When thinking about writing for a new publication, especially one that feels like an aspirational reach, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and unworthy. One way that I reduce the target to manageable mental proportions is by focusing on something simple and measurable. I start with a really bean-county thing… word count. That may seem like a ridiculous vector from which to approach an intellectual undertaking, but it makes more sense than you would think. Editors will only publish things readers will read, and word count matters. I like to look at the shortest and longest pieces in a publication and aim toward the shorter end. Few readers have gotten to the end of a piece and said “Whew, I wish that had been longer.” Editors also can find more places to put shorter work.
The second thing I look at is structure, specifically how pieces tend to begin. A quick run through 30 or so issues of The New Yorker, for example, will reveal a remarkably stylized tendency to open pieces a certain way. If ever a magazine had a house style, The New Yorker would be a classic example, so this study, while mechanical, can also be helpful. Do I want to imitate that house style? Well, why not… after all, imitatio as an artistic discipline has a long and respected history. In one sense we probably don’t do it enough. I haven’t yet been published in The New Yorker, but my sole submission received a personal note back from a very famous editor saying I should try again soon, so I may have been on to something. After looking at beginnings I map a couple of key pieces, especially ones the periodical considers examples of its best published work.
Another concrete variable is topic. Literary magazines such as VQR, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares etc. often follow topical patterns. Authors who learn to look ahead and see what’s coming up can write for these and possibly improve chances as well. Scholarly journals can be highly topical, and often won’t return to the core topic of a major article for as long as two years.
None of these alone or even taken as a group guarantees much of anything in terms of publication, but for me it helps to map the terrain in which I hope to navigate.