From my perspective, the tendency among writers to focus on and discuss the slush pile makes it’s easy to forget all the other projects and challenges that go into running a literary journal. Even if editors dream of spending their hours seeking out gems and marking up manuscripts, those tasks are often cast aside to attend to more practical matters: paperwork, production, and promotion, to name a few. Events need to be planned. Volunteer staffs require consistent reorganization. The emails never end. Given these demands of the job, I asked three editors about the behind-the-scenes aspects of their publications and how editing has changed their perspectives as writers.
-Aram Mrjoian, Interviews Editor
Carrie Muehle: Managing editor of TriQuarterly
Elizabeth Kolenda: Managing editor of New Delta Review
AprilJo Murphy: Nonfiction editor at The Boiler and editor at Greenleaf Book Group
Aram Mrjoian: What do you think most writers don't know about the day-to-day operations of running a literary magazine? What work do you do as an editor that's often under-appreciated?
AprilJo Murphy: Perhaps what's most surprising for non-editors is that there really are several stages for a piece to go through before it's finally approved. Readers will vet before assistant editors and then editors will offer choices to the editor-in-chief. Oh, and generally nobody is getting paid for anything.
Carrie Muehle: Years ago, before I started with TriQuarterly, I always imagined a managing editor gig as having two primary types of tasks: there would be a lot of reading, and a lot of back and forth with writers and copyeditors to get pieces ready for publication. Of course that's accurate, I spend a lot of time on both of those things, but I spend at least as much time on administrative tasks, such as event planning and issue production. The administrative stuff has to do with keeping our reading machine as well oiled as possible. Maybe a genre editor needs a new reader on their team because one had to take a break, or maybe their team is divided on whether or not a story or essay should be sent on to the editors' table and they need me to read it and weigh in. I also field a lot of emails from contributors, maintain our Submittable account, and set up staff meetings. It's a lot of moving parts and it takes longer than one would think, but I really do enjoy the variety.
The event planning is probably the aspect that surprised me most in terms of how much time it takes, and it probably includes the most under-appreciated tasks. If TQ goes to a conference, it falls on myself and the assistant managing editor to figure out table/booth setup and staffing, and to get marketing materials and giveaways organized. When we host readings (and we usually host two per year), the AME and/or I need to find an event space, order catering, organize and communicate with readers, watch over budgets...so many details! It's a ton of behind-the-scenes work and I don't always enjoy every task, but I *do* enjoy the hell out of the readings themselves. They give us a chance to meet our contributors face to face—they are always the most lovely, interesting people—and to hear them give voice to their work. It's one of the most enjoyable aspects of the job.
TriQuarterly is an online publication so I also spend a lot of hours in our content management system. Once all content for an issue is copyedited and ready to go, I'm the one who loads it into our system, and works with the online team to make sure everything is formatted as it should be. We usually have upwards of thirty pieces in every issue, each with its own formatting needs, so this is where I burn my midnight oil. I like to do a final read of each piece once it's loaded, just to make sure things didn't go askew in the transfer to an online format, so that takes several hours as well.
Elizabeth Kolenda: I look at every single submission New Delta Review receives, and that’s something that is really important to me. I think it helps to give our issues a cohesive feeling across genres, having at least one person who has a sense for everything we are receiving in a given submission period and how they all cohabitate. Most of us writers probably don’t realize that, even though we all receive so many rejections, editors really put a massive amount of care into reading people’s work. For me, editing is a labor of love, and I see the huge effort that goes into the work people submit. I try to reciprocate that energy at least in some small way. Oftentimes we have long conversations about the impact of a piece that we ultimately don't accept. I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to encounter such a huge variety of work and I really do put a large amount of time into reading things thoroughly.
I think that aspect of editing can be under-appreciated, perhaps because as writers we can all begin to feel a bit jaded with the whole submission process. Before I began editing I don’t think I thought of editors as particularly emotionally invested in the work that they were reading, but my team and I seem to all be on that same wavelength. Other than that, editing involves a thousand other tiny detail-oriented jobs (for example, learning simple coding to put together the NDR’s online issue) that I never realized were a part of the job. We have to wear a ton of different hats.
AM: At the editor's table, what's your journal's general process for discussing and selecting work for publication? What considerations go into what ultimately ends up in each issue?
EK: First, we all read a piece on Submittable and make our comments there. I encourage everyone to read a submission before looking at the bio/cv because I think it’s important to meet any given piece on its own terms without prior judgment. It’s usually pretty clear whether something falls into one of two categories, a no (which must be unanimous), and the yes/maybe category, which means it needs to be discussed in our genre meeting before it is accepted. Even if only one person likes a piece, we will still discuss it at our meeting. That person will have the opportunity to make their pitch and there have been times when one person out of four was able to advocate for a piece to the point where we all got on board and accepted it.
