Reviewing a Magazine Before Submission

By Margaret McGaffey Fisk
2005,
Margaret McGaffey Fisk

 

I've heard from other writers, editors, and practically everyone else that you should review at least one copy of or sample stories from every magazine on your submission list.  This isn't always possible or economically feasible, but even when it is, I've often felt adrift.  What is it I should be looking for?  Am I missing something that everyone else sees? 

There are some obvious things, such as point of view, traditional versus experimental, and other similar preferences, that you can glean from simply reading the stories in an issue.  However, I walk away with the sense that there should be something more.  If this advice is so ubiquitous, surely it cannot be that simple.

With this in mind, when I found myself at the 2004 Alameda Literati Book Faire in Alameda, California, I took the opportunity to ask a panel of authors and editors what they think writers should gain from reviewing copies of the magazines where they intend to submit.  I found the response of one author in particular valuable enough that I thought I would share.

Allison Landa has the dual perspectives of a writer and editor of literary magazines.  She understands the struggle with this process and believes the best way to really get a sense of what to look for is to practice the skill.

For her, voice is the most important element to seek when reviewing a magazine.  However, even within voice, there are simple elements and more complex ones.  The simple ones include point of view and whether or not a journal is open to rough language, sex, or violence.  The more complex ones involve looking at the subject matter and how it is presented.  Her preferred technique is trying to imagine one of her stories sandwiched between the stories already published.  This allows her to feel out subconscious messages behind the editorial choices.

I found Landa's response interesting because I had largely discounted subject matter as an element for the simple reason that it cannot be used as a guideline.  Should you submit a story with the same subject matter as some stories in the sample issue, unless the journal is focused on a specific topic, the editor will probably consider that area already covered.

However, looking at subject matter and how it is presented opens up the evaluation of crafting trends.  Again, a trend against foul language might be obvious, but the same evaluation could reveal a trend toward dragging characters through horrible events that then always come out all right.  While it may seem simple, looking for how an editor wants to see characters treated can give a real sense of a particular editor's preferences.  With the preference above, the editor will probably not look favorably on a story with an ambiguous or negative ending.  If the story seems to fit otherwise, I personally believe writers should not do the editors' rejections for them, but if I had another story with a positive ending, I might send that one first.

Sensing these underlying, and often subtle, trends may be easier for someone with editorial experience, like Landa, but she believes it is a learned skill.  For example, have you ever been reading a fiction magazine and said, "I've got a story that would fit perfectly"?  Practice is what allows you to control that moment consciously rather than being dependent on your subconscious instincts.

This way of looking at content may seem as obvious to you as it did to me when I heard the approach, and yet, I had been unable to articulate it to myself.  Now, when I sit down with copies of a magazine in front of me, I know I'll learn more about what an editor is seeking than just the surface elements I had been able to glean before.  I hope, in passing on this advice, you too will find more value when you attempt to piece together editors' preferences from the stories and articles they choose to present to the world.

 

Allison Landa is an Oakland, California-based writer whose work has been featured in CleanSheets, The Ledge, Poetica Magazine, Swagazine and ArtsFusion. She is also an editor of Monday Night, an annual literary journal.