If you’re getting many rejections from lit mags, it’s likely you’re missing at least one item on this list of five things editors look for in your writing.
I’m a lit mag editor (with Room) and the host of the podcast Lit Mag Love For Creative Writers Who Want to Publish. The advice in this article comes from dozens of interviews I’ve had with editors.
Putting aside the outlier cases—like the one beleaguered editor who was getting exposed to way too many lousy sex scenes—I chose the five things that nearly every editor agrees is required of writing they will publish.
I wrote this as an acrostic to give you a mnemonic you can use the next time you’re finishing up a submission package for journals.
Glib, I know. Also, yes, you will always come across as arrogant if you describe your own words as witty, but stick with me for a sec. Consider that the lowest-barrier requirement of creative writing is to make us think. The work you submit requires your most inventive ideas—you must dazzle us with your intelligence.
Your writing must allow us to see situations, words, and people differently. To wit, that’s wit. (That was the only pun in this article, I swear.)
Wit in your writing needs to come out in both your ideas and the language you use.
At the idea level, you need to ask yourself if you’re saying something fresh and different.
Have you put a new spin on ideas already in writing? To answer this, you must read and reflect on what’s already out there on your subject or theme. If you love what you’re writing about that should be easy. If you don’t, why are you writing on a subject you don’t adore?
At the language level, you need to ask yourself if every word counts. (Poets, that’s every syllable, line break, and whitespace, for you.) Have you chosen the most precise words to convey your meaning at every point? Do your word choices show an enchantment with language?
Editors love when you use wordplay that fits your work. Of course, this is a tricky beast. If you play with words, you will inevitably need to leave a trail of dead “darlings” in your wake. It’s worth pushing things at the language level, then pulling back, and going back and forth until you get balance. (Your darlings will understand, and the best beta-readers will help you find this.)
I know you’re up for this task because you love words. It’s why you write. There is little more satisfying to us writers than finding that word to efficiently and brilliantly say what you mean.
As editors, we love this even more so, because we read many submissions that don’t have enough attention to language.
Do you need to be on fire during the first draft of your piece? Not at all. Write a puke draft (a rough draft that you quickly throw down, without expectations), then refine it many times until you’ve pushed your ideas as far as you can take them, made inventive connections, and found the choicest words.
“I want to see that the text has been written thoroughly, by which I mean it’s clear that the author is enchanted by language and that they are not putting themselves directly in the frame….maybe it takes thirty drafts to get to reveal it, but it’s a sort of sculpture underneath the rock,” editor Maya Marshall of [PANK], told me.
How to Improve Wit in Your Writing
Read at least three recently lit-mag published pieces on a similar subject or theme to your work. What opportunities are there for a fresh idea or perspective only you can bring to your material?
For your writing to connect with readers, they need to be able to recognize something in your characters, memories, and images.
Ironically, this does not mean you need to write like everyone else or relate things to a specific, generic (read: bland) reader. It requires your unique perspective. For your writing to be recognizable, you need to get very personal. You need to write what you, and likely only you, know.
Writing what you know—that’s easy, right? Not always so. It’s entirely possible you don’t know what you know. Not yet, anyway. So many writers begin by imitating other writers. Or they lack the conviction they need to take a position in their writing. More often, it’s both. But without taking that position, without a firm stance, you will not get readers to recognize themselves in your writing.
“I think that when a writer doesn’t have a good understanding of who they are and what their beliefs are…they’re going to necessarily lack the conviction in their writing. I feel like I can always tell when a writer is holding back because they’re scared of what they’re going to find out about themselves or they’re scared of what they’re going to find out about the world—things that they would rather not know,” editor Alicia Elliott of The Fiddlehead told me.
Create More Recognition in Your Writing
Free-write on what’s motivating you to put words on the page. What do you know? Who are you? What do you stand for?
With a firm stance and knowledge of where you stand, your best writing will bring us inside experiences, and give us interiority on a life we didn’t live.
For example, if you’re writing about an uncomfortable dinner with ambiguity, we will experience the meal like someone peering in the window.
