Request: What have you learned as an editor of a literary journal?

Anne McDuffie, Madeline DeFrees, with some of the editors of Crab Creek Review (Nancy Canyon, Carol Levin, Lana Ayers, Annette Spaulding-Convy, Jennifer Culkin, Kelli Agodon, Ronda Broatch)

I've had a couple requests for blog topics asking to discuss the behind-the-scenes aspects of being an editor of a print literary journal.  Crab Creek Review (Seattle's 28 year old print literary journal)

As a poet understanding what happens behind the scenes of a journal makes me understand rejections and acceptances much better.  It also makes me have a compassion for the editors and staff who are keeping our print literary journals alive as well as the editors of independent presses.

So for this next week or so, I'll be blogging about being an editor and trying my best to answer the questions you asked.

Here is today's question--

What have you learned as an editor of a literary journal?

Of course, I choose the big question to begin with, but what a question to explore. 

There is a part of me that wants to say, "What haven't I learned?" 
as that would be a shorter list. But by being an editor, I have learned quite a bit 
that I didn't quite realize as a poet.

Maybe I'll make a list to share what I've learned.

1.)  I now understand why it takes SO LONG from submitting your poem to getting a rejection or an acceptance.

The fine folks who run literary journals are usually volunteers, unpaid volunteers, who do this because it's a labor of love.  Many times they are not in the same city.  Most have other jobs, families, incomes, their own writing projects, teaching, etc. to also do.

At some point we have to find a date that works for all of us to meet up and choose your work.  Sometimes we have to schedule these dates 6 weeks out.  Sometimes those dates get rescheduled.

In another post I'll explain what happens to your submission when you send it in and you can see why we aren't always the fastest in getting back to you.

But realizing all the steps and processes that come into play on choosing and rejecting poems makes me understand why when I submit I may not hear back for 3 or 4 months.  I am amazed how quickly 3 or 4 months passes.  We try to be prompt in getting in touch with you, but to be honest, it's hard work!

2)  How many incredible poets are writing today.

I am amazed at the quality of work we get sometimes.  And many times, it's from poets we have never heard of.  They are writing in fresh ways that take language to another level.  I love finding a new poet or beginning a relationship with a poet we love to read.

And I am so happy when they submit again.  I understand why certain journals publish many of the same poets again and again, because they are in love with their poems.

3)  The absolute challenges of publishing a literary journal.

From a shoestring budget to long lines in poems that don't fit on our pages.  From making sure there are no errors to making sure nothing gets left out.  From Russian translations to ordering the book (Thanks, Lana!)  From proofing the same page 10 times and STILL missing something.  From making sure a poet's stanza breaks, indents and spaces are correct to the alphabetized bios.  There is so much to remember and consider.

I will tell you honestly, we have not yet made one of our internal deadlines because it seems: everything takes longer than we think.  (See #1)

However, we have always produced our book before our "drop-dead deadline."  Nice term as that's how I felt after this last issue. ;-)

4) How many writers do not understand how to use a semi-colon properly.

Let me give you this quick lesson and change your life--  You should only use a semi-colon if what you are separating are two complete thoughts.  

If both parts of the sentence can be two separate & complete sentences, then you can use a semi-colon.  If the first or second part cannot be a sentence on its own, then you should not use a semi-colon there.

That's it.  That's the easy lesson.

Correct use of a semi-colon--

My cat is a war with the local birds; the waxwings create a plan that involves cherries.

(see how both parts of those sentences can exist on their own as their own separate sentence.

My cat is a war with the local birds.
The waxwings create a plan that involves cherries.

INCORRECT use of a semi-colon--

My cat is in a war with the local birds; waxwings and cherries.
My cat, the general; waxwings pick cherries to use as bombs.

5) The amount of time and work it takes to run a literary journal.

Truly, I completely underestimated this.

I promised myself I would not allow myself to be an editor first and a writer second.  But there has been times where I have felt that way. I have to constantly make sure I am keeping my own projects in front.

It is amazing how much time it takes to run a journal and all the things that need to get done-- taxes, taxes, taxes, business licenses, non-profit licenses, choosing work, rejecting work, keeping a database of subscribers and submissions, balancing the checkbook, making sure we have money, mail, blogs, correspondence, orders, promotion, publicity, selling books in bookstores, oh baby the list goes on...

BUT... there is something incredibly satisfying by being able to publish a writer or a poet and share their work with a larger audience.

There is something amazing about creating something from nothing.

There is something beyond wonderful about publishing someone for the very very first time.

There is something so positive about keeping a print journal alive and getting poems and stories into the world that makes it all worth while.

