10 Things Volunteering for a Literary Magazine Taught Me
A reader for several lit mags shares why the experience is valuable
Welcome to our weekly column on the ins and outs of lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors everywhere.
By Chital Mehta
I decided to volunteer for a literary magazine after the birth of my second child because reading an entire novel seemed like a dream in the midst of a pandemic with caring for a newborn and a toddler. I felt completely cut off from the literary world because I couldn’t keep up with what books were coming out or what was being written. I knew if I had to get back to writing, reading was the key.
In the past couple of years, I have read for Ploughshares, CARVE, and Great Lakes Review. All of these magazines filled me up with valuable experiences that has helped me grow, both as a reader and a writer.
If you have been toying with the idea of reading for a literary magazine and are wondering if it’s worth the time, read on to see what I learned from my experience after volunteering for literary magazines.
You start reading like an editor
When you become a reader, it’s like being on the other side of the writing world and getting a view from the backstage. The writer is someone who spends weeks or days producing his work and the editor is someone who spends time analyzing the work. The editor has the power to give wings to that work. When you read a bunch of submissions, you begin to think like an editor, understanding the elements that make stories fall into categories of ‘good’, ‘great’ and ‘okay.’
You get a new perspective towards rejection
Rejections sting. Rejections tell us that things are in motion. Rejections annoy us. When you read submissions, you read in batches. You reject a few not because you didn’t like them but you felt that the writer could have written better only if they worked a little extra on the characters or the climax.
Sometimes, it’s just not the kind of work the magazine publishes regardless of how good the story is. They have limited space and have to pick a limited number of stories for each issue. The more you submit, the greater the chances for a literary magazine to accept your work. This helps you deal with rejections better with your own stories. There were days when rejections made me sad and gloomy but now, I am able to brush them off and work on my next story.
You are on your way to being a Literary Citizen
Writer Cathy Day writes in her article about being a Literary Citizen- “Learn your craft, yes. But also, work to create a world in which literature can thrive and is valued.” There are many ways to be a literary citizen. One of them is signing up to read for journals. If you dream of seeing your stories in literary magazines, the best thing to do is to become a reader and support the magazine.
When you sign up to volunteer, you are involving yourself in the process beyond simply working for your own career needs. Becoming a part of the literary community allows you to help that community thrive. Readers are the first people to pass an eye over submissions. They are the ones who choose stories and pass on to the editors.
You’re exposed to new kinds of writing
Stephen King put it wisely – read a lot, write a lot. But what if you don’t know what to read? When you read for a literary magazine, you are exposed to stories from different genres that you normally would not pick yourself. By reading vastly, you get more ideas which you can implement in your own writing.
If you’re working on short stories, reading for your dream magazine can also be valuable as you will get first hand idea of the kind of work they are looking to publish.
You gain experience to start a literary magazine
If you have been planning to start a magazine of your own, it helps to know what goes into keeping a magazine alive.
Some of the questions you might ask yourself -What kind of stories do they publish How many people comprise of the Masthead? How many issues do they publish? How are stories chosen? How do they plan a budget? Do they focus on digital or print version?
You might get a job in a literary magazine
Sometimes, magazines will list down openings for managing editors or genre editors. You might be able to apply to one of these. If you have volunteered for a magazine as a reader, you will have a better idea about what kind of work goes into working for a literary magazine, and what they are looking for in candidates.
You can be flexible
Most literary magazines have a flexible timeline. They will not ask you to join meetings or give daily updates. You get to read ten or more submissions in two weeks. Somedays, you can read slow or fast depending on what else is going on in your life. You can decide your reading pace. They also allow you to take a break if you have other commitments as long as you keep them posted. Once your schedule loosens up, you can always join back.
You make connections
One of the most valuable things about volunteering for a lit mag is that you start building relationships with other readers who probably share the same goals as you. You might find a reading pal or a critique partner. This can be truly motivating if you have been writing for some time and have been looking to make writer friends. These relationships can make a lasting impact on your growth as a writer.
You learn to keep your writing muscle in shape
If you’re writing a book or a short story or any piece of writing, it’s important to keep the ideas flowing. One way to keep the writing muscle in shape is to read constantly. When you sign up to become a reader, submissions keep flowing which will keep the reading windows of your mind open for new ideas to flow in.
You learn to be patient
A lot about being a writer is learning to wait once you send your work to agents and editors. When you read for a lit mag, you understand the process and the time it takes to read a piece of work and give your opinion. I read for a magazine where writers had sent their work almost ten months ago! I was at that point waiting for a response for my story from other magazines for four months. When I make submission these days, I am no longer worried about the wait time because I have begun to understand the timelines.
If you want to apply for reading positions, keep an eye on the announcements that are made by literary magazines. They usually post on their website under the ‘Volunteer’ tab or else in their newsletter, or on Twitter. The reader application is usually filled with basic questions as magazines want to understand what kind of readers people are before getting them on-board.
Chital was born and raised in India. She completed her MFA in creative writing with fiction emphasis from Lindenwood University. She has written YA novels that were published in India. Her short stories have appeared in Landlocked literary magazine, Sangam magazine, The Noyo Review, and Oyez Review. Her essay about miscarriage has appeared in a parenting anthology series - Keeping Under the Wraps. She is a recipient of the Robert Haydon Scholarship. She was recently chosen as a mentee for AWP's Writer to Writer mentorship program Fall 2021.
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