Cover of Interview with Barbara Diehl from The Baltimore Review

Interview with Barbara Diehl from The Baltimore Review

There is something about every journal with the name of a well-known city followed by “review” in the title that is intimidating. Perhaps I’m alone in this, but seeing somewhere with the influence to claim an entire city under its purview makes me think they know their stuff, for sure. And so, it’s no wonder that Barbara Diehl, the editor-in-chief of The Baltimore Review, certainly knows her stuff. But it’s also wonderful to see how unintimidating that can be–because, as we think this interview shows, being an editor at an intimidating-sounding journal is not, as one would expect, a sign of highfalutin(ness?) but instead, a sign of someone with a load of experience who deeply cares about the writing community and the fun of the process itself. Of course, Barbara might be a special case, who knows what some of those other Cool City Reviews are like. We’ll find out. In the meantime, read on for some truly great advice on the writing & submissions process (and find some insights into best practices for submitting to The [Wait is that the capital of Maryland? Damn.] Review.)

Could you tell us a bit about The Baltimore Review? How it started and evolved to what it is today.

The history is long and twisty, but in short: While president of a Baltimore literary organization in the mid-90s, I worked with a group of local writers to launch a new literary journal publishing poems and short stories in two print issues each year. Publishing was a different world back then. Editors exchanging grocery bags of submissions. Asking for stories on floppy disks so I wouldn’t have to type them. Our calls for submission were in the big fat Writer’s Market books. Somehow, we got copies into bookstores. I still have those early books. Cool seeing some of the people we published then.

Later, the journal became independent and, under Susan Muaddi Darraj’s leadership, became a nonprofit. When I resumed leadership in 2011, I brought on a new team and we changed to our current format: quarterly online issues and an annual print compilation, managing our submissions through the brand-new Submishmash—now Submittable.

Staff members have come and gone over the years, which is to be expected. We’re still independent, and I’m happy to have writing program directors from two different local universities on our board. Our editors come from various backgrounds; they’re 20-something to 70-something (maybe older but I’m not going to ask). Most are on our Staff page, but not all. Some writers just want to get a little experience on the other side of Submittable before moving on, and I understand. I do appreciate the help. We’ve also had a good number of interns pass through, from several universities, and I’m glad that we’ve been able to provide a learning experience for them.

Could you sum up the vibe of The Baltimore Review in six words or less?

Fostering empathy through the literary arts. I don’t know if that’s a vibe, but that’s what we’re going for: encouraging people to understand themselves and the world around them through writing. Yeah, that’s broad. Curious. Empathetic. Real. Open. Sometimes strange. I don’t know if I can pin us down in six words or less. Sorry. Maybe I should try harder. I like to sense honesty, a realness, some sophistication of thought and expression, surprises, strangeness. OK, I’m not good at the vibe thing.

What is the editorial process for new submissions at The Baltimore Review? Let's say, from a piece coming in the door to when it is either accepted or rejected.

Everything flows through Submittable. There is no such thing as “slush” (terrible term); there are only submissions. BR team members read, comment, and vote on submissions. Some of us read one genre, e.g., fiction; others read across genres. If the first reader thinks a submission should get more attention, they assign it on to two or three other readers for that particular genre. Occasionally, we have Zoom meetings to discuss submissions or spend some “read-in” time together, but most of the time we’re on our own in Submittable. Readers often add editing notes to the comments, which is helpful if we decide to accept the work. If I see two No votes, this pretty much always means a decline response. I keep an eye on submissions rising to the top of the queue with Yes votes, but it’s not a matter of “whoever gets the most Yes votes wins.” The comments mean more to me.

We now receive 8,000 to over 9,000 submissions per year, so it really does take a team of dedicated volunteers (and all of us are volunteers) to keep up with them. I don’t know what I’d do without their input and assistance throughout the process. I hope writers understand that we can publish a small percentage of these, 15-20 in each quarterly issue.

When we decline work, we include a list of other publication resources, including Chill Subs. I hope that writers find that helpful. When we accept work, we send a contract, work through any editing needed, ask for the photo, bio, etc. for the issue, and send a payment (currently $50 for regular, i.e., non-contest work). The writers get to review their work on the site before we publish the issue. Along with payment, they also receive a copy of the annual print compilation, and we nominate them for as many awards as we can.

If a writer is second guessing a piece they wrote, what would you advise they do to really make sure it's the best it can be. Some say to read aloud, other say to ask a friend. As someone who both reviews and writes poetry, I'd be curious about your process.

Reading the work aloud and getting feedback from a trusted reader—excellent ideas! If you feel weird about reading your work out loud, at least read it “out loud” slowly in your head. If you struggle with focusing your attention, use a ruler to work your way down the page. I’ve learned the hard way that I even need to check my emails before I send them—I tend to write way too quickly sometimes, or when I’m tired. With a slow read, you can catch awkward phrasings and rhythms, disruptions in logical flow, missed and misused words, redundancies, and a slew of other writing issues.

Aside from the nuts-and-bolts stuff: If you’re second guessing yourself, maybe you need to step back and examine why, maybe try journaling about what made you write the piece in the first place and what’s holding you back from being one hundred percent on board with it. This discovery process may help you refine the piece, making it as precise and concise as it can be.

How are new editors and readers chosen at The Baltimore Review--and how would you direct someone looking to become more involved in the editorial side of things to start?

