By Ellyn Lichvar, Spalding Low-Residency MFACoordinator, Managing editor of The Louisville Review
At Spalding, every student in our MFA program gains hands-on experience in editing and publishing by working on our national literary journal, The Louisville Review. TLR has been in existence since 1976 and we’ve published writers from Stephen Dunn to Jhumpa Lahiri, from Mitchell L.H. Douglas to Louise Erdrich.Each semester, all students read submissions and participate in the editorial process of choosing work for the magazine. There are few better ways to grow as a writer than to peek into the inner workings of a journal. It offers insight into the literature that’s being written right now—the stories, poems, essays that are being submitted in real time—and will quickly introduce you to your personal editorial aesthetic. And, in the nature of honesty, we couldn’t function as a journal without this indispensable assistance. Win win!
In a series of tweets from November 2017, writer Roxane Gay describes her early experience reading for Prairie Schooner. As a graduate student, she went from opening envelopes and logging in submissions to reading the work that was being sent in. She learned and absorbed.
She began to experiment, sending her work to tons of different kinds of publications. Using pseudonyms and trial and error she realized that, along the way, her writing was getting better. Eventually, these trials led to publication for Gay. She and a friend started the literary journal PANK and she went on to be a NYT bestseller. I suggest checking out the whole thread here. So much valuable, no-nonsense advice said so eloquently.
After reading submissions for even a short block of time, you’ll come away more informed than when you began. You’ll learn what kind of short story openings repel you and which pull you close; how long or short you like your poems; what subject matter is important and what you could do without. It might help you work out a particular struggle in your own writing. Maybe you’ll come away with a greater affection for prose poems or flash fiction that will break open your work. You might realize that your own submissions to journals have been too long or that maybe you didn’t need to mention your cats in your cover letter.
You’ll learn that at every single journal across the planet, there are real-life people just like you reading submissions; they have souls and beating hearts and wants and needs. They, too, are learning, absorbing what’s new, what’s next.
The most liberating part of reading editorially, perhaps, is that these are writers you’ve likely never met. You aren’t sitting face to face with them across a workshop table, and you aren’t required to offer them feedback. When you’re alone behind the wheel of an automobile, for example, you might feel more inclined to let your opinions and four-letter words fly than, say, when you’re walking down a crowded city sidewalk. A similar feeling of freedom comes with editorial reading. Hate the opening lines? You don’t have to read until the end. Does a poem’s imagery speak to you, but the subject matter or style falls flat? You’ll simply mark your opinion down and move on to read something else.
I don’t mean to sound gloom and doom. In addition to reading submissions that you might not enjoy so much, you will absolutely come across writers whose work you fall in love with. There is plenty of gold in the river. This is the most exciting part. What exactly sets the one stunning piece of writing apart from the other 18 pieces you’ve just read? How can you incorporate this magic into your own work? Look at the writer’s bio. What journals have accepted their work in the past? Dig in to websites and back issues. Are any of those places a good fit for your own writing? Probably!
As writers, we know that reading is essential to our craft. Reading editorially takes that notion and pulls just a bit deeper. Writing is a practice. Submitting your work for publication is a related yet distinctly different discipline of its own, with separate, more nuanced rules and etiquette. Editorial reading allows one to see inside to the wires that connect these two practices, to touch and to see how one informs the other. In the end, reading leads to writing leads to publication leads to readers, and isn’t that why we’re all in this?
Ellyn Lichvar is the managing editor of The Louisville Review and a coordinator for Spalding’s MFA in Writing program. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in DIAGRAM, BOAAT, The Journal, The Minnesota Review, Meridian, Permafrost, and others.