Lessons From the Slush Pile

As I wrote about a week ago, I’ve started volunteering for an online journal as a slush pile reader.  I’ve already read over 50 entries, which is much more than I thought I would read.

So far reading from the slush pile has been a fascinating and sobering experience for me as a writer. I feel like I’ve learned far more about the submission process from an editor’s point of view than I would have reasonably expected.

It’s difficult to imagine how many submissions editors and their staffs have to review to get to the final selections for an issue. And the experience of having so many stories put in front of you at once immediately puts you in a comparative mode. I imagine now how some teams might debate and cull down their “Maybe” list into a concise, short list of final “Yes” pieces.

‘This story,’ an editor might think to themselves, ‘is well written, but I don’t like the ending. It’s not as good as this other story I just read a half hour ago.’  Or maybe the thought is, ‘This story just doesn’t go anywhere.’ (In my own brief time as a reader I feel like I’ve read quite a few stories with an excellent premise, but the person just hasn’t taken it far enough.)

And given the pace of life at small online journals and the avalanche of submissions, it’s difficult to imagine editors requesting re-writes and working with writers to hone a piece so it can be published, even though I know it does happen and has happened to me personally a few times. It makes me that much more appreciative of an editor’s time.

Of course all of this reading and evaluating gives me ammunition to look at my own work with a critical eye, or maybe I should say a MORE critical eye.

My early lessons from the slush pile would have me asking myself a series of questions before I’d submit any of my stories to any editor for their review. I jot a few of them here for your consideration and use, as you may see fit.

  • “Does this piece have enough to say?”
  • “Do I take the characters far enough in this story?”
  • “Is there emotional resonance?”
  • “Is the premise plausible enough within the context of the story that’s been written?”
  • Have I taken the premise of the story far enough?
  • “How can I up the ante or increase the tension?”
  • Is the ending coming too soon in the story? Too late?
  • Is the ending predictable? Is it too unpredictable?

This post is probably the first of several posts I’ll make on this topic, based on other experiences I have from the slush pile.

I’d like to hear from other writers, editors or slush pile readers out there who may agree/disagree with my questions above. Maybe you have your own set of “critical questions” you ask before you submit/and or accept a story for publication and I’d like to hear about those too.


6 Responses

  1. Carol, I think you are asking great questions here which I do agree with. I would imagine it is humbling to actually see what does go in the slush pile and to learn the reasons why. Thanks for such a well thought, insightful post 😉

    • Thanks so much Christy, I appreciate your comment. And yes, it is quite an experience to wade through the slush. And while some pieces are completely gonzo, in general I’d have to say the quality of the writing that I get to read is above average. So in the event that writers think that their piece will outshine everyone else, be aware that it is very competitive – possibly moreso than people realize!

      I also stopped by your blog as well. I enjoyed it!

  2. That is some priceless ‘inside’ information. Think I’ll copy paste those questions in to a document and ask them about any serious pieces I may have. Thanks for making the time to share!!!

    • Oh goodness Scribbla, really you are too kind. If any of these questions help you, then it was worth jotting these thoughts down.

      As always, thanks for all of your encouragement!

  3. I like your list Carol – I’ve always asked myself similar questions before submitting, but not necessarily from the editor/reader’s perspective. It’s a subtle difference, but it’s too easy as a writer to get caught up in how I feel, what I want, what I was trying to convey (ME, ME, ME!), when really, it is other’s reactions to our writing that creates a true symbiosis.

    • Thanks Wren, you make a great point… it’s good to consider your work from your own perspective, and then perhaps use some subjective questions to consider the point of view of a reader/editor too.

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