It goes without saying there are a lot of factors that go into how a literary journal selects work for publication. As the assistant managing editor at TriQuarterly, I’ve found even genre editors at the same magazine have dramatically different decision-making processes. The discussions I have with our fiction, poetry, nonfiction, and video teams are all nuanced in esoteric ways. With this series of round tables, I wanted to compile various editorial perspectives to give writers insights into different aspects of the gig. To kick off, I asked four editors I very much admire for some thoughts on a perennially hot topic—submission strategies.
-Aram Mrjoian, Interviews Editor
In conversation with:
-Megan Giddings: Fiction editor at The Offing, contributing editor at Boulevard
-Jennifer Wortman: Associate fiction editor at Colorado Review
-Luiza Flynn-Goodlett: Editor-in-chief at Foglifter
-Robert James Russell: Editor-in-chief at CHEAP POP, publisher at Midwestern Gothic
Outside of the basics, the sort of nebulous submissions page language, what do you look for in an ideal submission?
Megan Giddings: For me, I'm looking for a story that's imaginative in some way. I don't mean the nebulous, starting to get played-out, write weird. I mean I'm looking either through language or content for a story to surprise me, to show me that the writer is engaged with how interesting living actually is. I love inventive and dynamic language. But I'm also fine with a straightforward, more soberly written story as long as if by page 2, I can't tell you exactly where it's going. Where even if it's about an unhappy teen, I can't tell you everything that's going to happen because the character is miraculously alive on the page. I think the most unfortunate thing about reading a lot of submissions for a literary magazine is you become a person who is extremely good at seeing where a story is going. But if you surprise me, I'll be a fan for life.
Robert James Russell: To be surprised. When editors do their job for any length of time, you start to notice trends and patterns. It’s unfortunate, but when you’re reading a boatload of submissions, it’s just the reality. We all put great care into our submissions page—always read these, y’all!—and everything we put there is a foundation, a bare minimum of what we want to see, rules to follow, but what I’m looking for, beyond that, is someone who’s going to take a chance, zig instead of zag, end a piece where I didn’t think it would end. I want to be left agape. Good writing is a beautiful thing, yes, but give me something I haven’t seen before, a perspective, a voice, a style, a story.
Jennifer Wortman: Colorado Review’s head fiction editor, Steven Schwartz, and I have similar sensibilities, but my tastes are maybe a bit more eclectic. If I had to pin down what I look for in a submission, I’d say a riveting voice, a fresh vision, well-wrought characters, narrative drive, psychological complexity, intellectual force, and emotional punch. But I also love stories that successfully subvert narrative form and don’t necessarily contain all those elements. And while there isn’t always a clear distinction, I lean more toward intensity and authenticity than immaculate technique, though we always, of course, want to see baseline technical skill.
Luiza Flynn-Goodlett: Like many of my answers, this may only apply to folks submitting to our very queer journal, but we're looking for well-crafted, challenging work that expands and deepens our understanding of queer experience and/or identity. We're looking for pieces that make us sit up straighter, that feel urgent and alive on the page. Maybe that's too nebulous, but as a group of editors, we all have pretty different aesthetics and interests, and I think the journal reflects that diversity of vision. We just hope each issue is a snapshot of that particular moment of queer writing in all its cacophonous glory.
What is the No. 1 mistake writers make when submitting to your journal?
LFG: Can I say dick poems? For the love of all that's holy, please stop sending those.
RJR: Not reading submission guidelines. They’re written with great care, and ultimately, yes, they may just be basic rules for what we want to see—word count, genre, etc.—but they are there for a reason. No matter how many submissions a journal may get, it’s this kind of stuff (not following directions) that instantly will set pieces apart; and sure, this might sound austere, but think about it: Everyone else took great care in crafting cover letters and fine-tuning submissions, showing they are actively thinking about where they send their pieces, who they are sending them to. That’s no small thing. This community of writers, our larger, amazing community, is built on small kindnesses like this.
MG: One of the things we talk a lot about when reading submissions at The Offing is who is the story's intended audience. The Offing's mission is to create a literary journal that centers the work of writers who are marginalized. Centering for us doesn't just mean publishing those writers, but trying as hard as possible to find work that is writing toward those people. A very simple example of this is we often get stories about very sensitive young men who just want to make art and the world just won't let them. The girlfriend often is disparaged because she does not support his art. Or a woman is there to be fucked. And the whole focus is this man who will one day get that publishing deal or sell his gauzy paintings of water and boats. It's a story obviously written for a man by a man who is only thinking about himself while writing. I could probably write a long essay about how this gets even more complicated when it comes to stories about race and gender identity and how often writers on the outside have to write to center a white audience. It gets very, I guess the best word is sticky, when we talk deeply about those submissions. But I do think that writers forget that if they're ready to be submitting, they should be taking the time to be thoughtful about who might be reading their submissions.
JW: Not having a good sense of the kind of work we publish. For instance, we often get stories that go well outside our preferred length. I write flash fiction and adore good flash fiction, but we don’t publish flash fiction. We print only four stories per issue, so we like them on the meaty side, typically 15 to 25 pages. We sometimes publish pieces outside that range, but we don’t publish the extremely short. Nor are we typically big fans of the extremely long. When people send stories over 30 pages, the piece then bears the extra burden of justifying its length. I rarely see a very long story that couldn’t use some streamlining.
What draws you into a submission and keeps you reading?
JW: I’m a sucker for a strong voice: a strong voice will draw me in, but it’s typically a story’s vision, its larger sensibility as developed through character, conflict, and/or theme, that keeps me reading.
RJR: When I talk about or teach writing, I like to discuss our default settings—we all have them, the POVs or tics we lean into (often) without thinking about it. For me, a default is third person past tense—I love it, but when I’m starting something new, I have to stop and ask myself: Why? What does this story need—and is this it? The reason I say this is, it can be easy, I think, to see when people are writing in their default, when they haven’t given enough thought to how something should be written. An idea might be magical and wonderful, but the execution of it ends up being just…okay. And it’s not that the author isn’t capable, it’s that they didn’t stop to ask: What is my approach? Why am I starting/ending here? Why this voice? Same thing I mentioned earlier, but I want to be surprised. If we get ten pieces telling a similar story, the one that tries something bold or different—read: I’m not saying pieces need to be “experimental” in any way, but when you can see that thought went into length and voice and tone, etc.—those pieces will stand out. These are the ones that surprise, that give us insight we haven’t seen before. And that’s what I want: to see the world from an angle I’ve never considered. I want your story to show why it couldn’t have been written by anyone else.
LFG: I'm a sucker for sincerity. Life's too short for irony, so I respect for work that makes space for deep vulnerability and gentleness.
I'm also delighted to receive submissions that address subjects rarer to queer literature, like the natural world or faith. I feel like I learn a lot from those writers.
That said, I love work that has conviction in its own voice, even if that voice is sarcastic or biting. As long as there's energy and passion behind it, I'll probably keep reading.
What do you make of the quality vs. quantity of submissions debate? Has being a lit mag editor altered your strategies for submitting your own work to other journals?
RJR: There are so many incredible writers and so much incredible writing out there. Full stop, right? I mean, that’s just reality. I do think a journal—and each issue—has a certain voice, and you need to be conscious of that. I can’t imagine a scenario where we’re just taking pieces to take them; we look for a number that makes sense to us, that’s worked for us, but we keep things open: If we don’t get there, if, for this issue, we find fewer pieces that match what we’re looking for, then so be it. It’s not a sprint; we don’t want issues to be lost, forgotten, because we had some weird goal