Wednesday, February 17, 2016

When you're winged by an editor's feedback

A subject that frustrates editors and writers alike is that of feedback on work.

Some writers want feedback. They’ve read, undoubtedly, about our literary forebears, and they want to be in on that long tradition of written correspondence that helped to shape many major writers’ work. There are countless examples of editors who nurtured writers, and of writers who nurtured younger writers, à la Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.

The problem is that editors of journals don’t really have the time to correspond with most submitters, even very promising ones. Inevitably, a lot of writers await decisions, and editors have a responsibility to communicate with them. Careful, detailed responses on the strengths and weaknesses of work require reflection and time—time that most editors simply don’t have.

As a result, well-meaning editors often dash off a quick sentence of advice, and this sort of feedback can be perplexing because of its brevity. It falls short of the sort of relationship that some writers are hoping for, and yet most editors don’t risk saying too much out of fear it could be misconstrued. I’ve known many writers to become very offended by the sentence of suggestion that some editors scrawl at the end of a rejection message. And those who are open to criticism may take the product of a few seconds of attention entirely too much to heart.

A reader sent me the text of a recent rejection slip he received on a story he submitted to a journal. I think it’s an excellent example of the blunderbuss approach of editors who strive to be personal but who lack the time to make a proper connection. Here it is:

Thanks very much for sending this story to [journal name]. Unfortunately, it's not quite right for us. The sense of detail felt vivid, but the opening felt to me predominantly description and summary of Anika's relationship situation, without as much tinges of emotion or attitude or drive from her or acuteness in her situation as I needed for it to seize me.

We appreciate your interest in our magazine. Please feel free to submit other work in the future.



Let’s take a few minutes to break this down.

First, the editor thanks the writer, as he absolutely should for all work entrusted to him, good or bad. It’s a polite and businesslike note, and the decision to reject the work is stated early; I do hate weeding through a long note to arrive at the verdict, which is the only information I’m actually interested in.

Doesn’t this rejection feel an awful lot like poor workshop feedback? It’s a formula I call “faint praise + but.” The editor says, “The sense of detail felt vivid, but …..” In truth, it is much easier to explain what is not working than to describe what is. But what would be intellectual laziness in a workshop is acceptable in a rejection slip, I suppose, since the information is being provided to justify the work’s refusal.

But what follows the “but” here is a mess. Look at this clause! “The opening felt to me predominantly description and summary of Anika's relationship situation, without as much tinges of emotion or attitude or drive from her or acuteness in her situation as I needed for it to seize me.” It keeps rolling out, and is complicated by the error with the word “much” where “many” is called for. To untangle this sentence and say it directly, the editor wants to feel something from the opening, but finds only straight information.

Of course, there is no universal law that requires an intro to be fraught with emotion, and the fact is that this editor went into the story with desires that didn’t match the author’s purpose. That’s fine; we often have personal preferences that drive our decision-making. As literary editors, though, I think it is incumbent upon us to use the language as well as we can to get our point across. Such messy prose signals messy and off-the-cuff thinking, and the writer doesn’t benefit greatly from this long syntactical fart.

The most important part of this rejection comes in the last sentence: “Please feel free to submit other work in the future.” I must reiterate this as many times as I can: Editors don’t ask to see more work if they don’t mean it. We have plenty. “Please feel free to submit” is a less hearty invitation than “Please submit.” It’s a free country, after all. But I’d take this editor at his word and send again, were I this writer—except I really wouldn’t, because I’d want to be treated with a little bit more care.

For myself, I don’t want feedback—just a simple yes or no. While I mentioned workshops earlier, it’s important to remember that submissions are not there for workshopping. When we submit, we consider the work finished. It may be good or it may be bad, but it’s not a work in progress. It’s possible that some of us are sending out drafts, but if so, we’re wasting a lot of people’s time.

A conversation about a piece of writing is a lovely thing, and often a helpful one. If editors don’t wish to have a relationship with writers, they should abstain from writing a quick sentence in place of a conversation. For me, at least, the editor’s verdict is sufficient feedback.

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