What Editors Really Want

As I have mentioned before on my blog, my very first short story was published in The Amethyst Review many years ago. A few years back I found Penny Ferguson, the editor in chief of the magazine, on the internet and we’ve since been emailing on a regular basis. I finally got to meet Penny at the launch for A Maritime Christmas in 2008 and was totally surprised and delighted when she and her husband, Paul, came to my book launch back in October. A two and a half hour trip from Truro, I might add. How’s that for being supportive?

Awhile back I invited Penny to be a guest on my blog and being the nice person she is, she agreed. I thought some of you writers out there might be interested to hear first hand just how editors make their decision, what they look for in a story, and just why the heck our beautiful prose are sent back with a rejection letter when we were just SO sure this time.

Laura has asked me to do a guest blog to share with writers a little bit
about the process by which work is selected for publication in literary
journals/magazines. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I do have a
little experience in this area, having been the editor of two literary
journals/magazines. 1978-1981 I was an editor and senior editor of
/Alpha Arts Magazine/. 1992-2002 I was an editor/owner of /The Amethyst
Review./ I have also served as a judge for a number of literary
competitions such as the Acorn-Plantos Poetry Award, the Writer’s
Federation of Nova Scotia’s Short Story Competition, the Writers
Federation of New Brunswick’s Alfred Bailey Poetry Prize, SEEDS
International Poetry Contest and I have served on the Peer Assessment
Committee for Grants to Individuals for the Nova Scotia Department of

First, writers must understand that journals/magazines receive far more
work than they can ever possibly publish. Usually, journals/magazines
have a set number of pages and editors can select only enough work to
fill those pages. This means competition is tough. Once a submission
arrives in the office of the publication, it is logged in. That means a
record is kept of the author’s name, contact information, titles of the
work(s) sent and whether or not a SASE (self-addressed, stamped
envelope) was included. The work is usually assigned a number and a
comment sheet is attached. This sheet contains space for each editor to
write their opinion of the work. From this point, the submission is
handed to one or more editors to read.

For both of the publications I worked with, there was more than one
editor—sometimes three or more. Each editor read each piece of work
submitted. In my particular cases, we marked the work with one of three
designations. These were “A” for accepted, “R” for rejected or “A-R” for
accepted-rejected. This last designation was reserved for those pieces
of work that showed promise but were not the best of work submitted.
Each editor marked their designation of the particular work on the
comment sheet, along with their opinions of the writing and any comments
they wanted to convey to the author. Other journals may use a point
system or some other system to rate work submitted to them.

Why does an editor accept one piece of writing and reject another?

This can be influenced by any number of things. Personally, I looked for
good, solid writing and for work that touched my soul in some way. I
looked for that piece of writing that reached out and gripped my heart
and just wouldn’t let go. I looked for that piece of writing that I was
still thinking about days after I had read it. I also looked for writing
that was new and fresh. For me, this was not to be confused with writing
that tried too hard to shock just for the sake of shocking.

I think this is how many editors decide to support a work or to pass on
it, but I know there are other influences too. Editors are, after all,
people. Their own life experience, good and bad, can influence what they
like or dislike in literature. For instance, I submitted work to one
editor who always took anything I sent him that dealt with the theme of
the difficulties in relationships we sometimes have with our mothers.
There are other editors where I have never figured out what they were
looking for in writing. I have been known to say to new writers that
sometimes it is just a matter of connecting with the /right/ editor in
the /right/ mood on the /right/ day!

But let’s get back to the actual editorial process! Once each editor has
read and commented on each work, an editorial meeting is usually held.
In my particular case, as an editor-in-chief, I sorted through the
manuscripts before the meeting. I made three piles—the “A” pile, the “R”
pile and the “A-R” pile. In the first stage of the editorial meeting,
manuscripts that had received an “A” from every editor were considered
automatically in the journal/magazine. “R” manuscripts were excluded
from the meeting and sent back to the authors with comments.

