Thoughts on Editing for a Literary Magazine

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If you or a loved one have considered editing for a literary magazine, you may have run into the following observations and frustrations:

  • Hordes upon hordes of submissions that may or may not relate to your magazine’s stated mission
  • Incorrectly addressed or missing cover letters
  • Submissions and submission responses from readers (typically men) which harass, threaten, and abuse the editor
  • Guilt or shame over response times
  • Desire for more money or a greater revenue stream

You’re not alone. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of editors and readers out there working for free who have all, assuredly at some point or another, gone through the thoughts of, ‘why am I doing this?’

What Editing or Reading for a Literary Magazine Means

I’m not here to tell you what you should take out of volunteering with a literary magazine. Instead, I’d like to remind you that the literary, creative, and artistic worlds have thousands of entry points. My entry to contemporary literature and creative writing was a library copy of Ada Limón’s This Big Fake World. From there I read the acknowledgement page for listings of magazines who published my favorite poems and began to look for online copies and kin to these poems I treasured so much.

Your magazine’s archived physical or digital catalogs can make it across the world with seemingly happenstance circumstances. An old edition of a print mag gets sent over with a box of books donated to a newly opened library in Tehran, or some ambitious youth opens a pop-up zine store in their neighborhood, getting local readers into favorite and profound magazines.

Volunteering and and editing for a literary magazine means that you not only get input on but also get to create the community and readership for a generation of readers, new and old, to the art of contemporary creative writing and arts.

My Point for Editing a Lit Mag?

If you haven’t seen my twitter thread, I’d like to reiterate my points here: the point of editing creative work is you get to highlight artists on a platform and choose promotion. That’s the payment: others being influenced by artists you love.

In an absolutely ideal world would I want to be regularly paid for editing creative work? Honestly? No. I don’t really ever want to force a creative magazine to determine its standards of content around marketability. Is this a privileged choice? Absolutely.

But, from my perspective: The moment you introduce an income to the people making choices around who to accept and publish will sway the type and quality of content, regardless of the amount of integrity or nonbias one insists they will maintain. Antithetical to the goal.

Do I think editors should have less of a workload for the amount of labor they accomplish for these mags? Absolutely. It’s a shit load of work, a lot of stress, and can be frustrating at times. But I think there are better ways at reducing this stress than demanding to be paid:

1. Encouraging more people to be reader-volunteers and establishing better project management workflows could spread the overall workload over more people and therefore reduce the total stress on any one individual.

2. As much as, from a writer and submitter’s perspective, it pains me to suggest: Make that submission process tedious. If you, as an editor, honestly and truly feel that your submission audience is not what you’re looking for, create a more in-depth submission process. Ask for a link to recent magazine piece they loved and a sentence or two as to why they loved it. Request they name an editor whose stances they follow or encourage. Less for brown-nosing and more to invoke higher degrees of investigation and intimacy.You’ll get less total subs, by a lot I’d imagine, but the subs you receive will demonstrate a willing audience.

3. Have more specific submission periods. Restrict when you accept work and spread out your acceptances over a longer period of time.

Adapt, improvise. Don’t lash out at the community you love for keeping you too busy in the craft that you love. That’s not how love works. That’s not integrity.

If you’d like to hear more of my thoughts on literary citizenship or my observations on tapirs, follow my twitter @pretzelco.