As editor-in-chief, I think it’s my job to make sure we are maintaining the overall vision for the magazine. NDR has a pretty specific aesthetic niche, which has been cultivated over the past 35 years, and it’s important to me that we continue to cultivate what we are known for. If a piece is spectacular but doesn’t help to progress that vision, we will usually have to turn it down. We are looking for work that is continually challenging genre, that pushes our engagement with form as well as content, that isn’t just experimental for the sake of the experiment but because it makes us renegotiate what it means to be a writer. I think the space of re-negotiation is the richest for me as an editor—how does a piece push me to be a better reader? I want to publish writing that challenges me to rethink writing itself.
AJM: We look at quality first and foremost. What moves us gets our support, and we'll often discuss between us what we think is original or compelling about the piece. If we're a digital journal, we don't care so much about word count—but sometimes in print that may come up. If a longer piece is up for acceptance, it may cut the number of other pieces able to be published in the genre down.
CM: We have genre teams in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that read each unsolicited work we receive through Submittable. Readers go into Submittable and read and score each piece on a scale of one to five (with one being the lowest score and five being the highest). We require that each piece be read by at least two team members before we make a call on whether to decline it or send it onto the editors' table. The highest scoring pieces go to the editors' table, where genre editors read and discuss (by email, as we have a few editors who aren't located here in Chicago). Our editors are all pretty in sync in terms of the TQ aesthetic so there isn't a whole lot of squabbling over what to publish; we're usually excited about the same pieces. Occasionally, we're torn and that's when we ask our faculty advisor to weigh in. She gives the final nod on everything we publish.
The top consideration is always the quality of the writing. We have thousands of competent stories and essays come our way but if the writing doesn't offer something special—in terms of voice, in terms of construction, in terms of perspective—it's probably not for us. I've been reading for TQ for so long that I can feel it in my gut when a piece is right for us—I actually get giddy—so we're always looking for that visceral response. TQ has a long history of publishing work that speaks to the societal issues of the day, so of course pieces that speak to current cultural and political goings-on while also hitting the mark with the writing will always catch our eye.
AM: How much work does your publication put into the revision process with writers? How do you work with writers to make their work its best?
CM: We look for pieces that are pretty much ready to go. We have a wonderful copyeditor who will catch typos and errors in grammar and punctuation, maybe a small error in logic here and there, but the work we accept is usually already 99% there.
AJM: We try to give some feedback to any piece that we've made an argument for internally and often suggest sending us the revised version at a later date. Some authors take us up on this, though we try to be clear that we're not promising acceptance if it's resubmitted.
EK: I think this changes a bit from editor to editor. I don’t tend to do a lot of revising, although past editors have done more extensive revising. I tend to do a thorough edit for grammar and typos, I might make a few stylistic suggestions but on the whole, we publish shorter pieces and they should be relatively polished for us to accept them in the first place. I think it would be a rare circumstance where I would accept something that needed more extensive edits. This is a personal preference of mine but I know other editors who might go back and forth multiple times with their writers on multiple drafts and rounds of edits.
AM: What are your main priorities in your editorial role? Managing slush? Social media? Promotion? Events? Production?
CM: My top priority is always the issue. I want to make sure we have a solid issue filled with important work. Production has to be a close second because I want the work we publish, which is always so amazing, to go out into the world looking as perfect as it can. We owe it to our audience and to the contributors who were generous enough to share it with us. I do wish I had more time to spend in slush but I'm fortunate that I have an assistant managing editor who is ALL OVER it and has worked very hard to get our response times in check. We're doing better in that area than we have in a very long time.
EK: My absolute priority is to put out the best issue possible, but I do all of the above. That means promoting contests, promoting the magazine itself when submissions are low, advertising to diverse populations so that we receive diverse submissions, keeping everyone organized with weekly genre meetings and then reading absolutely everything. Social media and events are part of promotion, and then of course with the production process, it's important to funnel all of that steam into releasing the best and most polished issue that we can! My priority is to the issue and to my staff, but that can mean a lot of different jobs that change from day to day.
AM: What are your work habits as an editor? How does it fit into your overall daily routine?
EK: I tend to read submissions the evening before any given meeting so that they are fresh in my mind. If I read something too far in advance I don’t remember it at all by the time we have to discuss it. Then the morning of a genre meeting I go through the submissions for that week and re-read any pieces that seem to be contenders and make a list for what we need to discuss in our meeting. This means I don’t read submissions every day. I do, however, check and work on social media for the magazine every day.
I’m not very good at having a set daily schedule, but I will say that I tend to spend at least two hours each day doing purely administrative work for the magazine, which includes mailing packages, responding to emails, checking social media, and keeping an eye on our Submittable. I like to do administrative work at a coffee shop or in the library if I can because it makes it a little more fun. As a writer and student, I absolutely cannot write or study in public. I need total silence for those things. So it feels relatively novel to be able to go out and take care of all the humdrum stuff in a busy coffee shop. I try not to answer emails in my bedroom; I try to save that space for my own writing.
