How Editors Decide

Short fiction editors who make "open calls" (rather than soliciting stories from specific writers they already know) get a lot of submissions, typically hundreds. This is known in the business as "slush". Unless a publication is very small, there is usually at least one person whose job is to be the "slush reader". This person will reject the vast majority of the submissions without even showing them to the person whose name appears on the magazine or anthology as the "editor".

In most cases, the rejection rate is upwards of 90%, and most of those rejections are of stories that are completely unpublishable. This may be because they're incompetently told, or because they're hate-filled rants in the guise of fiction, and this series won't help you if one of those is your problem. Many, though, will be rejected because they haven't followed the submission guidelines, or because they're so full of errors that the editor will have a major task ahead of them to knock them into shape (and will still miss some errors; even very good editors do this, if there are a great many).

All else being equal, sending in a clean, competent manuscript will already put you ahead of most of the other submissions. You still need to write a good story that will capture the editor's attention, but at least you won't be part of the 90% that are rejected without further consideration.

I've made several sales to short story magazines and anthologies, and most of the rejections I've had have been personalised, which is a sign I'm getting past the slush readers. Several of my pieces have been "held for further consideration," which is how short fiction editors say "shortlisted". I say this not to boast, but to give you confidence that I do know what I'm talking about when I discuss getting through the gate with editors.

Part of the secret--not the whole secret, but part of it--is sending in a well-presented manuscript. And ideally, this isn't a manuscript that you have cleaned up from a terrible, shabby first draft. It's a manuscript that you wrote cleanly in the first place.

I've beta-read for a number of indie authors, and read a lot of indie books, and what I've observed is that the people who produce clean books produce clean first drafts. They don't make two hundred errors and then labour mightily (along with a hapless copy editor, or two, or three) to get it down to twenty; they make maybe five or six errors and get it down to one or two, or even zero.

That's a controversial statement, because most people I know follow the philosophy of "just get it on the page, we can fix it up in post". But that's my observation: it's a lot harder to produce a clean result if you rely on catching and fixing errors once you've made them than it is to not make them in the first place. I've seen books that have been through three editors and multiple beta readers that have simple, basic mistakes in them, and I know that they started out with more issues than National Geographic and this is the residue. On the other hand, I've seen books by people who don't employ a copy editor at all, and they are pristine--because they made so few mistakes that they (or their beta readers, or their developmental editor) caught them all before publication.

This is probably a good time to mention Muphry's Law, which states that any time you get on your high horse about copy editing you are bound to make a typo. Please let me know (politely) if I do, bearing in mind that I write Commonwealth English rather than American English.

I've drifted from the point, which is how editors decide what to publish. Basically, your chances are much improved if you do three things:

  1. Read the submission guidelines very carefully, several times, and follow them to the letter. Sometimes, one purpose of those guidelines is to weed out people they don't want to work with (people who don't care what the editor wants, but will just send in whatever they have). Another purpose of the guidelines is to make the life of the slush reader and the editor easier, and if they have to decide between someone who's followed the guidelines and someone who hasn't, guess which one they'll pick?
  2. Format your submission according to Standard Manuscript Format. Standard Manuscript Format isn't completely standard--it has a number of variations--but there are basic things that you need to do, and I'll talk about them in the next post.
  3. Show basic competence in your use of language. Yes, I've seen published stories with plenty of errors, but again, you're looking for an edge over all those other people who're submitting. If there's a choice between two otherwise equally good stories, and one of them is badly punctuated and full of misused words, which one is the editor going to choose?

The next post will deal with Standard Manuscript Format, and the rest of this series will help you with correct language usage. When it comes to following the guidelines, just read them over slowly, step by step, do all the steps, then check that you've done them. You'll be fine.

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