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Insider View: Assessing a Story Submission

The other day I came across an interesting thread on Twitter in regards to how editors decide on which stories to accept and which ones to reject. In a nutshell, the general positing of the OP was that an editor's decision to accept a piece is based on subjectivity, not merit or skill, and that they should just own this judgement criteria instead of sending out emails stating 'it's not for us' and to stop telling authors they must improve in order to earn a place in their publication. One particular comment posited that 'there is a reader for every story'.

No - sorry - there isn't.

Well, not a willing one when it comes to poorly executed fiction. I mean, would you want to eat the rotten apples in the barrel, or only the juiciest, most lush looking?

Of course, merit and skill play a part. The OP implies the problem with many story rejections is due to editors' entrenched views rather than problematic writing or flawed premises. Should we, therefore, just accept all the stories banging at the floodgates of the slush pile, because skill and merit are purely subjective entities and mean nothing of any consequence?

I'm not on board with the implication that a story's lack of technical merits is a false narrative, nor that editors are entrenched. In my experience, editors and readers try to keep as open-minded as possible and want to see promising stories reach their full potential. And, yes, that might mean revisiting your skill set if it means reaching that potential.

There's no doubt that subjectivity does play a role - of course it does. That's the whole point of the reading (and writing) experience, isn't it? To satisfy our own subjectivity? As an editor, there is the responsibility of assuming the subjectivity of the readership. If people are regularly reading the publication, that's a good sign that they are on board with the EIC's subjective judgement. And yet, to lay claim that an editor's subjectivity is the sole or main reason for an acceptance or rejection is rather disingenuous to the whole decision-making process. It also assumes that the writer is so good that it's simply a matter of taste on whether they gain an acceptance. Is it just me, or does that sound a little arrogant? Privileged or exceptionalist, perhaps?

With my writer hat on, I'm not too shy to say that I'm confident in my abilities (I take a lot more care over my fiction than my blog posts, that's for sure!) That's not arrogance, though (honest officer!), it's more a matter of experience. However, within that confidence, I recognise there are finished pieces I can't find a home for and they may well need some extra work that I'm not seeing. There might be a better ending that would really push the story out of the stratosphere. Maybe taking the plot in another direction or twist would make a way better story. Then there's the possibility I submit my drafts too early, sometimes, and another revision or two might lift the prose, the themes, the characters - whatever. Or that I framed the wrong part of the story and I should be telling it from another angle or perspective. Maybe, even, I inadvertently wrote something plain offensive or uncomfortable or cynical and no one wants to look in that particular mirror (possible: I do suffer from foot-in-mouth disease). No story is beyond reproach. My own included. I'm not blaming editors, though, for whatever is lacking in those pieces, even if I also find the submissions process incredibly frustrating. I enjoyed writing them. Maybe they are not for publication? Some writing isn't.

Okay, I digress. Putting my editor's hat on...

Often, though not always, depending on the number of staff involved, a magazine/journal will have a filtration system comprising first readers and sub-editors before a submission even makes it to the editor-in-chief (EIC). The point of having several sets of eyes on the same stories is exactly to avoid a lone, individual subjectivity making the sole assessment. If the team's general consensus is that a story isn't hitting the intended mark, that is unlikely a subjectivity issue and more probably a technical one.

In an ideal world, that filtration system would deliver only the best, most polished works with only unique concepts to the EIC's desk and, in that ideal world, it might come down purely to their subjectivity on whether they liked the story enough to publish and - hopefully - pay the author for it. That would be editor heaven, I'm sure.

In reality, that's not what happens. Some pieces are so good the entire team loves them and some pieces are a little rough around the edges but with recognisable potential. Experienced editors and first readers have enough technical savvy to identify which elements will make the story work better to buff it to gleaming.

My personal opinion is that there is no such thing as a perfect story stemming from a single creator. Just read the credits or acknowledgements of any professional form of fiction - be it TV, film, novels or plays - and you'll see that these productions have employed TEAMS of people to polish them to perfection (or as near as they can get it). In other words, all mediums employ several sets of eyes and skills on the same project to get the best from it.

Even those novels deemed as masterpieces cannot lay claim to being perfect. For example, take one of my favourites Girl With a Pearl Earring. That book does not put a step wrong in its technical and emotional execution in my mind. So perfect is this execution that any judgement of the book DOES come down to pure subjectivity. And therein lies its imperfection - not everyone likes it. Some people have difficulty identifying the plot or find that it's boring. When Chevalier initially submitted to the commissioning editor of her publishing house, I'll bet you my precious stash of sweet chili Doritos* that it didn't read nearly as sublimely as the final, published book. It is when the story reaches its intended audience that individual subjectivity can take over in assessing its merits. The mechanics - the kinks - have been worked out and ironed over by publishing professionals working with the author.

*Doritos: a rarity here in rural France and highly coveted, requiring the utmost security from thieves (the children).

Sadly, this is not the case for every published novel out there. I've read kindle novels where - had it not been on an electrical device - I would have thrown the book at the wall for its sloppiness, rolling my eyes and decrying self-published works as tarring the decent author's with a bad rep, only to find the book popped out from a bone fide publishing house, albeit a small press. In this instance, it's either a lack of resources on how much time they can spend editing or it's the best they could get out of the author. Maybe they wanted to cash in on a trend while they could and didn't have the time to wait around until the author gained enough experience to pull off near-perfection. Maybe the audience they were catering to simply didn't care about the technicalities of the prose and execution - they would buy into the world, characters or premise enough to forego all that.

As for that Twitter thread, to me it mostly highlights, yet again, how so many writers feel the chill of that huge wall of silence from the other side of the fence. If it's any consolation, editors are writers, too, in a lot of cases, and we all go through the same pain. The number of submissions landing at the feet of eds and agents makes it impossible to write a personal response to them all. Best advice: if you want feedback, find a critique group to help, or pay a pro for their time.

Still, I thought it might help some of you out there to have a little insight on my personal criteria for assessing a story, because your submissions to any publication are not judged by subjectivity alone. They are read carefully and assessed in accordance to merit and execution by experienced people who want to be lost in great fiction and publish talented authors.

I even created a cool little infographic that you can quickly cast your eye over (yes, a little graphics design fun for me this month!)

I must emphasise, this is my criteria for my decision making - other editors will work with some of the same criteria but also with their own. This is not representative of all editors. An EIC has a load of other considerations to make, on top of the story itself. FREX, maybe themes or national holidays, political affairs (if the publication sways in that way), what types of stories they publish, what types of stories they don't publish, what's been published in the past, what else is in the submissions pile, etc.

This is not an exhaustive list, but there's only so much room on the card!

**Doesn't apply to outright offensive stories**

Story Submissions Assessment Criteria

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