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What You Should Be Looking for When You Read a Lit Mag

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October 11, 2014 by Nathaniel Tower

You’ve heard it a thousand times: don’t submit your writing to a literary magazine without reading what they publish first.

It’s a great piece of advice. By reading the lit mag, you not only support what they do, but you also get a sense of what they publish. This allows you to send something that might be a good fit (or not send anything at all). You won’t waste your time or the editor’s time with a submission that is completely inappropriate for this venue. In short, everyone wins.

That’s all well and good. But what exactly are you supposed to look for when you read a lit mag? And just how much of the lit mag do you need to read before you find it?

How Much Should You Read

Let’s address the “how much” question first. You don’t have to go back and read every single story or poem a magazine has ever published. But you do need to read enough to get a sense of the type of work they publish. Okay, that’s still vague. Let’s quantify it. If the magazine publishes regular issues (quarterly, monthly, bi-annually, etc.), then read through at least two issues. That doesn’t mean you have to read every word from those issues, but you should give them a careful look. If the magazine doesn’t have a regular publication schedule, then pick a handful of stories and poems (5-10) to read. The more you read, the better idea you will have regarding what they want to publish.

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At this point, you might be thinking something like this: Wait a minute. If I read this many stories and poems from every magazine, then I won’t have enough time to submit my story to twenty-five different magazines. This is an excellent point. Of course, if you actually read the publications before submitting, then you shouldn’t need to submit to twenty-five places.

While we’re still on the topic of how much you should read, I have one more piece of advice. You don’t have to read a bunch of stuff you don’t like. If you find yourself struggling to get through what they publish, then stop. Time to abort your submission mission. Move on to another magazine. After all, why in the world would you want to be published alongside stuff you don’t like?

What You’re Looking For

This is the much trickier part of the equation. If you don’t have an idea what to look for, then you can read every story a magazine has ever published and still end up sending something that is a terrible fit.

literary detective

Before we get into the specifics of what you’re supposed to look for, let’s throw out a word of caution. Reading isn’t meant to be a chore. You don’t need to become a literary detective when you read. This isn’t about dissecting everything or making formulas that will allow you to determine the precise piece to send. Submitting your work isn’t about cracking some mysterious code. After all, you might read everything a magazine has published and still not have a chance at acceptance. Don’t forget that this ultimately is a subjective game.

That being said, there’s a lot you will gain when you actually read a publication’s stories and poems. As I often told my students, the best way to become a better writer is to read. This is something every writer knows, but we often forget it because we really want to write.

Okay, enough rambling. Let’s get to the meat of this now. Here are five of the most important things you need to look for when you read a lit mag’s previously published work:

1. The Prose/Style

Probably the most important thing you’re looking for when you read samples from a lit mag to determine what (if anything) you should send is the style of the writing. What does the prose look like? While every story probably (hopefully) won’t be the same, you are looking for general patterns in the writing. Are stories generally filled with flowery prose and detailed descriptions? Do the writers use a lot of long and complex sentences? Or do writers tend to use sparse language and choppy sentences? Does the writing typically feel “literary”? There are tons of questions to ask yourself here, but really what you are doing is getting an overall feel. After a few stories, you should be able to say either “Yeah, I write like this” or “This isn’t my style.” When looking at the prose, you’re really looking to see if you are a fit as an author rather than if you have anything in particular that fits.

2. The Structure

Along with a sense of the language the published authors use, you also want to get a feel for the structure. Do they typically publish traditional beginning-middle-end stories? Are stories fluid and straightforward, or is the writing typically disjointed or choppy? Are there a lot of paragraphs with heavy narrative, or does the writing tend to have a bang-bang-bang feel? What about the endings? Are things left unresolved or with loose ends, or do the writers generally tie up everything in a nice, neat package? As with the prose, there are so many things to look for here, but it shouldn’t take many stories before you realize if you have something that fits.

3. The Telling

The narrative voice of the writing is a big factor. Some publications (like my own Bartleby Snopes) make it clear what they want or don’t want (for example, we generally don’t like second person or third person present tense). However, most publications don’t break it down like this. When you are looking at the narrative voice of the stories, here are some things to pay attention to:

  • Does there seem to be a preferred POV (first, second third)?
  • Does there seem to be a preference for tense (past, present)?
  • Does the narrative voice tend to feel reflective? Detached? Straightforward?
  • Is there a lot of direct address?

