hear stories while helping people. But what really made me a writer was working for a fiction book publishing company (I saw Kurt Vonnegut many times coming in and out) doing the slush pile as an editorial assistant. The worst books made me wonder how people could waste their time like that. The best ones I tried to get my editor to look at and she was just interested in the big names. But what I learned was the variation, and that my own writing was nowhere near as bad as the worst, and was really as good as the best. That convinced me to keep going, that I’d get published some day. I’ve retired from psychology and am writing full time, trying to get a flash collection together to publish. I know now that I can do it.

  • Gabriel Ricard

    Simply in terms of what it’s meant to me as a writer, I cannot begin to list the ways in which I’ve benefited from working for first Unlikely Stories, then my own (ill-advised) attempt at starting a lit magazine several years ago, and now Drunk Monkeys and Kleft Jaw.

    But this article sums up a lot of those benefits beautifully.

    Great write.

    • Nate Tower

      Thank you for sharing your experiences. I think one thing that many people don’t realize is just how difficult it is to run a lit magazine. It takes hours and hours of “unpaid” work every week. But the benefits more than make up for all of the work.

      Starting a lit mag is certainly not an easy undertaking. When Bartleby Snopes first launched over 5 years ago, it was pretty ugly. We have definitely found our groove though, and we love all the support we’ve received over the years. No lit mag can make it without fans!

  • Chris

    paul herman! I’m gonna eat your children

  • http://batman-news.com Zola Acker

    Great article – thanks! I noticed that Bartlby Snopes is accepting applications for Assistant Editor for “three weeks” – what is the deadline to apply?

    • http://batman-news.com Zola Acker

      “Bartleby” excuse me!

    • Nate Tower

      Hi Zola, thanks for commenting. We are accepting applications until March 30th. Hope to see your application!