Behind the Scenes: Volunteering for a Literary Magazine

I have been a member of Carve Magazine’s Guest Reading Committee for about a year now and I can’t say enough good things about it. Not only have I had the opportunity to work on the other side of the publication process (through reviewing submissions), I also read for annual contests (and even conducted my first author interview earlier this year!).

While I can’t speak for every literary magazine out there, I would still like to give my fellow writerly friends a sneak peek behind the scenes and encourage everyone to volunteer for a magazine at least once. It is a great way to familiarize yourself with the publishing world, connect with others, and hone your craft.

Why do literary magazines need volunteers? Depending on the size of the magazine, they can receive a high volume of submissions, which creates a large backlog of work. In order to keep up, editors will assign volunteer readers submissions from the slush pile. From there, the volunteer weeds through countless submissions in order to find pieces worthy of publication.

This is certainly not a glamorous job, but the process of reading through hundreds of submissions exposes you to all different kinds of writing. From the good and the bad (and the very bad), you will inevitably learn what works and what doesn’t work, as well as the ins and outs of the publishing world.

Some believe that all literary magazines house their headquarters in posh, New York offices. Although this would be amazing, most small presses do not receive a steady income. As a matter of fact, literary magazine staff members often have separate, full time jobs and conduct magazine business in their down time. This means that a lot of the work is done remotely and online (such as the review of submissions and correspondence).

Office desk with laptop computer, planner, mobile smartphone and coffee cup.

My swanky office (not). Image Credit: FreePik

What does this mean for you as the writer? It is not uncommon for months to pass before you get a response from a magazine regarding your work. This can be due to a magazine’s high volume of submissions, as well as the fact that each piece submitted must go through several rounds of careful reading before a decision can be made. It is important to understand that running a literary magazine is very much like running a business; editors are dedicated to publishing the best work they can get their hands on and must make sure that each piece fits their magazine’s aesthetic.

So, don’t panic if you don’t receive a response regarding your work right away. Magazines will typically provide a time frame for you in their submission guidelines. If you haven’t heard back within the specified time (and if the magazine is okay with queries regarding submitted work), feel free to reach out to the editor/s with a polite email.  

— Manuela Williams

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