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.