How Co-Founding a Literary Journal Made Me a Better Freelance Writer

By Rudri Patel July 21st, 2021

When I co-founded a literary journal, The Sunlight Press, five years ago, I had no idea what to expect. I’d written for such journals before, but I’d never been exposed to all the behind-the-scenes work. And although I knew my co-founder and co-editor from writing circles, we had never met in person.

Some anxiety-driven questions ping-ponged around my head: Would any writers want to contribute? And could I navigate a co-founder and co-editor relationship with someone I’d never worked with in real life?

Five years later, not only have I found the answers to these questions to be a resounding “yes,” but the journey has benefitted my full-time freelance writing career.

Here are the top lessons I’ve learned.

Strong characters = strong stories

I’ve read through thousands of essays, short stories, and flash fiction, and the narratives that resonate the most are the ones with compelling characters. They offer the reader a glimpse into their world in a convincing way.

In a flash fiction story published on The Sunlight Press, “A Bouquet of Stars” by Cathy Ulrich, readers relate to the astronaut’s wife, who feels profound loneliness and longing for her star-bound partner. Ulrich never gives the character a name, but the evocative language encourages the reader to fill in the gaps.

In nonfiction, it’s equally important to highlight strong characters. When there’s a unique individual at the crux of a reported piece or nonfiction feature, there is automatically more at stake—not only for the writer, but also for the reader.

Lesson learned: Readers gravitate toward narratives instead of rote recitations of facts. Now, when I pitch reported articles to an editor, I focus on a particular story—and specific sources—versus broad topics and generalizations.

The narrative arc applies to nonfiction, too

A “narrative arc” is what carries a reader through a story from beginning to end. It involves introducing a character, layering conflict and tension, building momentum, and resolving challenges in the end.

For example, in “Bypasses” by Gabriela Frank, a short story about a couple going through an emotional hospital visit, the writer teases the couple’s background, peppers in hints about the wife’s denial of her husband’s condition, and concludes with her bitter acceptance of the situation at hand. The story’s disjointed structure mimics the chaotic nature of the wife’s cycle of grief.

Lesson learned: A strong narrative arc is also applicable to freelance projects like reported articles, video scripts, and more. The shape of the story should center around a tangible issue, the characters immersed in the conflict, and a concrete resolution.

In a reported piece I wrote for Civil Eats, I profiled Darren Chapman, a former convict who founded the TigerMountain Foundation, which helps at-risk youth land jobs in South Central Phoenix, Arizona. I immediately recognized that Chapman’s journey would make a memorable narrative. My experience editing the journal helped me communicate it in a compelling way.

First impressions are everything

At The Sunlight Press, we receive about 1,000 submissions from writers annually. After years of honing my skills as a reviewer, I’ve learned to quickly distinguish between writers who have studied our literary journal and those with little understanding of what we publish—and often, I can make this judgment call as soon as I scan the first paragraph.

Lesson learned: Now, in my freelance work, I pay careful attention to the lede. I know that these first few sentences make or break readers’ (and editors’) first impressions. Additionally, before I pitch a new nonfiction outlet, I make sure to study up. This process includes reading any pitching guidelines, as well as a few samples of work currently featured on the publication.

Time-management tools are critical

Managing a literary journal is constant work. My colleague and I respond to every email that lands in our inbox. We review submissions to determine if we’ll accept them, reject them, or ask the writer to revise their draft. Finally, we prepare submissions for publication.

Publishing a piece requires copyediting, uploading it to WordPress, finding the appropriate image to pair with the post, and corresponding with the author. We also promote the journal on social media channels. Since we publish at least two to three times a week, the stream of work is steady.

Lesson learned: Knowing that I have to bounce between my freelance deadlines and editing role, I’ve gotten better at using my time more efficiently. Both my jobs have deadlines that cannot be missed.

To meet these targets, I incorporate a few time-management tactics:

  • I compose my to-do list at night so I’m ready to go in the morning.
  • I use a bullet journal to plan my deadlines at least a month ahead of time. This helps me determine how quickly I need to find sources for my freelance work, as well as when I need to read submissions.
  • I experiment with the Pomodoro Technique, working on a single task for 25 minutes. Breaking complex projects up into small chunks makes the work seem more manageable.

Editors give feedback for a reason

As an editor of a literary journal, I often offer suggestions to help writers improve their submissions. Now, I understand that when my own editors give feedback on a freelance project, they’re usually coming from a place of sincerity—they want the piece to be as strong as possible. This realization has helped me become a more empathetic and collaborative writer.

Lesson learned: When an editor asks for revisions, I don’t take it personally. I understand that they’re trying to push me to think a little harder about a point or consider how my voice fits with the publication. I try to engage in constructive dialogue in order to publish my best work.

For example, in a piece I recently wrote for Saveur, my editor asked for a few revisions after my first draft. Instead of complaining, I read through the comments objectively. In the end, my writing improved because of the feedback.

Being gracious is an art form

I’ve also gained a new respect for editors’ workloads. Sometimes my responses to writers who submit to The Sunlight Press are not as timely as I’d like. So now, when one of my own editors doesn’t respond immediately, I know they’re probably inundated. I recently followed up on a pitch, and an editor responded three weeks later. It turns out she was consumed with an issue deadline—something I understand more intimately now.

Lesson learned: Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned is to embrace the process. First drafts are rarely perfect. Crafting a compelling story takes time and willingness to collaborate. And we’re all human—editors and writers alike.

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