An Editor’s Perspective on Two Types of Journals

By Michael Smith, Assistant Editor

While submitting to journals can be an intimidating experience, being on the other side, working on the editorial staff of a literary journal, can be just as intimidating.  If you read journals regularly you have probably had the experience of reading through an issue and thinking at one point or another, “Now why the hell did they decide to publish this?”  That uncertainty—about the validity of your tastes, about your ability to distinguish between what’s good and what’s not—tends to stick with you when, as an editor, you start reading through submissions, trying to determine what is publishable.

Being the only M.A. student on a staff that is otherwise composed entirely of writers working their way through UMSL’s M.F.A. program certainly doesn’t help with this uncertainty.  But one fact does help: this is not my first rodeo.  As an undergrad I worked for several semesters on the editorial staff of the journal published by my university.

However, I have found that, given the many differences between that journal and Natural Bridge—differences of circulation, number of submissions received, and staff structure—the transferability of my experience and knowledge gained as an undergrad is limited.  Here I hope to give a brief account of these differences, both to illuminate the variety of experiences one can encounter when working on an editorial staff and to give writers a sense of the kind of attention and scrutiny they can expect their work to receive at different types of journals.

The most noticeable difference between Natural Bridge and the journal I edited as an undergrad is that the latter has a circulation of about 2,500, whereas the former’s is less than a thousand.  This means that at Natural Bridge we receive fewer submissions, which can be either a good or a bad thing for you as a submitting writer.  Essentially, what it means is that we can spend a lot more time with your submission.  Whereas editors at the larger journal were told to spend no more than ten minutes looking over each submission (allowing each to burn through between 30 and 50 submissions per week), at Natural Bridge each editor is assigned about eight submissions per week to carefully peruse.

So if you are a writer whose strongest writing appears in the first page of your submission, this could be bad news, as we will be looking closely at the entirety of your work.   This is not to suggest that at a larger journal your work could squeak by and get published on the merits of its first page, but it would certainly be more likely to reach a higher point in the editorial chain of command, possibly delaying your rejection and earning you what we liked to call a “nice rejection.”  On the other hand, if you are a writer who has stronger endings than beginnings, your work is more likely to receive the serious attention it deserves at a journal like Natural Bridge, where we have time to consider the effect of each story in its entirety.

As an undergrad working for a larger journal, I had the privilege of seeing famous writers published in nearly every issue we put out—writers like Sherman Alexie, James Richardson, D.A. Powell, and Mary Jo Bang.  On the other hand, most of these writers’ work was submitted directly to those previously mentioned editors who were higher in the chain of command, and I’d never see this work until it appeared in the final publication.  Rarely, if ever, would I encounter in my reading any of the work we actually published, often leaving me with the feeling that my job was merely to skim the slush pile, making sure we didn’t accidentally miss any big names.

Natural Bridge offers an entirely different editorial experience.  Every piece of writing that we publish is read by every member of the staff before a final decision is made.  When there is disagreement concerning whether a piece is publishable, the matter is put to a vote, giving each of us a truly influential role in the formation of the final product.  While this is empowering, it can also be, as mentioned above, intimidating.  There is no safety net, no deference to a chain of command.  If we publish something bad, we are all equally responsible.  However, on the rare occasions when we find something we can all agree is an excellent, moving piece of writing, we all share equally in the pride of having brought it to publication.

Be Cool: A Guide to Not Wildly Alienating the Editors

By Ryan Smith, Assistant Editor

Publishing poetry can be a tough gig. The daily grind for most poets – the real grind, the dull work we do absent any intrinsic reward, as opposed to the scarce but enormous fruits of writing and wrestling a poem into something halfway decent – involves submitting to lit journals. Sometimes dozens of them. I agree, it sucks, and it’s the closest we get to feeling that writing is the shitty office job that we took up writing specifically to avoid.

Nothing I can say will make you feel better, except to remind you that at the end of all of your letter-composing, stamp-licking, envelope-stuffing and/or file-attaching and/or copy-pasting, etc., is the possibility that you will be affirmed and validated and feel as though a group of people chosen specifically to despise you and everything you have to say or think actually finds your poetry sensitive, well-crafted, and moving. This is one of the better feelings in the world. I can also give you some advice – as a poet who is also sending his stuff out and so he’s right there with you, buddy, but also as the assistant editor for a couple of journals – on how to make sure your poems get a fair shot and look like the hard work of not just a semi-respectable and professional human being, but a decent one, a person who respects the time and work and eyesight of others.

