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Home > What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines
What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines

What Editors Want; A Must-Read for Writers Submitting to Literary Magazines

By Lynne Barrett

The Editor’s Job

A magazine editor is a person who enjoys bringing new writing to the world in a publication that will be seen, read, appreciated, and talked about.

This is the first fact anyone submitting to a magazine should understand. There may be two editors, or five, or a rotating group of a dozen student-editors on a board, but for purposes of this essay, let’s consider one who, if not totally in charge, has a large say in what goes on. This editor is committed to the magazine, to it reaching a readership, to its identity and survival.

The editor wants nothing more than to read something so fresh and powerful and polished there is no question it must be in the journal.

Instead the editor, having read 17 things this morning, keeps going, thinking: A run-on sentence in the first line! Oh no, another story with the character waking up hung-over and getting a phone call. Why must they flash back before anything interesting happens? That isn’t really funny. We don’t publish travel articles. Does no one read the guidelines? This one gets good in the middle, but then the character just sits down and thinks about stuff. Wonderful minor character but the main one is self-pitying. Almost. Good scene. Pretty good. Not quite. Please can’t somebody just dazzle me so I can pick something and stop this?

The editor reads till unable to process any more, goes to get some more coffee, and starts again, resolving not to give in to the temptation to say no as fast as possible in order to shrink the pile on the table, or the long list of files on the computer. The editor knows that because of the accumulation of negative thoughts, it is possible to miss something wonderful and make a mistake.

The editor, despite this, notices some good pieces, puts them aside to reread, sees in the light of second reading what holds up, and then passes the work along and meets with the other editor, or four, or eleven, and listens to their views, argues, surrenders, prevails, until there is enough for an issue that matches their vision of the magazine’s identity. The editor then moves on to overseeing the production of the issue (online, downloadable pdf, broadside, stapled, perfect bound, whatever it may be, this is hard, detailed work), while at the same time commencing to read for the next, trying to get together the money needed to keep this thing going, and getting the word out about the issue that just came out. Unless the magazine is a big commercial enterprise, the editor is continuously reading, selecting, working on production and lay-out, trying to get money or workers or both, and trying to get the magazine seen.

The editor is tired and busy.

Much of the editor’s work is invisible. What gets published may, possibly, go on to win awards or be anthologized, which helps to cast some reflected glory back on the magazine, but recognitions for an editor are few. One pleasure is sending out the acceptances, and knowing somebody is made happy. At the same time, the editor sends out flotillas of form rejections. This is a job to delegate, if possible, it’s so depressing. Those who think the editor is rejecting with some pleasure in hurting are entirely wrong. The editor, with an eye to the long run and a pang for those who come close, may send a few rejections that contain a word or two of encouragement, or even a longer letter. (See below for how to handle each of these possibilities.)

Yes, the editor is a gate-keeper, controlling entrĂ©e to something you want, but that is really of more importance to you than to the editor. The editor’s eye is on the magazine.

Your Job

You, of course, are a writer. Let’s say you are just starting to send out. You are thinking, Am I any good? Will this make people I love believe I’m worthwhile? Is that third paragraph unnecessary as R said in workshop, but I still like it, and if I keep it, and my story gets published then that will show R, but what if R is right after all? Is this my first step to fame and glory? Am I a genius? Am I in fact too good for this magazine I’m sending to or not good enough? Am I an idiot? Will my parents stop suggesting other jobs I could do given my education? Will strangers want to sleep with me because of my prose? Etc. etc.

None of this is of interest to the editor. Remember the editor’s deepest wish: Send something perfect for us, please.

So your job is to help the editor by sending work that is developed, complete, thoroughly revised, and—of great importance—appropriate for the magazine.

To do that last part of your job well, you have to read the magazines.

Yes, you do.

