I originally published this article in early 2016 on the website of Caffeinated Press, the now-closed niche press that I co-founded and which operated 2014-2019. Because the content remains useful, I’ve reposted it here, without significant revision.
We’re now several hundred submissions into the reading window for Vol. 2, Issue 1, of The 3288 Review. As publisher and fiction editor of this beautiful quarterly journal of arts and letters, it falls to me to perform the first substantive read on inbound fiction pieces.
Let’s begin, however, with a very important disclaimer: The content that follows offers insight into how I triage inbound queries. No two editors flay the same hobbyhorses. What matters to me, might not matter to someone else; the protocols we use at Caffeinated Press probably aren’t duplicated in toto at other small- and mid-sized publishers. My goal is to give you insight into the evaluation process, but this process is inherently subjective and you should not read my comments as suggesting a universally optimal route to sail past the first buoy. In other words: When you hear how one editor edits, you’ve heard how one editor edits, so keep your grains of salt handy.
One more thing: Our editorial-review process is blinded, so as fiction editor, I don’t know the identity of the submitter. All I see is a de-identified synopsis and the de-identified story.
Enough foreplay. So here’s my process, in order:
- In 10 seconds or less I scroll down through the entire story to eyeball overall length and to look for obvious challenges that might bedevil layout. Stuff like embedded graphics, changes in typeface, sections with unusual spacing, etc. — all of those earn automatic rejections, because our templates cannot incorporate those variations.
- Less quickly — perhaps 3 seconds per page, scrolling up — I look for more subtle visual cues that the story isn’t ready for prime time. Key offenders here are paragraph length (too many long blocks?) and the use of frequent internal subheads or other non-standard breaks in narration, like numbers or asterisks or boldface type. Section breaks are neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but very many of them within a short story sometimes suggests a weakly structured plot, so my “plot coherence” antenna rises while I work. I also keep an order-of-magnitude mental tally of how often I see ellipses; the higher the number, the more likely it is I’ll reject the piece without having read it.
- When I’m back on the first page, I examine how that first page is structured. Does it default to a double-spaced, 1-inch-margin text area on 8.5-inch-by-11-inch paper? Does it use a conservative serif typeface at 11 or 12 points? Does it ensure that paragraphs are effected by hanging indents instead of manual tab insertions? Are there any superfluous elements (e.g., word counts) that are wholly unnecessary in an age of electronic documents? Conversely, does it appear that the writer — as evidenced by the exacting precision of the visual presentation — fails to understand that all we’ll do is copy the text into Adobe InDesign, rendering all that fancy layout work moot? Much info about a writer’s professionalism carries forward into how the first page appears. Too sloppy, or too perfect, are both a mark of an early-career author. What matters is that the content is served up in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself and doesn’t generate a clean-up nightmare when that content is imported into InDesign.
- Perhaps 5 percent of the time, I reject the piece after I read the first sentence. If it’s cliché, or if it contains a spelling or grammar error, or if it packs too many background facts — I stop reading. I don’t care what follows. If the very first sentence is screwed up, the story has removed itself from consideration.
- I ask a series of very subjective questions as I read the first page: Does the opening grab my attention? Does it belabor backstory or foray into extended set-up narration? How many syntax errors accumulate in the first 250 words? Are speech tags properly deployed? Does diction flow naturally? Does the writer use strong verbs instead of relying on passive constructions, modals or ESL verbs? How many adverbs could be deleted? Is point-of-view consistent? Is narrative voice consistent? Probably half of all stories I reject, I kill by the end of the first page. It’s imperative that authors nail their opening scene. I don’t stop reading after the first page because I’m a meanie-head who likes crushing dreams. I stop reading because I have several dozen more stories to triage and odds are above 99 percent that defects on the first page pervade the story as a whole, and I’m not going to waste my time chasing the 1 percent that were great overall but just had a weak start.
- Of the remaining 50 percent of stories I reject, the decision comes usually by the middle of the piece. Sometimes the first few paragraphs really nail it, but then the story veers into an all-tell-no-show narrative backstory. Dialogue appears (hopefully) and either it works or it doesn’t. If we get past the first page, the problems that doom a submission usually relate to story itself — descriptions, pacing, conflict, voice, plausibility — and not to syntax errors. People can be technically flawless writers and yet remain incapable of telling a convincing story; similarly, people can be expert storytellers yet have no real technical acumen. People who get published, however, have enough of both skills to pass by the editorial gatekeepers, or they’ve made good use of their critique groups.
- On occasion — again, perhaps 5 percent of the time — I reject based on the last sentence or paragraph of the story. Such rejection usually follows from a bait-and-switch where the author wanted to “surprise” the reader with a twist at the end, or some other major change to the plot in the last 200 or so words that made much of the reader’s up-front investment moot. Few stories are as dissatisfying as the ones that lack conflict resolution, or suddenly fly off into uncharted territory at the 1-yard line.
- If I accept the story, then the first of two evaluations has passed successfully. We “vote” on queries with a drop-down field that assigns a numerical score — a 6 means “accept strong” while a 1 means “reject strong,” indicating that the stories were either glorious or gloriously awful. Lots of pieces come in at a 4 (“accept weak”) or a 3 (“reject weak”), meaning they’re borderline. And some are perfectly ordinary 5s (“accept normal”) or 2s (“reject normal”). At the end of the reading window, we sort through stories that earned a first-pass acceptance; we identify a set number of pieces for inclusion in the issue across each of the major content categories — fiction, non-fiction, poetry — and begin second-pass evaluation. Usually, we take all 6s and (almost) all 5s. Then we look, as space permits, through the 4s and bring in the ones that show the most promise.
Writers tend to make the same mistakes that doom their work to the rejection pile, a manifestation of the Pareto Principle at play in the literary world. These errors aren’t unique to me as an editor or The 3288 Review as a market — editors and agents across America’s amber waves of grain see them. All the time. In no particular order, these points constitute perhaps 80 percent or more of the reasons I’ve declined to accept a submission:
- Obvious, pervasive grammar errors.
- Weak writing style (e.g., over-reliance on adverbs or weak main verbs).
- Punctuation problems including putting commas outside of quote marks, using single quotes to delimit mental speech, and over-reliance on ellipses in dialogue.
- Over-reliance on narrator assertion instead of using action and dialogue to advance the story.
- Inconsistent narrative voice.
- Inconsistent point-of-view.
- Extended backstory or world-building — especially long passages in narration about what different characters “always thought” or conveniently remembered about the past.
- The primary conflict offers no satisfactory resolution to justify the readers’ engagement.
- Implausible plot — too many coincidences, improbable character behaviors, MacGuffins, logical fallacies, etc.
The best way to protect yourself from rejections for these reasons? Find a few competent beta readers. If you’ve never edited, you might not believe it, but for those of us who’ve edited hundreds or thousands of different writers over the years, it’s obvious from the first page which authors availed themselves of peer review and which didn’t. A good peer reader will catch the typos, the punctuation errors, the humdrum prose. This “one weird trick” of revising in light of solid peer review will substantially boost your odds of landing into the 7 percent.
There. Done. You’ve seen the highlights of my process and understand the most common reasons for rejection. The question — nay, the challenge — to you, therefore, is: Are you ready to write, and to find beta readers, and to submit your work for publication? I’m eager to give people a few well-deserved 6s.