It’s important to note that you are just making generalizations here. None of this will create objective criteria for an acceptance. You might read fifty stories that are first person past tense with a reflective narrator only to have your first person present tense story rejected as “not right for us.” But if you read fifty stories and notice the complete absence of a certain telling, then you probably don’t want to submit a piece like that.

4. The Themes

This might be the trickiest thing to pick up on, mostly because themes will usually vary so much from issue to issue and story to story. Still, it’s important to look at this, especially for tips on what not to send. For example, if you have a coming of age or love story and you can’t find any stories on the site that deal with these things, then you may want to steer clear. Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule (and neither are any rules other than following the stated guidelines of a publication). Maybe the publication just hasn’t received a good love story before. At the same time, seeing a particular theme or topic doesn’t instantly mean you should send a similar story. If they just published a talking wildebeest story, they probably don’t want to publish yours next month (unless you are submitting to The Talking Wildebeest Review).

Most of the time, you will have a general idea of what a publisher wants even without reading any of the stories. For example, you may know a publisher only wants weird stories. Of course, you still have to read some examples to find out just how weird they are looking for. Your weird might be quite normal to someone else.

5. The Machinery

Aside from the prose, this may be the most important piece of the puzzle. Here, you are looking for what seems to be the driving force of the published work. Typically, it will be any number of the following:

  • Characters
  • Plot
  • Setting
  • Description

If you typically writer character-driven stories, then you should know pretty quickly if you are a good fit for a magazine. Are your stories sparse on plot? Then you don’t want to submit to a magazine that seems to worship the plot-based stories.

Other Factors

The five factors above will help you make a decision of what/if to submit, but they don’t guarantee anything. There are also other factors to consider that could instantly lead to rejection (but probably not anything that will instantly lead to acceptance). If your story is very genre-specific, then you need to find a genre-specific magazine. If your story is laced with profanity, then you need to find a publisher willing to deal with this. If you have a story with a lot of gratuitous sex or violence, then you should be sure the magazine publishes stuff on the same level.

It’s Not a Science

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There are no guarantees in writing. No matter how many stories you read, or how many notes you take about the stories you read, there is nothing you can do that will give you an automatic acceptance. To recap, it’s important to read past work for two main reasons:

  1. To get a feel for what they publish so you can send something that seems like a good fit.
  2. To get a sense of whether or not you like the magazine enough to be published alongside their other work.

As a bonus, when you read the stories in a lit mag, you are supporting what they are doing.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do when you submit is send out only your best work. If you do anything less, then there really isn’t a point. What’s a publication credit worth if you don’t like the published piece (or the place where it’s published)?

What do you look for when you read samples from a lit mag? Share your tips in the comments.

Note: Thank you to writer Jonathan Levy for suggesting this topic.

7 thoughts on “What You Should Be Looking for When You Read a Lit Mag

  1. Jonathan Levy says:

    Nathan, what a great post! I’m sure I’ll return to it over and over. Learning about what magazines tend to publish is hard work, but this isn’t supposed to be easy. I would add that for writers relatively new to this game as I am — well, really for anyone — doing the work will help us improve our own writing: if you can’t answer these questions about your own writing, then I imagine it needs some work.

    Thanks again for posting this.

    • Jonathan, thank you for commenting. Glad you found this helpful. You are definitely correct that you will become a better writer by doing all this reading. You really have nothing to lose by digging through the depths of lit mags.

  2. John Timm says:

    Much like revising a manuscript, I have found that researching the right venue often takes as much time and effort as writing the work itself. Even then, there are no guarantees, but I believe you greatly improve the likelihood of acceptance.

  3. Adelaide says:

    Hi Nathanial,

    This post is very helpful, and I shall keep it in mind for rereading.

    For only print publications, it is necessary to order a back issue in order to sample the journal. That is slow and could be costly which is why many new writers probably send out their stories blindly to any journal with unsolicited submissions. I confess to having done that, only relying on a description of the journal found in The Writers’ Marketplace or some other reference source. When submitting to on-line journals it is easy to examine the journal’s latest issue. I usually read the beginnings of a few stories to judge the style of writing, the voice, the content, etc. If the author hooks me with a few paragraphs I’ll read all the way to the end.

    all the best,
    Adelaide

    • Hi Adelaide,

      Thank you for reading and commenting. It’s definitely more of a challenge to submit to print-only journals. Fortunately, many print journals offer a few stories online these days.

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