Not long ago, within a few days, three aspiring writers stopped me (in the office, in the parking lot, and at an airport gate) to ask: “Where should I send my story which is over 20,000 words long?” “Where should I send my work where it will be accepted as fast as possible? The agent I approached about my novel says I have to have a track record.” “What magazine likes grown-up fables that are a little weird?”

They were asking for a shortcut. It’s natural to want one, when you feel small in a big unknown world, and impatient, wanting results immediately. But I said, to each: “You can’t expect to be a professional if you don’t do your own homework.”

When I was starting out, I told my questioners, I spent at least one day each month in a library, reading literary magazines and taking notes on index cards. Yes, those were ancient times. It’s easier now, but you still need to read magazines and I still advocate having a set time to do this research, keeping it apart from your writing. And then you’ll be ready to send your work out.

Three out of three went on to say, “But does anybody ever read these magazines?” (Implying that because they haven’t, no one does.)

Yes, I said, people do. Writers do. Writers who want to learn what kind of writing gets published where, what it takes to break in. Writers who want to learn their craft. You’ll see things that you don’t like and things that stun you and teach you. In addition, other editors, agents, and even some people who just like to read, read magazines. When I edited Gulf Stream, a couple of smart agents and more than one editor wrote to ask for the contact information for contributors whose work they liked.

I told my questioners, if they didn’t believe me, to look at Dan Chaon’s interview in The Review Review, and read the reviews there, to look at New, AWP Chronicle,Poets & Writers, and Facebook (where journals have community pages which will send you helpful reminders of when they are reading), and start to make a list of magazines to investigate. Then, I repeated, choose some to read. If they are on-line and free, it’s easy. If they’re print journals, you may see a sample on the website, but you should go ahead and order the magazines whose samples intrigue you.

A good tip: go in together with four other people and each subscribe to a couple of journals, and then share them. So cheap! Then you can discuss the work that was chosen, which can be a great amplification of your usual workshopping. What do these pieces have (or not have) compared to the work you and your friends are writing? How unified, inventive, and polished does a story have to be to be published? Which editors like what?

Odds are you have read the work of your classmates, and the work of masters. Now you want to see the work of the people who are just maybe a step or three ahead of you. Read the contributors’ notes, which can lead you to find where those whose work you like are publishing and so follow trails through the literary world. Identify magazines you love, ones where the work excites you and speaks to what you want to do. Start to create a list, making pecking orders of ones you are interested in, based on their visibility, circulation, reputation, pay, attractiveness, or whatever factors matter to you.

Then you are ready to begin sending your work out.


Keep good records of what you send where, when.

Make sure your submission is done in the format asked for on the magazine’s website, and pay attention to the reading period. If a cover letter is part of the set-up, use the right name for the editor you are approaching, spelled correctly. You can include one sincere sentence about the magazine to show that you have really read it. “I especially enjoyed So-and-so’s story or poem in your Spring issue, because of: say something specific here.” You have no idea how ridiculously rare this is. (Note, if you do not like any work in a magazine, you should not be sending there. You and the editor are not going to be on a wavelength.)

Other than demonstrating that you have done your homework, essentially a cover letter or uploaded statement conveys information about what genre your submission is in and who you are. If you have credentials include them, but be simple and succinct. Many magazines are interested in discovering people, so there is no shame in saying, “If you select this story, it would be my first publication.” I think it is better not to list things that almost happened. It’s fine to cite winning a contest, but 12th place just says 11 were ahead of you.

Don’t assume the letter is a sales pitch. Upon arrival, your information may be read by someone opening the mail or logging files. That somebody may flag a previous contributor, a person whose submission has been solicited, or someone who has been asked to send again. But you cannot expect the editor will definitely see the letter, nor will a letter make the editor read the story differently than other work in the pile. What you send should not be full of explanations, plot summaries, testimonials (“my friends love it”) and pleas (“Even if you must reject, please send me comments.”). Put your creativity, humor, and sensibility into the work you submit. You are writing a business letter to a busy person. I think the best closing for a query letter is a simple, “Thank you for your time and consideration.”

