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.

Canada Post—You Rock!

Seems as if we’re not complaining about the weather, we’re complaining about the mail service. Where do those missing letters go to that end up being delivered many years later? I mean, how do they suddenly get back into the mail service after all that time? Everyone seems to have their own postal “horror story.” Either that or we dislike the ever-rising cost of postage, especially writers. Those manuscripts can cost a fortune to mail out! Online submissions have helped cut down costs to some degree but not every manuscript can be emailed, especially not the big bulky ones.

But this week I was so totally impressed by Canada Post, I just had to share it with someone. Last Friday afternoon, I made a stop at the post office to send off two parcels, one to Kentville (30 miles away), the other to Ontario. I love the little tracking number we now get when we mail parcels. No worrying or wondering if your parcel arrives at its destination.

What a nifty idea! Wow! Did I just say nifty?

The postal worker told me that the mail wouldn’t go out until Monday morning which I pretty much knew. Did I want to pay extra to ensure it would arrive within three business days, she asked? Nope, not THAT important. I knew they’d get there eventually.

So, this afternoon, I decided to check online to see how far the parcels had gone. I figured the one heading to Kentville had likely been delivered, but one never knows.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my local parcel arrived a few hours ( that’s right— hours)after it had been sent and the Ontario parcel made it there on Tuesday morning…

Who needs three day service?

For a fleeting moment I wanted to cry out, but the parcel I sent my niece, who lives in Halifax, took a week and two days to be delivered how did Canada Post manage Ontario in a day and a half?

I’ll admit, I was left wondering. I decided, however, that somethings really don’t require an answer. Somethings are simply meant to be accepted.

I guess the whole point I’m trying to make is this, so often we’re quick to jump on something that doesn’t meet our standards in some way. We complain far and wide to anyone within ear shot. But how often do we give credit for all those times when things go along smoothly? Might I venture to say not nearly as many times as when something goes awry?

So, thank you Canada Post for a job well done! I hope you keep up the good work. In return for your terrific service, now and in the future, I promise not to complain the next time the price of a stamp goes up!

The Art of Dragging One’s Heels

This week I decided it’s time to dust off some manuscripts and get them ready to send off. I’ll admit I’ve been rather slack in that area this past while. I guess there’s an obvious lesson here—- Is it’s not enough to write the darn thing, I also have to get it in the mail.

At the beginning of each New Year I start a list of submissions so that I can keep track of where things are and how long they’ve been gone. For anyone sending out submissions it’s also a good way to keep track of where you’ve sent things in the past. You wouldn’t want to waste your time sending a story to the same magazine more than once. Since I rarely send out multiple submissions, it can often be a long slow process before a story is actually accepted for publication.

With the publication of the book it’s been easy for me to forget the fact that —hey, you know what? I write short stories, too. I can guarantee that a story sitting in a file on my computer isn’t going to miraculously appear in a literary journal one day all by itself. Mind you, it would be a welcomed thing but life just doesn’t work that way for some reason. I also like to remind myself that simply because there’s a book out there with my name on it doesn’t mean I can sit back with my feet up.

I have some projects that have been idling for awhile that I want to get back to, but in order to do that I have to resist the temptation to start something new. I’ll admit that I’m hearing some whisperings in the background that I’m trying very much to ignore —at least for the time being. I’m not sure how long I can hold off.

So there I am this week, printing and mailing and starting all over. Guess I needed to remind myself that there’s still work to be done. I believe I’ve perfected the art of dragging my heels long enough.

So speak up and admit it—- what have you been dragging your heels about lately?

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