Six years ago, I began volunteering once a week to read submissions for a literary journal. At the time I was in grad school, and I was trying to build up my resume. I figured Associate Editor would look good on paper, and it might be a fun way to get to know some of my fellow classmates.
What I discovered is far more valuable than a blurb on my resume. Here it is: The best way to improve your own writing is to read the work of others.
That may seem like a no-brainer. We all read. But if you only read published work you are missing out on something magical. Reading for a journal is a special kind of education.
Because the truth is, most of the work that journals receive for review is not good. And you can learn a lot by reading work that needs a polish. After reading fifteen stories that mix metaphors, you’re going to find mixed metaphors really annoying, and you will be far less likely to mix them in your own writing.
What’s more, if you’re in a room full of readers, you get a unique peek into how editors read submissions. If someone can’t help but read a cover letter out loud because it is so ridiculous, you will make a mental note to never be such an ass in your own query letter.
When it comes down to final decisions, and the group is debating which stories will get the coveted pages between the covers of your journal, you will hear first-hand what pushes one story into print, while others get relegated to the rejection pile.
What reading for a journal will NOT do is make it easier for you to get your own story published in that journal. Do not be the guy who volunteers twice and then asks when they’re going to publish your story. Just don’t do that. In fact, assume that whatever journal you’re reading for is off limits for submission. It’s just a matter of being professional.
If you’re a serious writer, find a journal near you and ask if you can join their team of readers. This will take a bit of sleuthing. Try local colleges, go to a local book fair, check out Meetup.com, or if all else fails, you can volunteer virtually (most journals accept digital submissions, and many have remote readers).
Reading remotely isn’t as good as being in the room, but the exercise of reading a piece, giving it a thumbs up or down, and having to justify your decision in a sentence or two, will improve your writing. I promise.
At the same time, you will be supporting a literary journal with free labor. It’s a win-win.