Send out and get back to work writing and reading.

How To Receive A Rejection

A standard rejection slip will have a wording that was worked out, sometimes long ago, to let people down and move on. It is in no way personal. Do not brood over it. Note the rejection in your records. If you have established a pecking order of magazines, you sent the submission to one high on your list. Now simply move on to the next one. (If you simultaneously submit, it should be in groups of magazines you think are equivalent. You are going to have to live with the first acceptance you get.) You want to have many tiers on your list. To go straight from The Paris Review to your school literary magazine is to miss the area you most need to explore.

If, while the work was away, you thought about it and saw things you really want to do to improve it, do so. Then send it to the next place you want to try. Never send it back to the rejecting editor. (Let alone sending it back unrevised. Despite apocryphal tales, editors do remember what they have seen before.) You shouldn’t have sent to them before it was ready. Lesson learned. Move on. Luckily there are loads of journals.

Do not take the rejection slip, underline words or phrases on it, and send it back with a scrawled note saying: “‘Doesn’t suit your needs at this time?’ YOUR needs? Well, who cares about you and your pretentious magazine that I never liked anyway, etc., etc.” When people do this, editors post the missives in the office, to be mocked as coming from an immature writer who completely misunderstands how impersonal this is. You may set fire to rejection slips, show them proudly to your friends, use them as coasters for consolatory margaritas, but do not write anything in response.

How To Respond To A Minimally Encouraging Rejection

If you get a standard rejection with something addition written on it—“Sorry” or (better) “Try us again”—you should rejoice. And try there again. You were in the top 5% or 2% or 1% of the work rejected. Ideally, you have other work on hand to submit, but if not, do not feel you must act instantly. Let’s say you have a year. When you do send to this journal, start your cover letter with, “Thank you for your encouraging note about my story ‘G.’ As you suggested, I am trying you again with the enclosed story, ‘H.’” Then go on as usual. Don’t describe G to remind them! Don’t talk about what you have since done to G! This cover letter, which reminds them they liked you before, may let “H” get flagged as one to look at a bit more carefully.

How To Respond To A Longer, More Personal Rejection

If you get anything longer—a signed note, a letter—again, rejoice. You have come very close. Yet this does not mean the editor wants to see a revision. The editor wants to help you understand why you are close, or promising, but not there. Unless the editor specifically says, “Please do this and send me the revision,” the response called for is to send something else, ideally after having considered the something else in the light of the qualities the editor has described as good and what was lacking in the old one. Your cover letter should begin by thanking the editor for taking the time to write a personal letter. You may say it was helpful. But don’t go into the issues it raised.

Unfortunately, and paradoxically, the more an editor writes in a letter, the more likely there is to be some phrase that burns the writer’s sensitive soul. It’s still a rejection and may contain detailed criticism. You need to be strong, stay calm, and understand that the editor has taken trouble for you. You are not to rebut the letter, nor to go off hurt. You need to try this editor again. (I confess, I once got a note that said a story of mine “had its moments,” but that the topic was one the editor saw too often. I was very young and never tried him again. I now know this was foolish and self-defeating. The topic was common, the magazine a top one, and an editor’s bluntness is valuable.)

One of my friends once showed me a file of over 20 items—rejection slips, rejection slips with words on them, short notes, and long notes— that he’d received from one editor before he got a poem accepted by him. The collection showed how steadily and patiently he conducted himself in this process. He learned about the editor’s views along the way, and the editor may have learned to read his poetry better (certainly more slowly and attentively), too.

And what about the item that got the editor’s note? Be encouraged (it was good enough to get an editor’s time and thought) and send it elsewhere. Of course if the editor’s comments make sense to you, you may revise before you send on. But, revised or not, send it to the next place on your list, something close to the rejecting one, perhaps. My story that had its moments was published by the next journal I sent it to. My friend’s poems were published. What happens is that a piece of work finds its level, and then, with new work, you keep trying to move up.