CM: I usually do my work for the journal in the morning and early afternoon hours. With few exceptions, I work on it every weekday for three to five hours/day, and then maybe one to three hours on the weekends. When we're getting close to an issue launch, the hours definitely go up. Then it's more of an eight-hour day, with some hours in the morning/afternoon and some hours later at night.
AM: How has being an editor at a lit mag influenced or changed your writing process?
AJM: I think, before I began editing, I wasn't aware of how necessary revision is. There's nothing more disappointing than to be really into a piece only to discover halfway through it loses its way or contains irrelevant information. Everybody should revise and be thankful for it. I'm much more open to feedback now.
CM: I'm working on a novel, so the comparison isn't as direct as it would be if I wrote short fiction (or essays, or poetry), but I will say that my focus on first pages / early pages has definitely increased. I know all too well how quickly someone can bore of even the most beautiful prose if the story itself doesn't grab them right away.
The one downside to the managing editor role is that it does eat into my own writing time, so I have to be more efficient. I used to have the luxury of spending hours experimenting, knowing that if something doesn't work I could just throw it away. I don't have time for that anymore, so I've started outlining; I plan out everything in terms of plot before I start the real writing, the fussing with the prose.
EK: In so many ways! One of the best things about it is that I have had to really come to terms with exactly what I don’t like—the little and big things that really annoy me. And I need to be able to vocalize those things clearly in meetings, especially when there is a piece that I don’t like that others think is worthy of publication. This has helped me to notice when I’m doing those things in my own writing and they have become more and more obvious to me with time. So I’m constantly learning what I don’t want to do. Also, just in terms of the sheer volume of work that I read, I’ve begun to really recognize what it is that makes a piece of writing stand out from the rest and then stay with me. There are a few pieces I’ve read that didn’t necessarily all get published, but that I still think about frequently. I hope to imbue my own writing with that kind of urgency.
I think it has also taught me that editing is so subjective. I’ve begun to feel more confident in my own writing knowing that not everyone needs to like it. My genre editors and I disagree all the time. I don’t want to write something “objectively good” because I don’t think that really exists. I just want to write the thing that hits whatever note only I can hit. I think we all have that in us if we work hard enough. Our little verbal ticks and strangenesses, if put under the right kind of pressure, can be like a signature. That's what I'm aiming for.
AM: Do you approach your own work differently than you would editing someone else's?
AJM: Yes. I'm not a very good self-editor because I know too much about what I want my work to do. This kind of insight keeps me from seeing what my words actually say. It's made me very thankful for whatever feedback I get in my own rejections and writing communities.
CM: TQ keeps our editing at a copyediting-only level so I can't speak to this in terms of my experience with the journal. I'm in a writing group, though, and when I look at how I critique work for those folks, or how I critiqued work when I was doing my MFA, I'd say the only difference is that I look at my own *prose* more closely than I look at that of my peers. I could pick and pull forever at a sentence. Plot-wise, structure-wise, I'd say that I approach their work exactly as I do my own.
EK: I would love to say no, I approach my own work and the work of others in the same way, but I think we all have different blind spots when it comes to our own work. I can be overly sentimental about things that I really just need to cut from a piece. I rely so much on my community of other MFA students to help me to see what I can’t about my own writing, otherwise, why would I be in an MFA program at all? I think the reason I’m here is that community is like a pressure cooker for my writing. One time I was lucky enough to hear Amiri Baraka speak at Naropa University (where I got my BA in Writing and Literature) and he said, “If you write for yourself, keep it to yourself.” I still think about that all the time. Writing is relational for me. I need lots of feedback. But ultimately we have to remember who is steering the ship and go with our own gut in any given editorial decision.
AprilJo Murphy is a nonfiction editor at The Boiler Journal and an editor at Greenleaf Book Group. Her essays have been published in Autostraddle, The Billfold, Women's Studies Quarterly, and other places. She is a Fellow at the Writing Barn, where she sometimes teaches. You can follow her word-nerdery on Twitter @apriljomurphy.
Carrie Muehle is a graduate of Northwestern University’s MFA program and the Managing Editor of TriQuarterly, Northwestern’s literary magazine. In 2015, she was awarded a scholarship to attend the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, and was selected to participate in the juried workshops at the 2018 Aspen Summer Words Conference. She writes historical fiction and is currently completing her first novel.
Elizabeth Kolenda is the editor of New Delta Review, a graduate student-run literary magazine at Louisiana State University, where she is an MFA student in poetry. Originally from New England, she currently lives in Baton Rouge with her cat and her dog and an assortment of plants. She studies and writes about matriarchal family histories and processes of decay.