I wanted to write a little more about the topic of rejected stories, but I wanted to address the editorial side. I do this not because I think an editor will read this and change something because of what I say, but because I'm hoping that by spelling this out for other authors, some of us might better recognize the source of our frustration and therefore cope with it a little more smoothly.
So, some things that I think editors could do to improve the author's experience of being rejected:
#1) It would sure be nice to know a bit about the reason. I'm not asking for a critique. Heck, I don't want a critique. But a quick note, even a rubber stamp, would be so helpful to guide authors to the right response. As it stands, most places give you a generic form letter that says nothing other than that their publication cannot use your story at this time, but thanks for letting them read it. A few places give really detailed reader responses and critiques, and that's almost as bad because they may conflict with themselves or others, and may cause an author to unnecessarily put his or story through massive reworking. But it would be so nice to know if a story was rejected because of...
- Bad grammar!
- Typos, spelling, other errors!
- Did not comply with guidelines.
- Story didn't hold interest.
- Bad pacing.
- Tired and cliched.
- Poor characterization.
- General bad writing.
- Doesn't fit style / tone being looked for.
- Inappropriate language.
If authors had just some idea of how they missed the mark, it would be incredibly helpful. I know the slushpile is big, but I've also graded a gazillion college term papers and exams all in one night, and a few words as you dump it off seem pretty manageable.
#2) It would be great if editors were a little more upfront and specific in their guidelines. For instance, if you say you look at new writers as well as established writers, it would be great to give even a rough breakdown. (Some do this!) If you say, "New Writers encouraged to submit," authors will approach you differently than if you say, "New Writers welcome to submit; approximately six stories by new writers published each year." Likewise, if you say you won't rule out any style or type of story, you're needlessly packing your slush pile if there are some things that, really, on reflection, you've never accepted even if you don't technically rule it out. If you're the editor of a literary mag and you say, "May consider exceptional genre fiction," virtually any author will think their genre fiction is exceptional and feel free to submit. Odds are you, you mean that if it's literary but kind of borderline on some genre, you may consider it. Say that. These things might reduce the editors' workload and might give authors more realistic expectations going in.
#3) Be honest about your publication's role in the author's life and game plan. I do think it's valuable to read back issues, be familiar with stories that have been published. Just as editors have slushpiles of stories, though, writers have slushpiles of publications. There aren't many times a writer crafts a story with a certain publication in mind. Yes, the author needs to do research and make informed choices, but just as an editor cannot thoroughly read every story that is submitted, no author can become fully familiar with the tastes of every editor during their tenure at their current publication. Nor should they be expected to. Saying, "Read some sample issues to become familiar with our content," is good advice, but it's impractical on the scale of a professional writer trying to manage multiple stories through the milieu of possible publishers. Nor can an author necessarily glean from reading sample issues the points an editor hopes he or she does. An editor should be able to describe his or her taste in stories. There's nothing wrong with saying, "We publish literary fiction that explorers contemporary liberal social values. Please do not submit stories about growing up or coming of age." Or with describing your publication as, "publishing crime fiction that focuses on a character or a crime rather than a general feeling of suspense or creepiness." Editors are good with words. It can be done!
Now, we all know, that few if any editors do these things, and they may very well have great reasons for not doing them. I'm not really trying to challenge editors. Tomorrow, I will post the third in my series on rejections -- since the editors' jobs aren't to make it easy on the authors, how can authors manage these same things on their end.