The Low-Down on Literary Magazines

8 Aug

By Sammy Bina


The first thing you’re going to be told at orientation, whether it’s for high school or college, is to get involved. Sure, you get sick of hearing it after a while, but in retrospect, it was pretty solid advice. I did theatre in high school, but in college I was looking for something a little more English-y — it’s what I majored in, after all. Lucky for me,  the professor teaching my summer creative writing workshop was in charge of our university’s literary magazine and encouraged me to apply.

I’m convinced it was one of the best decisions I ever made. And for a plethora of reasons! {Clears throat.} Let me list them for you now.

1. I’d just transferred, and besides friends from high school, I didn’t know anyone. The people I ended up working with have become some of my closest friends. We all shared a common interest, but came from all walks of life. While the majority of the staff were English majors, we also had people studying languages, nursing, law, and art. The diversity of the staff meant a greater diversity in what we published. Something I might have overlooked because it wasn’t my cup of tea was snatched up by someone else, and in turn convinced me it was worth reading. It allowed us to put together really great issues semester after semester, ranging from zombie stories to ones about bizarre circuses, Jesus, and math. If we’d all liked the same things, the journal would’ve gotten real boring, real fast.

2. I learned to better articulate my thoughts on reading and writing. Which, you know, is always a good skill to have. Once a week the staff would get together to discuss what we’d read. Sure, there were some weeks where you just didn’t have time to get to anything, but most of the time you needed to be prepared to argue for or against a story. If half the staff thought a piece was too cliche, but you really loved it, you needed to be ready to defend it and explain why that cliche worked. I was extremely hesitant to voice my opinion at first, but eventually I learned that if I didn’t, stories I liked disappeared. So not only did I learn to articulate myself, I also gained a healthy dose of confidence.

3. It really prepared me for entry level publishing jobs. Most of these positions require you to do a lot of reading, as well as writing reports and handling general office work. By working for a literary magazine, you learn great time management skills because you have to keep up with the readings. We got hundreds of submissions every semester, and it’s difficult to catch up once you fall behind. On top of reading 3 to 5 stories a week (and even more during contest season), I also took care of the office. Mail, phones, planning release parties, you name it, I did it. I’m a freakishly organized person anyway, but if you want to learn organizational skills, become an office manager of a lit magazine. You’ll learn fast.

4. I was exposed to some really great writing. We’ve talked about this before, but I’d just like to reiterate this point. By opening yourself up to new genres and types of writing (ie: flash fiction, short stories, poetry, etc.), you’re doing yourself a huge favor. I admit, I still can’t write a decent short story, but I’ve certainly grown to appreciate them. When I go to Barnes & Noble, I actually seek out collections of short stories (if you haven’t checked out Anthony Doerr’s work, you totally should). The added bonus of working for a lit magazine is that sometimes you’re able to bring authors in to do readings, and while reading their work on the page is fantastic, seeing them in person is even better. Exposure, guys. It’s a great thing.

5. You learn to handle disappointment with grace. This is probably one of the biggest lessons I took away from my time at the Madison Review. No matter how much you love a story, sometimes you’re the only one. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, it won’t be published. I’ve sat through meetings where we were trying to decide on the final issue, and people stormed out crying because their favorite pieces weren’t chosen. In this business, you’re going to experience ups and downs, and it’s important to take things in stride. Maybe your story didn’t get chosen, but there’s always next semester. Glass half full, people!

Now, most large universities will have a lit magazine. In fact, you may have heard of some of them: The Madison Review (obligatory plug!), Ploughshares (Emerson), The Columbia Review (Columbia University), and The Iowa Review (University of Iowa). Some smaller schools put out magazines as well, but if they don’t, consider working for the paper. You’ll learn the same lessons, all of which are extremely beneficial. And if anything, you’ll gain a whole bunch of friends who love literature and writing just as much as you! And isn’t that what we all want?


Sammy recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Creative Writing. She just moved to New York City, where she hopes to find a job in publishing. Her free time is spent editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and you can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.


4 Responses to “The Low-Down on Literary Magazines”

  1. PShay339 August 8, 2011 at 2:05 AM #

    To add onto your #4, it also prepares you to read in public especially if you plan on being a published author. By nature, many authors are recluses – hiding in shadowed corners, skulking about cafes, camping out in the backroom of a library. The thing about being an author I don’t think many people consider is that once you’ve gained the courage to query an agent (and find representation), and the agent does their awesomeness and sells your novel there will be many publicity events, namely, book tours in which you read excerpts of your novel.

    I had to do it last semester with my college’s literary magazine and it was NERVE WRACKING. Afterwards, I was thinking, “Oh, that wasn’t so bad. Can I do it again?” I’m still nervous about reading in public, especially in front of a large crowd, but Reading helped lessen the anxiousness because now I can say, “I’ve done this before”.

    • Sammy Bina August 9, 2011 at 11:19 PM #

      Good point! I totally agree. Our magazine sponsored a lot of readings on campus, and I had to read some of my own work at. Any excuse for public speaking is beneficial! Yet another added bonus of working for a lit mag!

  2. Asia Morela August 8, 2011 at 10:45 AM #

    That sounds like a great experience! My university didn’t have any such thing. There hadn’t been a students’ magazine or newspaper in years when I started my degree, so a few students wanted to start one. I joined the team, and soon enough I found myself chief editor and publisher of it all. I was seventeen.

    What we did wasn’t nearly as exciting or high quality as what you describe (there wasn’t any prof supervision at all, and we were constantly looking volunteers, of which my nomination as chief editor was a direct consequence), but it was still a crazy experience. I wrote, I illustrated, I proofread, I harassed everyone to keep the deadlines, I dealt with the printing office, I distributed the magazine and I did all the legal paperwork, sent copies of every issue to the national archives and the Prime minister… I even went to the Ministry of Interior and the Procureur de la République (state attorney?) to get legal permission, which was kind of fun. Luckily I had just turned eighteen, otherwise I couldn’t have taken responsibility for the whole project.

    In any case, while I’m not overly proud of everything we did with the magazine, it now makes me feel much more knowledgeable and confident about many things: how to lay out text for printing, what the different printing techniques are and how much it costs, write within a limited number of signs, illustrate by command, publicize and give away a magazine, etc.

    • Sammy Bina August 9, 2011 at 11:21 PM #

      That’s so great! Way to take the initiative and do something really great like that! And I think you have a lot to be proud of. Like you said, it provided you with a lot of useful knowledge, and I’m sure the readers gained something as well.

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