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willamette writers in the church house.

Willamette Writers in Portland’s Old Church via boomerpdx

Three literary journal editors address Willamette Writers in Portland.

Nothing cramps a writer’s brain more than one question:

What is the secret to getting published in a literary journal?

If you’re looking for the gold standard of publication, literary journals shine bright.

Get a piece of writing published there and you join the literary crowd.

If you’re in the Willamette Writers meeting in Portland, it’s a good goal.

Tuesday night, editors from Calyx, Masters Review, and Timberline Review laid it out.

What is the secret to getting your work published in a literary journal? Good writing is too simple an answer, but that’s what it boils down to.

The next question is a gimme.

What is good writing?

All four panelists agreed good writing includes characterization, conflict, and a strong narrative drive.

Good writing addresses universal themes that appeal to readers looking for hidden truths.

Willamette Writers big organ.

Willamette Writers panel via boomerpdx

Fire for example.

Fire and iron ore create steel. Fire warms out bones. It also explodes, and kills, and burns stuff down.

If we need fire we also need caution; if we need a sharp knife the same rule holds

Fire applies to all three journals.

They have press runs and paper pages that burn with intensity.

A kindle screen might share the same story, but it feels cool to warm, not hot. And more disposable.

The shocking truth about the Willamette Writers panel of literary editors is the amount of work they do.

Non-writers hear that and say, “They read stories, tell me how hard that is. Like logging? Like farming?”


Yes, the first act as editor is reading. Then it’s breaking hearts and crushing hope, all part of a job you don’t find in the woods or fields.

Numbers tell the soul wrenching story:

Eight hundred submissions; one hundred twenty five published.

When asked about percentages, one of the editors said what many writers say, “I’m not a math major.”

I’ll break it down restaurant style.

Say you publish an important piece in a literary journal and celebrate your good fortune with a chicken wing celebration at Pok Pok.

Since all your friends know you’ve struck it rich, you get the bill. $800.00.

Eighty bucks is a ten percent tip, which works for street Thai food if you’re in Bangkok, not so much if you’re on SE Division.

One sixty is twenty percent and you can afford it. Don’t ruin the party and skimp on the tip.

Now the tricky part. Half of eighty is forty, which added to eighty comes to one twenty.

If you get 800 pieces of writing during an open submission period and publish about 125, you’re working with a fifteen percent success rate.

Close up on Willamette Writers

Willamette Writers via boomerpdx

The editors on the Willamette Writers stage each read more than 800 submissions to find the right work for their journals.

Theirs are the faces behind literary submissions.

Nice faces and strong voices show the strain of the work.

What they read doesn’t all come off the top shelf of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stegner Fellowships from Stanford, or other fine MFA programs.

They read what shows up, then explain why it’s not quite right for them when they take a pass.

If you’ve ever received rejection notes in the mail, or rejection email, the hurt goes both ways.

It only feels like a knife in your neck.

As the editors addressed the audience, they had to know the ratio of their submissions work for Willamette Writers the same way it works for their journals.

Fifteen percent of the hundred or so in the audience comes to fifteen writers on their way to a successful submission.

Hope filled the stage at the Old Church for them, whoever they might be.

Fifteen writers might move up while the rest of us stay busy choking ourselves out on breaking the publication code.

Thanks go to Calyx, Masters Review, and Timberline Review for a breath of fresh air.

About David Gillaspie


  1. Want to hear some mind-blowing truth? Glimmer Train receives 30 – 40 thousand submissions a year! About 1000 per contest (they run one every other month).

    Glimmer Train says: “It’s pretty rare for an author to have the first story they submit to us be chosen for publication. Learning to become a great writer is a process that is actually trackable through their submissions over time.”

    It’s hard to keep submitting your work when all you get are rejections, or declines. Obviously you have to believe in yourself and your writing to keep doing it. The only way you can be defeated is by giving up.

    • David Gillaspie says:

      Good stuff, Peter. The numbers are huge, but we’re not mathematicians so we write and try and write more with a glimmer of hope.

      Thanks for coming into boomerpdx.

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