The Secret Lives of Literary Magazine Editors

In all that free time I have between the writing life, work life and home life (there really isn’t all that much social life), I get to squeeze in my editing life: I’m the Poetry and Book Reviews Editor at The Los Angeles Review, and I’m an Associate Poetry Editor for Fifth Wednesday Journal. Selecting work for these publications is one of my favorite tasks–just yesterday, I came across a poem in my Fifth Wednesday submissions that was so good I had to stand up and walk around for a while. There’s nothing like that kind of visceral reaction a piece of truly good writing can create, and there’s no better part of editing than discovering that kind of work.

It’s become clear to me recently, though, that a number of writers have a really different idea about what editors are doing and thinking: last week, I got an email from a very distraught submitter. He had failed to note in his initial cover letter that he’d simultaneously submitted his work. This follow-up communication was full of nearly obsequious apology. All this chest-beating and self-flaggellation over what he called his “gross oversight” freaked me out a little–we’ve always accepted simultaneous submissions, so it was really no problem. Another writer submitted his work in a file I couldn’t open. When I asked him to send them in another form, he gushed about what a wonderful change it was that I had not immediately trashed his work due to a compatibility issue (what kind of magazine editor would do that?).

It always surprises me when writers think of lit mag editors as heartless creatures, capriciously tossing people’s creative work into the recycling bin for our own inscrutable purposes. So, in the spirit of knowledge, allow me to disabuse you of a few apparantly-common fallacies about literary magazine editors (of course, I can speak only for myself and the other editors I know, but I imagine the below hold true for the vast majority of us):

Fallacy 1: We think we’re better than you because we are editors, and you are not. We scorn your work.

Reality: Editors tend to be pretty nice, pretty generous people. It’s not like editing a journal is a very glamorous job–we do a mighty hunk of work for low or no pay because we believe in the importance of showcasing good writing.  We’re giving our time and effort so that your work can be read, not because we’re power-tripping.

Fallacy 2: We’re looking for any reason to reject your writing.

Reality: We want you to succeed! When your poem starts well, we’re smiling. If it continues to be good through the middle, our hearts beat a little faster. If it ends well, too, we might just sound our barbaric yawp. We love good writing, and we want you to give it to us! But no matter how much we’re rooting for you, if the writing is flawed, we’re going to pass.

Fallacy 3: We don’t read your submissions thoroughly.

Reality: We read it all. Even if we’re pretty sure a poem is not for us, we read it. Much of the time, several editors read it. We read the poems guys write about their junk. We read homages to the writer’s cats. We read what appear to be left-aligned journal entries. We read about the flora and fauna of the American back yard. Let me repeat: we read it all.

Fallacy 4: We’re extremely concerned with your prior publications.

Reality: While it’s cool if you’ve had work in a journal we really like, it’s unlikely to influence our final decision. And nothing makes us happier than to be the first to publish a great new writer. So tell us where you’ve been before, but don’t worry if you’re still trying to break into the magazine world. It’s all about the work you’ve put in front of us.

Fallacy 5: We have no feelings.

Reality: Okay, so it’s unlikely any writers actually believe editors are devoid of human emotion, but sometimes it seems that way, especially when one responds to a rejection notice with nasty or abusive material. We’re writers, too, and know that rejection doesn’t feel great. However, it’s not personal. When writers make it personal by being unkind, well, that’s just weird. What would their mothers say?

All this is to say, don’t be so darn scared or suspicious of editors or of the whole submissions process–just send us your best work, be nice, and we’ll consider your writing with the kind of respect we hope to have from others.

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5 Replies to “The Secret Lives of Literary Magazine Editors”

  1. See, this is why I love writers with editorial experience. Not only do they have a good sense of quality work, but their realistic view of the process makes them quite pleasant to work with.

  2. Some of the fear of editors may come from those ominously worded submission pages on the web sites of a few lit journals, which indicate your story or poem will indeed be discarded (and ridiculed) if you don’t follow their rules to the letter. And I did once receive a nasty rejection from an editor when I overlooked that the journal wanted stories single spaced instead of double.

    But all in all, I think you’re right. I read for a lit journal too, and the more submissions I see, the more I realize how hard writers are trying to do their best. In fact, on those days when everything I read seems bad, I put the work aside and reread it later, when I feel I’m in a more appreciative mood.

  3. I have a question. Does a story have to be “perfect” in order to be accepted? How often do editors agree to accept a story if revisions are made? For example, if the story has a great middle and ending, but the beginning is not the greatest, would they still accept the story if the writer agreed to revise the beginning?

  4. Everett, that’s a good question. And while I can’t speak for fiction editors, I know that, as a poetry editor, I certainly ask writers for revisions. (I did just yesterday, actually.) If most of the poem really works, but one line has a bizarre rhythm or a poor break, I’ll ask whether the poet’s open to an edit. That, to me, is what makes me an editor, not a literary gatekeeper.

    It should go without saying, though, that you want to make sure your work is as solid as possible before you submit. You don’t want to bank on an editor’s goodwill any more than you must.

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