If you read through a lot of submission guidelines (or get a lot of rejection letters) like I do, you’ve probably had an editor tell you that if you want to increase your chances of getting published with them, you should read past issues of their magazine/podcast/whathaveyou before submitting.
On first blush, this seems somewhat self-serving (especially when you have to pay to access previous issues). However, it also makes sense. Everybody has different tastes. When you get a rejection from a magazine, that doesn’t necessarily mean your writing is bad. The editor or slush reader just may not have personally liked it for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons.
Editors try to give you a sense of what they are looking for in submission guidelines, but it can be difficult for someone to express what their personal tastes are. They might tell you they’re looking for funny stories, for example, but everyone has a different sense of humor, so that doesn’t really help much. So reading past issues can certainly give you a better idea of what sort of story a particular magazine is looking for.
Likewise, many submission guidelines ask for “original” or “unique” stories, but this doesn’t help unless you know what their definition of these words is. They might mean that they have a preferred style that’s different from the mainstream but the same from issue to issue, or they might mean they want each issue of their magazine to be different from the one before. I’ve received a rejection letter before that states one of the reasons they reject stories is the story is too similar to something else they’ve published recently. I guess in this case, reading past issues might help you know what not to write.
I’ve been an editor for a literary magazine myself, so I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I think I wrote in our submission guidelines (or an editorial or something) that past issues aren’t really a good indication for what sort of stuff we publish since tastes change over time. I think many editors and slush readers fall into the same category. They don’t really know what they want, but they know it when they see it.
I’ve been catching up on back episodes of the Dunsteef podcast recently, and they said something along these lines. They often have no idea that they want to publish a particular story until they see it. So if you write a story that fits with what the magazine has published in the past, they might be bored by it, while if you write something they haven’t see before, they might like it because it comes as a breath of fresh air. We’ve probably all had the experience of reading a story that wasn’t our usual thing and being surprised by how much we liked it.
So should you read a magazine before submitting to it? In the end, I think this is really a question of practicality. There are thousands of magazines out there and writers don’t have the time to read them all. (The ones that have audio versions are easier to listen to while you’re doing something else like washing dishes or doing yard work, but there’s still only so much time in the day.) What with our day jobs, family lives, and that pesky thing called sleep, we barely have enough time to write, so don’t sweat it if you haven’t read every magazine you submit stories to. Read what you can, but don’t let it take time away from your writing.