The first thing I ask you to do is to read the submission guidelines. Seriously. Read them. Read them and follow them. You can find them on the journal’s website (you can find the guidelines for Natural Bridge here) or in the front of the print journal. The guidelines will tell you the reading period (the period during which the journal is accepting submissions). More importantly, the guidelines tell you how many poems to send; whether the journal accepts work that has been submitted elsewhere simultaneously; and whether the journal wants you to submit your poems through the mail or online.

Please take note of the number of poems the journal requests. Natural Bridge, for example, asks for 3-6 poems. Now, if I receive a submission with just one or two poems, I don’t care. I’ll read your poems, and I won’t think anything more or less of you. Other journals work similarly; their guidelines contain a ceiling for how many poems you can send them, but not a floor. Don’t break the ceiling, not even by a single poem. It’s not that we’ll return your submission unread, it’s that we’ll think you either a) didn’t care enough to read our guidelines or b) read our guidelines, and didn’t care. Either way, you come off as kind of a jerk, especially if you wildly and frantically ignore the number of poems we can handle at a time. For example, do not, as did one poet whose submission I was assigned recently, send us more than 50 pages of poetry. If you send us too much of your work (even if all of it is worthy of publication), we won’t read all of it, and we won’t want to publish you regardless of the quality of your poems because you will have activated our human desire not to reward bad behavior. You never want to push that button in an editor.

I would also take this second rule to heart: the arrangement of your packet is not arbitrary. Do you have control over the order of the poems in your packet? Exercise that control. So many things are outside of our power when we submit our work to journals that when we have control over an element of the process, why not take advantage of that control? Be intentional; make decisions about what poem goes first, what goes second, and so on. My suggestion is that the best poems in your submission go first and last. The final position is important because it’s the poem you leave the editor with. The first position is important because it’s your poems’ introduction to the editor, and it gives you an opportunity to get the editor on your side. As a caveat, I’ll let you know that I often like the first poem in the submission of a poet that Natural Bridge ends up publishing, but it’s not always the poem that gets published. It need not be THE best poem you have for us – but it should be one you’re confident in. If the first poem makes me confident in your abilities and intrigues me, I’ll be on your side, I’ll want to keep reading.

If you’re submitting through an online submission manager, as most journals are having you do these days, then pay attention to your pagination. Are you copy-pasting anything? Review and correct any formatting errors that have resulted. Are you attaching the file? (And it’s one file you’re sending, not 3-6. Editors get aggravated by having to open a different file for each poem, and they’ll usually tell you they want the poems as a single document). If you’re attaching the file, look at the document before you do. Make sure that each poem begins at the top of the page, and not in the middle or the bottom. If you can, correct last lines that might get orphaned on a second page. As readers, we can find these phenomena jarring, and as fellow writers, we want to know that you respect the logic of the page and the experience of the reader enough to remedy stuff like that.

The final thing you ought to do when you’re formatting your poems is to choose a good typeface. This is an easy choice to make, as, as far as I’m concerned, you have two options: a serif font like Times New Roman, or the default in your word processor. It only becomes difficult if you have changed the default to anything but a serif font like Times New Roman. If you’ve done this, change it back. If you find yourself clicking on the font bar in your word processor with your mouse, stop. Your typeface ought to look like the typefaces most journals actually use, as it will help us visualize your work in the context of what we’re putting together, and that’s always a plus for you. Your typeface should not look like it was meant for a yoga studio brochure or for a really funny chain email – in other words, no papyrus, no comic sans, no computer cursive. I wouldn’t even use Courier, the font that makes it look like you used a typewriter. At least to me, the suggestion that your preferences for technology are old-fashioned and obsolete is a red flag that your aesthetic preferences might be old-fashioned and obsolete, too. And no, this isn’t entirely fair or rational, except insofar as a lot of my editorial reading has proven it to be true, at least as far as poetry goes.

Most importantly, what an acceptable typeface does is let us focus entirely on your poems. It’s legible.  If we pause in the middle of your poem, it’s because we’re appreciating a phrase or grappling in the best way with a complex thought, and not because we’re deciphering a letter. To paraphrase Marianne Moore, it’s a plain font that cats and dogs can read.

Don’t be afraid of sending your stuff out (and don’t be afraid of sending your stuff to us; we’re still reading). We give you a fair hearing. We want what we read to be good, believe me. All that my advice is meant to assure you is that it’s the content of your work that catches our eye and demonstrates its quality. A good poem will jump out and seize our attention, and that’s all you need to work toward. So don’t show up in our mailbox in a bathrobe; don’t waltz in and start rifling through our fridge. Be cool.