But, if you write with interiority, we get to experience the dinner as if we’re at the table, smelling and tasting the food.
Questions I would expect a writer to answer about this uncomfortable dinner would include: What can we hear in the silence? How does the food taste and smell? What does it feel like to chew and swallow in this tense situation? What interactions occur between those present? What does this discomfort feel like in the protagonist’s body?
“The importance of interiority is that you see the vulnerability of being human and also there’s a space of ambiguity. It’s not an absolute space, whereas the external presentation is grounded in these absolutes. That ability to see the movement of feelings and ideas and the possibility of transformation that can happen in the inner life is educational to a reader to apply it to their own life. Writers can really give you that inner experience of something that you don’t understand,” editor Diana McClure of Azure told me.
How to Bring Readers Inside
If there are places in your writing where readers may feel outside the room, consider what your reader would need to know so they feel like they’re at the table.
Being a writer requires revealing raw truths about the human condition, your protagonists, and yourself.
To prepare for deep mining and exploration in your writing, you may need to prepare to take care of yourself as you write. When the writing is heavy, pace yourself, be kind and balance the time you spend composing with any self-care you can afford (a luxurious bath, a bit of chocolate, a quiet walk—whatever works for you).
It may sometimes be that we’re not prepared to write deeply about painful experiences, by the way, and it’s okay to put those aside until you are ready. The more I explore truth in writing, and the more I speak with writers who reveal deep, often brutal, truths, I learn that none of us is born ready to put windows on our hearts. Even the bravest of writers put distance between themselves and difficult experiences before they write about them.
Writing isn’t a call to be superhuman; it’s a call to be an extraordinarily brave normal human.
“I think if you’re not working to expose something deep and scary, then in a sense, you’ve already failed,” editor John Haggerty of The Forge told me.
A Practice to Bring More Truth to Your Writing
Write down a question on a piece of paper and throughout your the day, give yourself whitespace (time when your mind is not tasked with anything) and let deeply truthful answers emerge. Allow your mind to wander on a walk without headphones, stay a little longer under the covers in the morning and without looking at a screen, take a long, quiet bath. (As the wrangler of two small humans, I recognize this often requires double-bolting doors and enlisting an assist from others. It’s worth the effort!)
I confess I landed on the word exigency for its e, to make my W-R-I-T-E acrostic work.
It was a delightful finding because it precisely denotes this final quality required in the writing editors want to publish in lit mags. The work must demand to be written. To make it easier to remember, we could say these are subjects or ideas that have been Eating away at you.
If your work is all sizzle and no steak (or tofu), if you show only stylistic skill, but do not write from a sense of urgency, you’re stuck with wit and wit alone, which is not substantive enough.
Writing with exigency also requires your characters or speakers to act as if their life depends on it. As editors, we receive a lot of writing about people who sit down and think about something for a while. Your protagonist or speaker needs to move, take action, do something other than sit and think, to keep our attention.
“This doesn’t mean that every piece of writing has to be dramatic or about something depressing or violent. It doesn’t mean you can’t write about comfort or joy, but it does mean that there has to be a need in them to come into the world. There has to be something at stake in them,” editor Rebecca Salazar of Plenitude told me.
Finding Exigency in Your Writing
To bring exigency to the characters and speakers in your stories, introduce them through action rather than description, and have them do or say things rather than sit and think.
To bring exigency globally to your work, try to ask yourself if there is a story or poem that demands you write it. Is it the one you’re currently writing? Sometimes writers focus on one subject or idea and avoid the more urgent work that demands to be written. This requires deep self-knowledge, so therapy, mindfulness, or morning-pages practices will also guide you.
Are you ready to W-R-I-T-E?
So that’s it…a list of what editors want in your submissions. If you’ve read this far you know it’s much more than that, though. This is a list of ways for you to develop your craft and depth as a writer.
When your work has these five things, you’ll start to get more yes’s from journals—98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed. And once you’ve got all these elements in your writing, don’t be afraid to submit it! Editors eagerly await your best writing.
I’d love to hear if you try any of the exercises I suggest in the article. Let me know how it goes.