By: Josh DeLacy
I saw the inner workings of The Potomac Review the other day, thanks to editor-in-chief Julie Wakeman-Linn’s willingness to grant my out-of-the-blue “shadowing” request. As a recent Calvin College graduate, I’ve been investigating ways for my writing to live post-diploma, with literary journals are near the top of that hopeful list. This was my first time seeing how a “big league” magazine operates, and the experience gave me a renewed appreciation for just how much work and energy go into maintaining a larger journal.
I sat in on one of The Potomac Review’s weekly meetings, and Julie let me ask question after question about the world of literary magazines. I learned about the journal’s reading process, in which Julie divides all the submissions among her two-dozen-plus associate editors, with each responsible for about ten pieces per month. If an associate editor sees something he or she likes, it gets passed along to the “maybe editors.” If a maybe editor approves it, too, then the submission moves to Julie. She discusses each of these doubly blessed pieces with her interns (the discussions can get quite heated) and ultimately decides whether or not to publish it. That makes for three rounds of review, and often, even strong, moving works get rejected. In fact, with just fifty or so open publication spots each year, The Potomac Review has to turn away 99.5 percent of its submissions.
However, I discovered that not all rejections are created equal, and some are actually high compliments. Unimpressive pieces get a basic rejection letter—very distant, and not exactly encouraging the recipient to submit another piece. Other submissions have promise, but for whatever reason, they don’t make it through all three review rounds. Those get something better—one of several letters that all contain an element of “please try us again—you have real potential.” And some pieces get rejected based purely on the upcoming issue’s specific needs. When I visited, for instance, team was raving about the stories they had recently received. However, there was a problem: three of those were narrated in the same style, by characters with near-identical ages and genders. The team couldn’t put all three in the same issue and still stand by their practice of publishing diverse voices. Whatever one they ultimately reject will get the best rejection letter, the one that says the piece “wasn’t right for this issue.” It might be a minor difference in language, but it is a huge difference in meaning.
In my hour-and-a-half experience, I also glimpsed just how much work goes into producing this magazine. Beyond reading and responding to submissions, Julie’s team runs contests, maintains records, manages the blog, updates the website, directs marketing, and attends conferences. But despite all this background work and the sheer volume of submissions they receive, no one in the team seemed anywhere close to being burnt-out or cynical or even tired. They genuinely enjoy putting together the magazine and reading new stories. Their energy is contagious, and they fill the room with enthusiasm.
So thank you, Julie, Karolina, Todd, and Marc, for showing me that although literary publishing is even more competitive than I had thought, although running a journal is demanding and time-consuming, rewards lie in doing what you love, and those rewards are bountiful.