There is also some transformation that happens when a piece is published: it is read differently. I heard once from an editor who had rejected a story of mine, with a long note, and then, since editors read magazines, saw it in the journal that took it soon after. He liked what I’d done with it, he said. I hadn’t changed more than a few words. I’d just found a better magazine for that particular story, and their typesetting, the work around it, the glow of approval, made it look different to him.

Acceptance: Dos and Don’ts:

When you get an acceptance, you should be in a position to say, immediately, “Thank you, I’m delighted,” and then you should notify any other journal that has the work under consideration. (It is not possible to hold up the accepting editor while you see if maybe The New Yorker will take it. This is why you should only simultaneously submit to magazines you think of as equivalent. First responder wins.)

If you have simultaneously submitted and already been accepted elsewhere and not notified the journal, you have not only wasted their time, but you may have caused someone else’s work to be bumped while they chose you. No, you cannot now write and say, “Oops, how about if I send you this other thing instead.” You have to apologize, say you screwed up, and if I were you I’d wait a little while before I sent there again, because they are likely to be sore. So this situation is to be avoided. Keep records, inform editors promptly.

When your work is accepted, say, “Thank you, I’m delighted,” and send the editor anything requested: contact info., signed permission form or whatever is required. (Make and keep copies for your files.)

Do not immediately send the editors a revision! The piece accepted is what they wanted. You could say, perhaps, “I have since done another draft, in case you’d like to see it.” But they may look and prefer the original. On the other hand, the accepting editor may ask for some changes (generally simple ones—editors get so many submissions that they can pick ones that work and not deal with ones that need extensive editing, though there are sometime exceptions). You should not get defensive about your sacred work. Try to listen to what you are being told and give it full consideration. Of course if it represents something you cannot live with, you’ll have to say so, but I find that this is really extremely rare.

If you get galleys, do them promptly and only correct errors. You cannot now rewrite. (Which again goes to show that you should really have done your revising before you send out.)

Make sure the editor has your up-to-date information if you move or change email address.

How To Greet The Issue Your Work Is In

Read the magazine (not just your own piece!) and send the editor a thank you note that remarks on the issue, whether the look, the cover, or some other work in it. Email is fine, but a real letter is more memorable.

Do not, as one person did, upon receiving her copies of an issue I edited, write a note saying, “Why wasn’t mine the first story in the magazine? Mine was better than Q’s.” This revealed the seething ego of the writer and her failure to understand the many factors that go into ordering a magazine, including wanting a piece that is catchy or short or that sets a tone or theme up front. Layout is full of many decisions invisible to the author.

Ask, if you haven’t been told, whether it will be possible to order some copies (if it’s a print publication) with author discount, and if so, order them. What, pay for copies? Yes, and give them away: just a couple of copies will help the magazine and help you. Send them to you former teachers or friends who have read your work, thanking them. Whether the journal is print or digital, use whatever platform you may have to announce the publication and link to the magazine. At this point, your interest and the editor’s overlap: you both want the magazine to be seen, enjoyed, and respected. Start listing the magazine in your bio, as you go on to submit and publish elsewhere.

Last Advice

Try editing. Volunteer to read submissions for a magazine near you (or, with web journals, far away). Start a little magazine or a one-time anthology with some friends. Seeing how much is sent when it is not ready and how a single work reads amid a mass of submissions will teach you a lot. You may not enjoy it or you may get hooked. But once you have been an editor, you understand their arduous devotion.

Lynne Barrett is the author of the stories collections The Secret Names of Women, The Land of Go, and, forthcoming in Fall 2011, Magpies. Recent work appears in Delta Blues, One Year to a Writing Life, Miami Noir, Saw Palm, The Written Wardrobe, The Southern Women's Review, and many other anthologies and magazines. She is founding editor of Gulf Stream Magazine, co-edited the anthology Birth: A Literary Companion, and is currently editor of The Florida Book Review.