I am so not ready to leave my life as an editor.  I keep learning and get better at balancing.  (okay, not always).  But to be able to create a beautiful journal that brings others words into the world, that makes me forget all the craziness, the chaos, the deadline-after-deadline-after-deadline and yes, makes it all worthwhile.

There is something fantastic working with editors, writers, and people who care so much. I am not the only one running this show (I am probably just the most vocal).  If it was just me, I would in a convertible heading for the nearest cliff.  

In fact, these folks are what keep it running so well and so incredibly.

Here's our team--

Our Editorial Staff:
Kelli Russell Agodon & Annette Spaulding-Convy - Editors
Lana Hechtman Ayers - Poetry Editor
Star Rockers - Non-Fiction Editor, Graphic Design/Production
Jen Betterley & Nancy Canyon - Fiction Editors
Carol Levin - Editorial Assistant
Ronda Broatch - Assistant Editor
Jeannine Hall Gailey - Editorial Consultant

We also have Susan Rich (who is on our editorial board) doing her own special portfolio for our next issue on Ekphrastic poetry (which looks pretty dang incredible!)

Also, here's the rest of our Literary Advisory Board:
Aimee Nezhukumatathil
Nancy Pagh
Peter Pereira
Peggy Shumaker

It is amazing working with such a team of people.  It is so not just me. I am just the face of the clock and this clock wouldn't work without all the gears and parts behind it that you may not see.  

So as I answer these questions, please remember, I am not a one-woman team, just one in a group of many.  One who could not do this by herself.  And is so thankful, she doesn't have to!


  1. great stuff Kelli!

    I don't suggest everyone go out and start a literary magazine but if you are a writer and you've never worn the editors hat perhaps you should query some journals (online too) to see if they could use some help from readers or copyeditors. It IS an eye opening experience.

    And I hate when I miss typos arggggh

  2. Thanks for posting, Kelli. It's always amazing to me that there are people who exist to find and publish the best poetry that crosses their desks; it's such a labor of love, and often a thankless labor, so I am glad you and your crew are out there working for us freeloaders (with correct use of semi-colons, of course!).

    I am an assistant poetry editor at 42 Opus. I do not make final decisions, but I do give my 2 cents in deciding whether poems should be accepted or not. What I have learned:

    1. I know what I like in poems, but sometimes this can prevent me from appreciating work that is very accomplished but doesn't fit my aesthetic; I have become more attuned to opening up to styles, subjects, and aesthetics that are way different than mine;

    2. Sometimes a poem is terrible, and you know it by the second or third line; there's no need to hem and haw about it--just reject it.

    3. Just because a poet has a million publishing credits doesn't mean the poems they send us are any good. Judge poems on their merits, not on the poet's past achievements.

    That's all for now--great post, Kelli!

  3. Great post, Kelli. I read for an online magazine for a while -unfortunately, the journal went under (without any notice from the editor to those of us reading OR to those waiting for responses on their work. Boo.). But it was a good experience to see the sheer amount of submissions that come in to any given journal.

    I agree with Martha that some are immediately recognizable as rejections - I also agree that I had to broaden my sensibility beyond what I like as a reader.

    I'm a teacher, and I also have my administrative certification. I don't really have any desire to be a principal, but doing the course work gave me some insight into why certain decisions are made and why they sometimes are delayed. I would guess that being a writing editor would be similar.

    PS - I just pre-ordered your new book! I can't wait to read it.

  4. A small point: I agree, for sure, that there are people (including poets) who don't understand how to use a semi-colon properly. However, in each of the examples you give here -- both the "correct" and "incorrect" examples -- I feel that the semi-colons work well.

    Poems, after all, aren't Freshman Composition papers; poems in general can tolerate greater flexibility with punctuation (and various other standard practices) than a piece of expository prose typically can.

    In fact, on balance, I actually feel that the "incorrect" semi-colon examples you give here work better as lines in poems than the "correct" examples.

    Having said this, I should maybe also say that in my own poems the question rarely comes up; I hardly ever use semi-colons in poems.

    I've never edited, or worked on, a literary magazine myself, though (as many poets and writers do) I have poet friends who have edited and published lit magazines, and I've heard lots of the stories.

    Many years back, a poet friend here in Minneapolis did a couple of issues of a poetry magazine. Whenever he accepted poems for the magazine, in the acceptance letter to the author he would ask that they send him a non-academic bio note -- a bio note that was something other than what colleges they had taught at and what awards they'd received, etc.

    He said many of the people who received this request from him were dumbfounded; they didn't know how to do a non-academic bio note, didn't know how to describe themselves in a way that didn't focus on academic achievements and credentials. I still find this kind of amusing.

    Enjoyed reading this. Thanks for posting about this here.


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