Why Every Writer Should Work for a Literary Magazine

12/16/2013

Good writers are always looking for ways to improve their craft. While writing for hours every day seems like an obvious way to become a better writer, it may not be the most important thing. Often, the best writers are also voracious readers, but the act of simply reading has its limitations. Writing takes a command of language that can only be developed through repeated interaction with that language. For me personally, my writing improved dramatically when I started editing for a literary magazine.

The Range

Working for a literary journal, you will read some of the worst things ever written. You will see sentences that make you wonder if they let anyone in the world into an MFA program. You will wonder if some of these submitters spend more than forty-five seconds on a draft, or if some of them failed third grade English.

You will also read brilliance. You will think, I must publish this once a day. You will feel like you’ve won small lotteries over and over. But the majority of your learning won’t come from either of these types of submissions.
The real learning will come from the average submissions, the ones that present the many errors and mistakes that you feel like you are reading over and over. Improper pacing, clichéd characters, telling instead of showing, passivity, too much unnecessary detail, underdeveloped characters and storylines, etc. You will spot a million things that will frustrate you, that will make you say, “Why does everyone make the same mistakes?” or “Ah, this would have been brilliant if only the writer had done this instead!”
You will learn because the next time you write something of your own, or the next time you reread something you’ve written, you will finally notice that you are committing the exact same sins. Your characters are underdeveloped. Your stories are poorly paced. You often resort to telling when you should show. You, like the many sinners you cast out, are also guilty of heinous writing crimes like being too wordy or cliché. As editor of a literary magazine and spotter of the common writer follies, you will get a better grasp of your own writing flaws. You will know how to reject your own stories before you even submit them.
The Constraints/Industry

The benefits of editing a lit mag don’t end here. Another vital role of the lit mag editor is the glimpse into the publishing world. You will start to understand that some incredibly good writing doesn’t get published, You’ll learn that good, but not the right fit is often just as hard on the editor simple because of constraints put on an existing issue.

And you will also see the many approaches of writers. You will see that some writers are conceited, some are relentless, some have no confidence, and some let their writing do all the talking. You will figure out how to be polite, how to appreciate the work of the lit mag editor—especially because you will likely have no monetary compensation.
The Humility

But wait, the learning isn’t finished. You will also have the valuable lesson of humility. As great of a writer as you thought you were, you will realize that you aren’t doing anything unique or impressive, which hopefully will make you actually try to do something unique and impressive.

Okay, I’m not quite done. You will also develop more connection to the community of writers that will help you see that the best things written are not on the bestseller list, and that you don’t have to appear in a high school or college curriculum to be a brilliant or successful writer.
If you want one more bonus, as an editor of a lit mag, you can count yourself with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allan Poe, Frederick Barthelme, Charles Bukowski, Gordon Lish, Hettie Jones, Dave Eggers, and many others. Yes, they all worked as editors of literary magazines at some point in their careers.  
When you put this all together, you will become the complete package as a writer. You will understand what can be done with language, what shouldn’t be done with language, and how important it is to reread your work a dozen times before you send it out to any literary magazine (because even the slightest little typo can make your story look like a disaster, especially if it’s in the first sentence of your manuscript).
Yes, working for a literary magazine will take away plenty of your precious writing time. It won’t pay any bills, and it won’t make you an overnight sensation. Even though you’ll make plenty of friends, many of them will never buy your books. But, it will teach you almost everything you need to know about being a writer.
Of course, when it all comes down to it, the only way to be a better writer is to write, after you’ve done the other things first.

Nathaniel TowerBIO: Nathaniel Tower is the managing and founding editor of Bartleby Snopes Literary Magazine and Press. His short fiction has appeared in over 200 online and print publications. In 2014, Martian Lit will release his first short story collection, Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands. He is a former high school English teacher and the former world record holder for the fastest mile running backwards while juggling. He currently lives in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter. Visit him at nathanieltower.wordpress.com.