Monday, June 6, 2011

On Journal Editing

In my two years at Hamline, I have had many opportunities to participate in journal editing, most recently as CNF Assistant Editor for Water~Stone Review and Editor-in-Chief of rock, paper, scissors

You’ve heard it before:  editing is as much an art as writing, and it helps hone talented writers as much as editors.  It’s easy to say and know that sitting on the other side of the submission table changes the approach to the submission process, but it’s another thing to discover and experience that change for yourself.  Of course, we can’t all fit it into our lives (though working with rock, paper, scissors can be as minimal as a month commitment.)  So, here are some things I picked up: 

The Process

  • Water~Stone Review and rock, paper, scissors are unique in that the decision process is democratic.  Creating a work of art, the collection, becomes a team effort.  At rock, paper, scissors, for example, I will make none of the acceptance decisions even though my name will be at the top.  The votes decide which pieces are published. 
  • To avoid a democracy of fools, each vote must be backed by sound argument.  Each piece is discussed in depth, and the discussions demand control of vocabulary and craft elements.  The skill of being able to articulate your thoughts, opinions, reactions to writing is invaluable in the ability to evaluate your own work. 
  • Toward the end, the decisions become more about which pieces play off or against each other rather than which pieces are better written.  There has to be chemistry between the pieces.  So, when you submit your own work, remember that rejections do not mean that your piece wasn’t the best written one – the timing just might have been off. 
  • Organization and communication are as much of the process as debate and selection—keeping files and databases and emails and everything in order might seem very separate from the art of it all, but it is just as necessary. 

The Art

  • Even though it’s called a process, there is no formula or equation or other math to predict the final result.  As the selection goes on, themes and echoes and threads emerge all on their own.  Certain pieces begin to reverberate with each other, others fall away.  Seeing how a piece changes—or how your reading of a piece changes—with each reread helps train your gut.  Will this piece stand up over time?  Will it grow or fade with reread?  And, most importantly, you can turn this eye to your own writing.  It is the part of editing that is really like muscle memory—it can’t be learned through this blog post or any way other than the act of doing it. 

The Smaller Things that Matter

  • Cover letters are easy to do wrong, but they’re even easier to do right.  Address the editor professionally, don’t try to sell your submission, and don’t include irrelevant personal information.  Briefer is better, to a point: I’ve seen many cover letters that fail to be letters at all, which can sometimes leave me guessing about the genre or even the identity of the writer.  Include your identity, of course, and relevant education background (such as an MFA), and a brief publication history if you’ve got one.  Thank the editors, provide contact info, and call it good. 
  • Formatting can be a distraction more than creative addition.  Funky fonts are a big nono—the writing should express on its own whatever that font does.  Yes playing with spacing and fonts and margins and paper size can make your submission stand out—but it usually ends up more like a sore thumb than sweet note. 
  • Typos are huge.  Yes they are easily corrected, but they are red flags that the submission is not finished. 

Craft Text that Doesn’t Suck the Life Out of You
I highly recommend The Artful Edit by Susan Bell.  Barrie Jean Borich introduced it to the WSR class, and I’ve loved it ever since.  It’s a quick read, and instead of straddling you with rules, Bell teaches you to embrace your own editing processes. 

I hope this post provided at least a little insight into journal editing, and of course I encourage you to take advantage of journal editing opportunities that come your way. 

Wishing you the best with your writing,
Stephanie A. M. Olson

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