We look for editors/readers who have some writing experience, through publications in literary journals and/or educational experience. We definitely do not all have MFA or similar degrees (having a mix of backgrounds makes life more interesting), but we’re all passionate about writing and being active members of the literary community. When someone volunteers to read for us, I want to know that they’re fairly knowledgeable about their field—and love to read and write—and that they’re excited about the opportunity. I want to know that they’re able to set aside some time for this, enjoy interacting with other readers, and able to occasionally help out with proofreading and other tasks. I encourage writers to reach out to journals about volunteering. Many would welcome the help!

Is there an aspect of the submissions process writers fret over that doesn't really impact their chances when a story is being considered? Or, conversely, is there something writers don't do that are a red flag when it is missing from a submission?

Writers sometimes fret about cover letters. All that’s needed for many journals is a brief note like: Thank you for considering these poems. (Adding something like, “I enjoyed your fall issue” or “Thanks for all you do” can warm an editor’s heart but isn’t necessary.) Then a brief bio like the bios you see on the journal’s website. Unless the journals ask for something more. Word counts for prose submissions can be helpful, but that should really appear on the doc. I’m seeing that left off a lot.

But it’s the work itself that matters, not the cover note.

Fretting over a typo isn’t necessary. If the story is great, we’ll fix the typo or ask you to fix it.

Sometimes writers discover more serious issues than a typo and attach a revised doc to a message. For us, not fret-worthy. Of course, rushing to submit isn’t always a great idea, but we’ve all been guilty.

I think most writers know to withdraw work once it’s accepted somewhere. If one poem from a batch of three is accepted by another publications, all a writer has to do is send a message through Submittable.

Many editors say that the best way to find what a journal is looking for is to read it--yet many also say they want to see something new. Do you have some insights on what writers should be looking for when they read a journal they'd like to submit to?

Yes, we’re really annoying that way, right? You mentioned “vibe” earlier—something some of us have more than others. If you’re getting a strong, say pop culture vibe or social justice vibe or scholarly vibe or relationship stories vibe or whatever, that can help you decide. When I’m sending my own work out, I take a look at the masthead and “about” statement and read a sample issue. I want to feel comfortable with the people reading my work and their mission, and I want to feel that my work would be in good company if accepted. I don’t worry so much about the “something new.” Yes, there are some stories/subjects we see a lot of, especially editors who have been reading submissions for a long time, but there are always fresh ways to look at the world, and some subjects will never grow old. A father-son relationship? Sure, there are a million of them. But each can have distinct characteristics that make it new.

What would be an essential piece of writing advice you'd give to prospective writers out there either within the realm of submitting, or just a certain piece of writing advice you've found handy over the years?

Find your people. Through courses, writing groups, volunteering with a journal, giving as much as you get—supporting other writers with advice, encouragement, buying their books, attending their readings. Support journals. Most editors are writers themselves. Most are trying their best to be good literary citizens.

There is so much writing advice out there. Never think you’ve achieved some sort of writerly perfection. We all have more to learn. We all screw up. Read great writing, but also read about the craft of writing. And essays on rhetorical devices and line breaks and other esoteric stuff. And read boring (not to me, but hey) books and websites like dictionaries, thesauruses, usage and grammar guides, etc. If you love words, language, and the whole idea of effective communication, learn more about the craft.

Take pleasure in writing. If it feels too much like work, find ways to make it playful. Participate in some generative workshops or write-ins. Play with silly prompts even if they lead to dead ends. (They don’t always lead to dead ends.) Play with new writing software or techniques: clustering, lists, freewriting, outlining, writing scene summaries or character sketches, playing with Tarot cards, pulling prompts out of hats, etc. If you’ve been writing poems, try a micro fiction. If you’re always traditional in your approach to forms and formatting, try a hybrid. Heck, make your own hybrid. Make it fun again.

Could you break down The Baltimore Review's publishing schedule? I know you publish both online, in print, and have blog content. What are some behind the scenes details of how and why you chose to take things in these different directions rather than focusing only on one (as many journals do).

There was a time when writers didn’t think too highly of online publishing, but the thinking there sure flipped! Writers appreciate being able to share their work widely with links, through social media and on their author pages—including Chill Subs.

Publishing quarterly online issues made the most sense to us. More frequent publishing would require more time and energy. And publishing 15-20 works per issue makes for a good reading experience, I think. But publishing a print book has always been important to me—technology changes, and books can last a very long time—and I think our contributors appreciate getting a copy of the annual compilation. Some have said it’s like getting published all over again.

So those 15-20 works per online issue results in a 300-350-page book. A good size. Also, it gives us something to sell at conferences and online. Not that we have much income from it. Most of our revenue comes from (reasonable) contest fees—but we don’t charge submission fees for non-contest submissions—and donations. For the past few submission periods, submitters receive a pdf of 50 writing prompts when they donate $5. We get $3.76 for each; Submittable gets the rest. Those little contributions add up. I’m seriously thrilled that we’re paying winter issue contributors $50.

Is there a question we didn't ask in this interview that you think we should ask, and how would you answer it?

Maybe how to get in touch? And I’m happy to answer questions on the Chill Subs [Ugh] pages.

View Baltimore Review on Chill Subs

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Baltimore Review

"The mission of The Baltimore Review is to showcase Baltimore as a literary hub of diverse writing and promote the work of emerging and established writers."
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