Lessons From the Slush Pile: What editors owe us

For those new to the blog, welcome! I got so much great feedback on the Snark post. I really appreciate your participation and passion.

If that was your first visit to Inkhaven, though, I feel like I should introduce myself.

I’m a writer. I’ve been working hard since 2001 to learn the craft, and I finally made my very first sale in February. I’ve only been an editorial minion for three months, but I’ve been a struggling aspiring SFF writer for nearly a decade. I am still a struggling aspiring writer. I will probably continue to be for years to come, because that’s what it takes. That’s what I signed on for when I decided that I was going to take fiction writing seriously. That is who I am first and foremost, and what this blog has been about (and its previous incarnations on an old domain and on LiveJournal.)

I want that out there because I’m about to wade into very deep water based on some of the feedback I got on that entry. I want you to understand that I am in your shoes and on your side. Even so, with all that we have in common, there is still something we disagree on, and that is this: what an editor (or an editor’s minion) owes us in terms of feedback on rejections.

I say this as a writer, and an unsuccessful one at that. My opinion on this has never wavered.

They don’t owe us anything.

I’ve racked up the rejections just like everyone else. I’ve only had one story not rejected again and again. I know the head-spinning frustration of it. I know that we all want a reason. We want to know what that one thing is that we need to fix before it’s good enough.

I want you, Brave Writer, to take a step back from that for a minute. I want you to do something that does not come naturally for us:

I want you to stop worrying.

Having now taken a peek behind the curtain, there is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty about why any story is rejected.

Remember that an issue of our favorite publication only has two to five available slots. They receive roughly 400 submissions a month. If were are left wondering why our story was rejected, the answer is this:

Because it wasn’t one of the editor’s two to five absolute favorite stories out of those 400.

Doesn’t help much, does it. But it’s the real answer.

We need to stop wondering whether it was because we had a typo in our submission, or because we didn’t format to 12 pt Courier. We need to stop second-guessing that one paragraph that we labored over for hours and just knew we should have left the way it was. We need to stop spinning our wheels over whether it was because we used too many adverbs, or not enough description.

Editors are trying to find the stories that they love, so they can put them in their publication and share them with the rest of us and make their publication successful. That’s their job. Their job does not include critiquing my story. Not even a little.

And I don’t know why, but I’ve never thought it did. I’ve had critique groups for that all along. I’ve never felt that it was up to an editor to tell me that my ending was weak, that the first three pages are throat-clearing, that my dialog is unbelievable, or that nothing really happens in my story. Any or all of those things may be true, but it’s not up to them to tell me that. That’s the job of my fellow travelers. I’ve been a member of several different online critique groups, and of course my beloved and now in-limbo Santa Barbara Writers Conference, and that’s where I give and get that feedback.*

It’s up to the editors to find great stories to put in their magazines. Some day I hope to write a story great enough that one of them will.

We as writers put way too much emphasis on those rejection letters. We worry so much. I want you, my fellow writer, to stop worrying about why that story was rejected. It just was.

Find the next market and send it back out. Do the paperwork, and then start the next story.

It wasn’t their absolute favorite, and that’s all we need to know.

* You didn’t think I’d leave you just hanging like that, did you? Of course there’s a post on how and where to find a critique group coming up! :)


One thought on “Lessons From the Slush Pile: What editors owe us

  1. I think this is an excellent point of view. I am an editor for 365tomorrows, and a writer, so I approach my role as an editor with the sensibilities of a writer, and quite honestly – that makes my job much harder.

    The writer in me wants feedback, so when rejecting a story I want to provide something to the person who took the leap and submitted a story such that they can learn from the experience and do better next time. Given that I’m quite often sifting through twenty or thirty stories in a sitting, that becomes difficult and at some point responding in a timely fashion take precedent over responding with any degree of critical depth.

    Editing for 365 is about finding the balance between selecting only the very best stories for the outlet and providing a showcase for new and talented writers. It’s also about expecting more, and motivating writers to expect more of themselves.

    If you think it’s hard getting a rejection letter, try sending them out by the hundreds. Help all of us, write to the very best of your ability, constantly push to expand your ability and give us the gems that we’re looking for. With that, everyone wins.

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