Six Steps to a Better Lit Mag

Scholastic journalism guru Allen Loibner-Waitkus, MJE, as a guest blogger.

When I was in school, I remember looking forward all year to the day my teacher would hand out copies of the school’s literary magazine to those of us (which was pretty much all of us) who ordered one. Now it seems I cannot be in the same room with a lit mag adviser or staff member who isn’t complaining about how no one in his or her school buys, reads or even respects the school’s literary magazine.

Every time I hear the complaint, I ask, “What’s the problem?”

The answers, unlike my question, vary. Name a reason, and I’ve heard it—students don’t read anymore, no one appreciates art, administrators aren’t supportive enough. The list goes on.

In fifteen years of listening to complaints, I haven’t had a single person give the answer that I suspect is the true reason: “We aren’t doing it right.”

There are plenty of staffs that do it right across every school demographic imaginable, and their students buy, read and respect the finished product. So, what is the secret to success?

While I’m not a magician capable of transforming your literary magazine into everything you dream it can be, I do have six suggestions that have helped several of the schools with which I’ve worked and certainly helped my staffs when I was an adviser.

Do you want to sell a ton of copies? Do you want a quality literary magazine that you can be proud of and wins awards? Do you want a broad audience to read and enjoy it? Do you want a combination—or all—of these things?

You and your staff need to have (as my father would call it) a come-to-Jesus meeting early in the year and decided what your goals are. After you do this, type up your goals and post them all over your classroom.

These goals don’t have to be as general as the ones above. Short, specific lists are best. Keep it to five or ten. I remember having something like this posted above all the computers in my classroom:

Before you put any writing on a page in the lit mag, ask yourself:

  • Would you pay money to read it?
  • Can it be improved upon?
  • Is the subject matter interesting and not cliche?
  • How many other works by the same author have been published so far?
  • Has it been accepted by the editorial board? (More about this later.)

You can judge a book by its cover, but let me add you can judge a book by its design.

You may have the best writing and art in the world, but no one is going to look at it if the design isn’t good. Well designed literary magazines exist. Make yours one of them.

The first mistake I see staffs make is discussing their theme before they discuss anything else.

Who cares? I can tell you your readers don’t, most judges don’t and I certainly don’t.

If you “just have” to have a theme, wait until all submissions have been selected and find a common thread that runs through most or at least several of the works. Once you find that thread, use it to establish a verbal theme. Schools that start with a verbal theme often force works to fit into that them, killing creativity and originality before the writing even begins.

On the other hand, your lit mag should have a visual theme. You may want to wait until all of the content is submitted to decide it as well. Are the works mostly serious? Fun? A Variety? You need to visually match the content.

The biggest problem I see with most literary magazines is that are over designed. Think of your design as a way of showcasing your works. Next to my list of goals, I also posted a list of design rules that the staff established (developed by the students, though I admit there was some non-painful nudging by me). Here are some of my favorites:

  • Do not increase font size to fill the page.
  • Whitespace is your friend.
  • Do not center poems.
  • A poem about a horse doesn’t have to have a drawing of a horse next to it.
  • Do not change the font of the work or the title. We established guidelines for a reason.

As a former adviser, I do realize that good student work can be hard to find. That’s when it’s time to network with other teachers. See if any English teachers have a creative writing assignment. Become best friends with your school’s art and photography teachers and get them to show you some of their students’ best work. While yearbook and newspaper staffs circle their school looking for content, it has been my experience that most lit mag staffs are islands.

Take it a step further and ask other teachers (especially English, art and photography) if you can place submission boxes in their classrooms or if they will put up a sign in their classrooms requesting submission with the literary magazine’s email address on it. Be sure you include resolution guidelines for images.

Don’t limit yourself to just high school networking. English teachers of all school levels struggle with fostering a love of creative writing and are in search for project-based learning tools. Check out the lit mag project that Krystal of did with her seventh grade students.

Also, if your goal is selling more copies, pushing submissions by elementary, middle school and junior high students can be a game changer. Those parents will buy anything. Seriously.

Let’s take the time machine back to the ‘80s when I was a pudgy, idealistic kid with hair. One of the reasons we all bought literary magazines was in hopes that something we submitted made it into the publication. Where is it written that you have to tell students if they have something in the literary magazine?

I also remember the high school kids on the lit mag staff coming by our classrooms selling advance copies and asking for submissions. I remember thinking that they must be the coolest kids in high school, and I could be just like them if just one of my poems made it in.

And look at me now.

Confession: None of my submissions ever made it into print, but through years of therapy, I have learned to live with the rejection.

After meeting with my new staff and getting a feeling for who’s who, I would name an editor. I would also name an editorial board (selected by me with assistance from other teachers). Yes, the students named to this board were generally the more motivated students on staff, but there’s actually something way more important.

You want to choose an editorial board (sometimes called a “judging panel”) that represents a cross section of your school. Find people from different cliques, different backgrounds, different ethnicities and different genders.

These students should be the gatekeepers of your publication. Let them decide what goes in and what doesn’t. By choosing a diverse group, you can almost guarantee that your literary magazine will contain diverse works.

You do need to be present during any work-selection meetings to make sure Cindy hasn’t agreed to vote for Sue’s poem about unrequited love in exchange for Sue voting for Cindy’s drawing of a crying clown.

If you have more submissions than you know what to do with, consider limiting them to two or three per student. I have seen too many literary magazines written almost entirely by a handful of students. No one, except those students, their parents and Cindy’s sad clown friend, wants to buy or read that literary magazine.

Staffs across the state and country love to see work done by other schools. Talk to advisers in your state about exchanging magazines when they come out.

One of the duties of my business manager was to see who was winning state, regional and national awards online and sending a copy of our literary magazine with a note requesting a copy of theirs in return. Check with your state scholastic press association or the NTCE for a list of local award winners.

It’s also important to remember that good design is good design, no matter what the medium. Look at magazines, design books or anything else you can get your hands on that may help assist in your quest to create a great literary magazine. I’ve done the first bit of research for you.  

A former high school yearbook, newspaper and literary magazine adviser, Allen Loibner-Waitkus, MJE, serves as executive director of the Arkansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches writing at Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock, Ark. He is also a certified personal trainer and has an unhealthy obsession with typography.