As a fiction writer, I’ve felt the sting of rejection more than I’d like to admit. It can take years to craft a story that resonates with readers. After all that effort, wouldn’t it be nice if placing the work was easy by comparison?
Yet during my time as Editor-in-Chief of the literary magazine Sonora Review, I experienced the flip side of the submissions process; this motivated me to share the top reasons your writing was rejected in hopes others can improve chances of seeing their work in print.
The Slush Pile
It’s important to envision the slush pile (all of the unsolicited manuscripts a magazine receives) as a physical thing, perhaps the size of a refrigerator. Sonora Review used to receive 1,000 submissions a year. A large magazine such as Tin House might receive more than 1,000 each month. Widespread use of online management systems makes life tidier for editorial staff, but the ease of mass-submitting with a click of a button can triple the number of manuscripts they receive.
Reading thousands of submissions can be hard work, even if that work is fun. And at all but the largest publications, the people who read and respond to your work are unpaid volunteers. This means their passion for discovering cutting-edge writing may be unmatched, but their time is at a premium as they balance this with work, teaching, studying, caring for loved ones, and their own creative efforts.
While the path to publication varies by journal, it generally goes like this: Short stories that contain no reason for outright rejection are carefully read to completion by at least one reader. Any that fall under the categories of “maybe” or “possible yes” are passed along to multiple readers before coming to an editorial committee discussion and vote.
While some journals read every submission all the way through – and a few provide feedback on promising manuscripts – most do not have the resources to do so. And here is where I make a confession: as Editor, I not only allowed staff to stop reading after five pages of any unsolicited story that was a definite “no”, I encouraged this. Since then, I’ve learned it is not uncommon for editors to require their staff read only the first three pages of short stories (which can run upwards of twenty-five pages), provided no entry fee has been charged.
Why? Because no one has the luxury of savoring a single submission along with with a glass of good wine on the patio. Instead, an editor sits down with a stack of twenty stories, perhaps two or three hours, and a mission: to find something so blazingly good it reaffirms her reason for spending her free time in this fashion . . . or to move on to the next, in hopes of discovering the best fit for the upcoming issue. Meaning: Sometimes, she’s looking for a reason to stop reading.
Don’t give her one.
Our eyes are trained to skip over errors in grammar, mechanics, and punctuation in our writing. After all, our brain knows what it intends to convey and simply fills in the blanks. As others cannot read our minds, they more easily notice mistakes. This is why it is vital to have at least one other writer proofread your submission, or to seek feedback from a professional editor to ensure your work is in the best possible shape before sending out.
Bottom line: Is a single typo grounds for rejecting an otherwise strong story? Of course not. But few polished stories feature multiple errors. It’s also worth noting: While larger magazines provide authors with galleys prior to publication, many do not. Instead, authors whose work has been accepted submit their final copy in the exact form it will appear in the journal. This means, more often than not, you must act as your own editor anyway.
In fiction, a point of view shift occurs when the viewpoint moves from one third-person limited narrator’s thoughts into another’s without a section break . . . or any apparent reason other than the desire to show us things the main character can’t see or tell us things the main character can’t know. (For example: When writing in Heidi’s POV, readers see the world as Heidi sees it, through Heidi’s eyes — we cannot see or know anything to which Heidi isn’t privy. This means if Heidi follows Matt to his door and Matt slams the door in her face, we cannot then know what Matt is doing behind that door.) While novels frequently switch viewpoints at chapter or section breaks, stories rarely go into the mind of more than one character unless this omniscient stance is being employed for clear thematic purposes.
Bottom line: POV shifts cannot be corrected by copyediting; these represent a developmental issue that must be addressed prior to publication. If an author is shifty with POV, it raises a red flag — readers lose trust, and it usually leads to rejection.
You send a Western to a journal in the Southwest that specializes in experimental fiction. You send a first-person coming-of-age narrative to a website whose editor states in the latest Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market that he hates the first-person. You send genre work to a literary contest (or vice versa). The only thing less heartening than receiving a rejection is receiving a rejection for good work that isn’t a fit for the publication in which you tried to place it. Skipping the research step is a sure way to rack up dozens of rejections that reveal less about the quality of your work than your unfamiliarity with the market. Thanks to the Internet, there are more publications than ever, and almost all of them feature guidelines and excerpts online. This means there are also few viable excuses for submitting blind.
Use these questions to determine if your writing is a match for their market:
These questions presume you’ve taken time to evaluate your own work. For example, can you identify whether your prose is plainspoken or poetic? Your subject matter topical? Your style experimental? The tone ironic or earnest? Valuing your writing enough to understand your style will go a long way in helping you find a home for your fiction.
Bottom line: Devote an hour each week to researching literary markets. The Review-Review is an excellent resource for browsing guidelines and excerpts online. After all, if you won’t take the time to read what magazines publish, why should you expect them to labor over your submission?
Being a good literary citizen is essential to stacking the odds in your favor. Subscribe to a literary magazine or two if you regularly submit. Volunteer as a reader for a local publication. Attend readings. Support other writers. Build a community. Who knows? The person sitting beside you in a workshop might be the next editor of a magazine soliciting new voices.
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