Once all of the works marked “A” were compiled, it was determined
exactly how many pages of the publication they would fill. This means
doing some math! That is why editors want to know how many words are in
your short story and how many lines there are in your poems. It was an
exciting time for us if we had more “A” work than the journal/magazine
would hold. This happened rarely for us. If it did, then we discussed
the work with each editor giving opinions on why particular pieces
should or shouldn’t be included for publication until a consensus was

If there were not enough works marked “A” to fill the publication, then
we progressed on to the “A-R” works, discussing them in the same way.
The best of this lot was selected by consensus until the allotted number
of pages were filled. As the writer can see, an editor’s personal tastes
in literature can come into play here and it is up to them to “fight”
for works they feel are worth fighting for. Sometimes editors read works
when they are tired or distracted and miss something in a work that
another editor will see promise in. I recall reading one poet’s work
that I thought was absolutely wonderful. I remember those poems fifteen
years later! The other editors marked the work with a “R.” I pleaded
with them to reread the work. When they did, they agreed that they had
missed an excellent piece of work.

So, that is basically my experience on how work is selected for
publication. There are a few other things that I would ask writers to
remember. Most editors are writers themselves or, at the very least,
they have a love for literature. Most editors put in long hours poring
over stacks of manuscripts for no pay or for an honorarium. A fortunate
few are paid. Treat editors with respect even if you don’t agree with
them. They do the work because they love it, not because it’s making
them a millionaire. Don’t call editors to argue with them or send them
spiteful letters. Insulting editors isn’t apt to make them want to
publish your work and it won’t make shoddy work better. I once had a
woman call my home, where /The Amethyst Review/ was based, ten years
after the publication ceased to exist. When I politely informed her of
that through the fog of sleep, she accused me of lying to her because I
didn’t want to read her work! After ten minutes of patiently trying to
convince her of my sincerity I said to her, “I don’t know what time it
is where you are but its 3:10 a. M. here. I need to go back to sleep.

If, if, if you have an editor who takes the time to offer comments (a
rare thing these days), deal with the comments with maturity. Consider
them rationally. If you think the comments are accurate, apply them to
your work. If you think they are way off base, ignore them.

Remember, at literary journals and magazines it takes awhile for a
submission to get logged in, circulated among a number of editors to be
read and commented on, for an editorial meeting to be held and so on. Be
patient. In most cases, this work isn’t being done 9 to 5. It’s being
done after editors have put in a long days work at a job that does put
food on the table.

Laura hoped that you might find it helpful to know a little bit about
what happens behind the scene at literary journals and magazines. I hope
this has been helpful. Keep writing and keep sending those manuscripts out!

Thanks, Penny for sharing your expertise with us.

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Leave a comment


  1. Thank you, Penny and Laura. This glimpse into the editorial procedure was interesting, particularly because after the workshop I’m participating in, I should have a few stories to start submitting. Then, I’ll just have to pray they connect with “the /right/ editor in the /right/ mood on the /right/ day!”


    • I’m sure the workshop will go great, Linda. I wish you all the best. It sounds as though you’ll be VERY busy this next while. I’ll be keeping my fingers crossed that you will find the right editor for your submissions. I’ll be cheering for you!!


  2. Thanks for the insight into an editor’s job.


  3. I’m glad I just have to write the words, not decide which ones are worthy of publication and which are not. Thank you for this peek into the editorial process, Laura and Penny. Very enlightening!


  4. Pam Chamberlain

     /  May 11, 2010

    Very interesting. Thanks!


    • This is a subject that you are very familiar with as well, Pam. Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment.


  5. Cool. Thank you Penny and Laura. That was very helpful!


  6. Penny Ferguson

     /  May 16, 2010

    I am glad some of you found this to be helpful. Good luck with your writing.


  7. Very interesting post. Honest.


  1. New on the Horizon « Laura Best, author

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