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If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten. 

-Tony Robbins

The Affluent Artist by Rick DiBiasio


You need a schedule.

‎"A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time."
—Annie Dillard on Whim

Violence is past of Living.

Even within the most beautiful landscape, in the trees, under the leaves the insects are eating each other; violence is a part of life. 
- Francis Bacon

‎"In humility is the greatest freedom. As long as you have to defend an imaginary self that you think is important, you lose your peace of heart. As soon as you compare that shadow with the shadows of other people, you lose all joy, because you have begun to trade in unrealities, and there is no joy in things that do not exist."

- Thomas Merton

White Crow

"To upset the conclusion that
all crows are black,
there is no need to seek
demonstration that
no crows are black;
it is sufficient to produce
one white crow;
a single one is sufficient."
__William James

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Music and the Brain: Depression and Creativity Symposium

Uploaded by  on Jul 30, 2009
Kay Redfield Jamison, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and co-director of the Johns Hopkins Mood Disorders Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, convened a discussion of the effects of depression on creativity. Joining Jamison were two distinguished colleagues from the fields of neurology and neuropsychiatry, Dr. Terence Ketter and Dr. Peter Whybrow. The Music and the Brain series is co-sponsored by the Library's Music Division and Science, Technology and Business Division, in cooperation with the Dana Foundation.

The "Depression and Creativity" symposium marks the bicentennial of the birth of German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), who died after a severe depression following the death of his sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, also a gifted composer.

One of the nation's most influential writers on creativity and the mind, Kay Redfield Jamison is a noted authority on bipolar disorder. She is the co-author of the standard medical text on manic-depressive illness and author of "Touched with Fire," "An Unquiet Mind," "Night Falls Fast" and "Exuberance: The Vital Emotion."

Dr. Terence Ketter is known for extensive clinical work with exceptionally creative individuals and a strong interest in the relationship of creativity and madness. He is professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and chief of the Bipolar Disorders Clinic at Stanford University School of Medicine.

Dr. Peter Whybrow, an authority on depression and manic-depressive disease, is director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He is also the Judson Braun Distinguished Professor and executive chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

Noisy Hobby

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March 30, 2011

Click, Clack, Ding! Sigh ...

