One of the most important things a writer can do to get a feel for what’s happening in the literary community is read contemporary work. I often meet writers that don’t read literary journals or recently published books. This can be a huge mistake, especially if you’re trying to publish, since it’s important to understand your market. But there’s more to participating in your community and making a mark on it than staying current with what you’re reading. Critique is important as well.
I encourage finding a volunteer position reading for a literary journal or publisher. Yes, this means even more work on top of day jobs and night jobs and writing jobs. However, this kind of immersion is a great way to familiarize yourself with overly common themes, clichés, and other current trends in the literary community.
Many of these positions will require you to articulate what is or is not working in a piece of writing, which is an oft-neglected skill. You’re one of the reasons a piece may or may not be published. As a part of this process, you’ll likely be making an argument to an editorial board, and will need to defend your position using portions of the text you’ve read as evidence. This isn’t all about right or wrong or helping the writer whose work you’re critiquing, though; every time you articulate the strengths and weaknesses in a manuscript, you’re one step closer to catching those elements more frequently in your own work.
Specifically, you might focus your feedback on tone, setting, character psychology, descriptive language, plot, point-of-view, cohesiveness, or any number of other criteria. When reading, it’s important to think of what the author’s vision for the piece might be, not what you would do if the writing were yours. In this way, we are able expand our experience beyond the genre or style we’re comfortable writing in.
Literary journals post calls for volunteer readers all the time. Follow markets on your preferred social media platform. This is also great way to stay updated on calls for submissions or open reading periods. Many markets also send notice about these positions upon publication of your work, especially if they’re looking for fresh voices. There are also countless manuscripts out there waiting to be reviewed, and many literary journals are always looking for reviews of contemporary work.
If all of that is too daunting, you can even start small and simply offer to swap work with a friend. Every little bit of practice stretching our editorial muscles makes us better writers at the end!