Friday, February 12, 2016

So how much do editors actually read?

           Writers sometimes wonder, just how much of a submission actually gets read during a journal’s decision-making process?
            It would be a mistake to generalize about editors—they’re a very independent bunch, and they typically formulate their own distinctive processes as they go.
            In the days of paper submissions, I liked to process submissions all by myself. I’d sit on a favorite Oriental rug and open one envelope after another. As I went along, some stacks would grow—the stack of envelopes with personalized rejection slips inside, the stack of work that demanded more attention before a decision, the stack of work and envelopes to recycle, the stack of cover letters to keep on file.
            When we adopted an online submission system, everything changed. Paper submissions dried up within the course of a year, and so did my pleasant evenings and weekends reading poetry submissions on my carpet. The new practice involved logging in to a web-based system and reading work on the screen. I would never again get lost in a stack of submissions; instead, I became acutely aware of every moment, and tried hard not to watch the clock that was unavoidably present in the upper right corner of my screen.
            In both systems, I would pull out some promising work from the submission pile and pass them along to other readers for more opinions from an excellent staff. That staff rescued me from my sometimes-terrible taste and my occasional mawkishness. They also rescued a large number of poems that seemed good enough to discuss but not quite ready for prime time. Many times I was talked into accepting work that I would not have imagined myself printing. It does make me wonder how many gems ended up in the wrong stack on the carpet over the years.
            My journal was a major one—an established print journal affiliated with a venerable university writing program. We usually topped 5,000 individual submissions per year, and with contests and special calls for submissions factored in, we sometimes approached twice that many. Our top-down approach, with editors vetting the submissions and taking them to a larger staff for review, meant that a few people were reading quite a larger number of words.
A lot of journals follow the opposite method—trusted and trained first-readers pull work for the top-level editors to consider—but in a two-year MFA program, I worried that newer student staffers might struggle to recognize the better work, and there wasn’t really time for sufficient on-the-job training before they graduated. Editing, after all, is an activity that involves a lot of trust.
            The question can fairly be asked: How many of those poems did I read, whether on my cozy living room rug or on a desktop computer? Did I read every poem, every word?
            I’m sorry to report that I did not read all—but I did read most. The reason would be clearer with a view of the submissions themselves. Some small percentage, maybe 10 percent, rule themselves out with simplistic rhyme, ridiculous fonts and pictures, hackneyed sentiments, already-published work, and the like. Certain submissions are obvious “no” submissions at a glance, and I rarely did more than glance at them, since there was so much more to read.
            Some submissions were merely weaker than the work we usually printed, and these became easier to spot with time. I put a lot of stock in form, and those poems that reflected out-of-control form were easy to spot and discard. (Note that I do not mean irregular form—I mean form that seems random, and formal moves that seem unnecessary to the poem’s meaning. I have a love of sprawling, space-filled poems that treat horizontal space as thoughtfully as the vertical stacking of lines, but I seldom saw much of this kind of work in my submission pile.)
            If the work seemed promising—if it was as good as the work we were printing—I would hold on to it and spend a lot more time on it, reading it over and over, and discussing it with trusted fellow readers. A huge investment of time went into good work, and I am both heartened and disheartened to report that literary journals receive a lot of “good” work—more good stuff than bad stuff, in fact.
            Obvious nos were quickly dispatched, sometimes with only a glance to see if the poet rhymed “love” with “dove” or “above.” It had to be one or the other. I did not read every word of those submissions, and I sometimes did not make it past the first page.
            Work that was clearly inadequate formally, linguistically, or rhetorically also received a quick rejection, and if I read the entire packet, it was because the lengths of poems were manageable. If I could flip through and eyeball things pretty easily, I’d read all poems, if not the entirety of each. With these, I was merely checking my initial reaction, which grew to be fairly reliable. (My reading grew speedier as I continued in my position—I think because I encountered truly amazing work, and feeble stuff couldn’t compete.)
            The work that was good—fresh and competent and memorable—I read in its entirety, many times. I grew fond of the strong poets who would send work and be rejected, and I rooted for them, reading generously when I saw their familiar names. This work is what I passed along to other readers, and there was enough of it to keep us busy without my staff having to read any lower. These writers would often receive an encouraging rejection, beyond a simple thank you, and often their rejection slip would contain an explicit invitation to try us again—never idle words, from an editor.
            I should note that prose works a little bit differently. The work is much longer, for the most part, and most of it does not get read in its entirety. With fiction and essays (excluding flash), writers usually get a page or two of close reading, and I offer a flip-and-scan treatment for the rest, sometimes to see what happens to the characters (I’m told that more seasoned readers learn not to care). I think it’s safe to say that only the competent work gets read in its entirety where prose is concerned, and it’s the editor who gets to decide what “competent” means. We tend to trust that we’re sending to people who should be able to spot good work, but clearly, it’s a crap-shoot.
            By the way, I hope I haven’t suggested that my editorial judgment is any less of a crap-shoot. I’m experienced enough to have built up some screening acumen, and that has been helpful through the years, but it’s entirely possible to catch me on a bad day, or to land in the submission queue at a busy time. I can read something and miss the point almost as easily as anyone else can—and I just say “almost” because I’m such an old hand at it.
            Rejections don’t mean a whole lot about our work, and writers shouldn’t take them too seriously. For a long time, rejections meant that some composition instructor on a brightly colored carpet found a reason to put work in one pile instead of another. Maybe she didn’t like your font. I promise, though, that she was doing the best she could, at least most of the time.

            Most editors work in good faith, and they work hard, with the best motives in mind. But a no from an editor is just a snap judgment from someone who may not have spent much time with our work. There’s only one recourse: show it to another editor, and another—and keep writing like mad while we await each response.

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