EVEN by Brooklyn standards, it was a curious spectacle: a dozen mechanical contraptions sat on a white tablecloth, emitting occasional clacks and dings. Shoppers peered at the display, excited but hesitant, as if they’d stumbled upon a trove of strange inventions from a Jules Verne fantasy. Some snapped pictures with their iPhones.
“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.
“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”
Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.
They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.
The subculture of revivalists includes Donna Brady, 35, and Brandi Kowalski, 33, of Brady & Kowalski Writing Machines, who sold the aforementioned Smith Corona Galaxie II one recent Saturday afternoon at the Brooklyn Flea, a market for crafts and antiques.
“You type so much quicker than you can think on a computer,” Ms. Kowalski said. “On a typewriter, you have to think.” She and Ms. Brady began their vintage typewriter business last April. So far, they have refurbished and sold more than 70 machines, many to first-time users. Their slogan? “Unplug and reconnect.”
And typists are reconnecting all over the place. On a December afternoon, about a dozen people hauled their typewriters to Bridgewater’s Pub in Philadelphia for the first in a series of type-ins. (“Like a jam session for people who like typewriters,” said Michael McGettigan, 56, a local bike shop owner who came up with the idea. “You had unions do sit-ins and hippies do be-ins, so I thought, ‘We’ll do a type-in.’ ”)
In the last three months, type-ins have clattered into cities from coast to coast and even overseas. On Feb. 12, more than 60 people turned up at a Snohomish, Wash., bookstore over the course of three hours for a type-in called Snohomish Unplugged. Type-ins have popped up in Seattle, Phoenix and Basel, Switzerland, where they called the event a “schreibmaschinenfest.” Ms. Brady and Ms. Kowalski are planning to hold a Brooklyn type-in at McCarren Park.
Why celebrate the humble typewriter? Devotees have many reasons. For one, old typewriters are built like battleships. They survive countless indignities and welcome repairs, unlike laptops and smartphones, which become obsolete almost the moment they hit the market. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘In your face, Microsoft!’ ” said Richard Polt, 46, a typewriter collector in Cincinnati. Mr. Polt teaches philosophy at Xavier University, where he’s given away about a dozen typewriters to enthusiastic students and colleagues.
Another virtue is simplicity. Typewriters are good at only one thing: putting words on paper. “If I’m on a computer, there’s no way I can concentrate on just writing, said Jon Roth, 23, a journalist who is writing a book on typewriters. “I’ll be checking my e-mail, my Twitter.” When he uses a typewriter, Mr. Roth said: “I can sit down and I know I’m writing. It sounds like I’m writing.”
And there’s something else about typewriters. In more than a dozen interviews, young typewriter aficionados raised a common theme. Though they grew up on computers, they enjoy prying at the seams of digital culture. Like urban beekeepers, hip knitters and other icons of the D.I.Y. renaissance, they appreciate tangibility, the object-ness of things. They chafe against digital doctrines that identify human “progress” as a ceaseless march toward greater efficiency, the search for a frictionless machine.
That doesn’t make them Luddites. For many younger typewriter users, the old technology rests comfortably beside the new. Matt Cidoni, 16, of East Brunswick, N.J., keeps a picture of his favorite machine, a Royal No. 10, on his iPod Touch so he can show it off to friends. Online, he is a proud member of the “typosphere,” a global community of typewriter geeks. Like many of them, he enjoys “typecasting,” or tapping out typewritten messages, which he scans and posts to his Web site, Adventures in Typewriterdom. One of his favorite typecasting blogs, Strikethru, is run by a Microsoft employee. In Mr. Cidoni’s world view, there’s nothing technologically inconsistent about such things.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Mr. Cidoni said. “I’ve got an iPod Touch. I’ve got a cellphone, obviously. I’ve got a computer.” He also owns about 10 typewriters, which he uses for homework and letter writing at — get this — speeds of up to 90 words a minute. “I love the tactile feedback, the sound, the feel of the keys underneath your fingers,” Mr. Cidoni said.
Tom Furrier, who owns the Cambridge Typewriter Company in Massachusetts, has sold several typewriters to Mr. Cidoni and said that high school and college students have become a staple of his business. “I kept asking, ‘What are you kids doing here?’ ” he said. “But it’s been this growing thing. Young people are coming in and getting in touch with manual typewriters.”
In January, Mr. Furrier rented out a dozen typewriters to Jen Bervin, 39, an artist teaching a weeklong creative writing course at Harvard. When class ended on a Friday, several students begged Ms. Bervin to let them return over the weekend for one last crack at the machines. “Everyone was so excited about it,” she said. (When reached for an interview, Ms. Bervin was sitting in the cafe car of an Amtrak train, where she’d been clacking away on her own typewriter, a German Gossen Tippa from the 1940s, until her cellphone rang.)
What do literary stalwarts of the original typewriter era make of all this? “We old typists, it makes us feel young again to think there’s a new generation catching on,” said Gay Talese, 79. He still uses a typewriter, albeit electric, as does his friend, Robert A. Caro, 75, the Pulitzer-winning biographer of Robert Moses and President Lyndon B. Johnson. They discussed Mr. Caro’s Smith Corona while watching the Super Bowl.
“I’m actually not surprised,” Mr. Caro said, when told of the typewriter renaissance. The tangible pleasures of typewriters are something he’s known about for decades. “One reason I type is it simply makes me feel closer to my words,” Mr. Caro said. “It’s like being a cabinetmaker. It’s like laying down the planks. This is the way it’s supposed to feel.”