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Top Literary Journal Editor Shares Submission Advice

Struggling to publish your stories in literary journals?

One editor who worked at “a top literary journal” fielded a long list of questions at Reddit, giving some practical advice for writers submitting stories to any kind of literary journal or magazine.

We’ve collected some of the best advice below, complete with links and quotes from the interview.

Advice from someone who worked as a “fiction and nonfiction editor for a top literary journal” 

1. Slush pile readers can only spend a few minutes on your story.

every magazine in the industry is woefully understaffed. Like, ridiculously so. Two years ago, our journal was open during the academic year, about 9 months out of the year, and received about 5,000 fiction submissions in that time. With a staff of about 6-10 readers in any given semester (sometimes more, if we were lucky), it was an enormous amount of stories for any individual. What does this mean? A reader can only, realistically, spend a handful of minutes on any piece.

2. “Quality of writing, style, and characterization” are extremely important.

From the literary side, I would have to say the quality of writing, style, and characterization are almost always valued over plot and storyline. Individual aesthetics will vary wildly from magazine to magazine, but if we’re talking about literary publications in general (Tin House, Paris Review, One Story, etc), then there will certainly be a baseline expectation about the quality of writing and depth of characterization. I’m sure these standards and expectations change, however, when you’re talking about genre magazines

3. Read as many literary journals as possible before submitting.

read literary journals as widely and deeply as possible. Basically, know your audience. As I mentioned in other responses, there’s basic standards of writing quality that are widely expected from journals, standards that I’d estimate at least 70% of what we received didn’t pass. And there’s the aesthetic standards (such as characterization and beauty of prose), too, which is admittedly much more subjective, but I absolutely do think exists. Study what’s already been printed — there’s a reason why we select the stories we love.

4. Literary journals depend on slush pile stories.

In a literary journal environment, it’s a bit different. Your job is more to shepherd the vision of the journal by selecting stories that reflect your staff’s tastes … So what did this shepherding involve? Reading slush. Reading a lot of slush. Looking for that gem in the pile that made you go crazy and want to gush about it to the other readers during meeting. That was probably 80% of the job … those who work these journals are often doing it for free/near free. It’s a labor of love.

5. Personal taste has a lot of influence at literary journals.

I saw a lot of stories that we passed on get picked up at mags I greatly respected. At the highest levels of writing, it really just comes down to taste.

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