Thursday, February 4, 2016

Vetting the maybe pile

            “Sorry” only seems to be the hardest word. As it turns out, “Maybe” is much more difficult.
            When choosing work to publish, editors face three varieties. There are works we look at that merit an instant and obvious “no.” There are, on very rare occasions, things we know we can’t possibly live without, and these get an instant (or at least a swift) “yes.” And then there are the maybes.
            In my earlier incarnation as an editor, I was known to be a fast reader. Some submitters loved that; they sent work and I responded to it either immediately or within a few days. Obviously, most of the responses were rejections. I hope it goes without saying that this is because submissions numbered in the thousands and my journal could print only about fifty works in an issue. Because of sheer numbers, the chances are overwhelmingly strong that any submission to a reputable magazine will be rejected.
Although I have always welcomed, and strongly encouraged, simultaneous submissions so that good work would not be tied up as I considered it, my speed ensured a quick response that made the practice a bit unnecessary. (I wish this were still the case! I am quite a slow reader these days—something I am working to turn around.)
What made me so fast was years of reading lots and lots of work, and getting a feel for what stood out. If a poem seemed remarkable to me, someone who read many thousands of individual poems by a large pool of writers each year, I could presume that my journal’s readers, too, would find something of interest there.
To recast that slightly, I should say that I quickly learned to spot a “no,” even among work that was quite moving or proficient. I daresay I rejected more good poems than bad ones over the years; what, after all, is a “bad” poem, anyway? An attempt to say something true in the best language at one’s disposal is hard to classify as bad, even when it falls short—and even when it fails entirely. There is something very honorable in the honest effort.
The journal I edited had a top-down structure that was, and remains, unusual. The main editors read everything, and the promising work went to a larger group for discussion. Many magazines send work up the chain of command, and the problem with this is obvious; interns, students, and volunteer readers are typically less experienced and can therefore be less adept at spotting the better work, most particularly that good work that operates on a quieter level. (In poetry, it’s easy to spot the stellar image that instantly melds with your DNA and changes you; it’s a little harder to see a complex argument unfold and change your thinking—and this is especially difficult in a submission pile.)
As a chief reader, I was able to reject on the spot, and I needed no other opinions to do it. I sent the slip immediately, always with my appreciation, and always with the understanding that I may have missed something (and probably did) by going solo and working rather quickly.
Some of the work I rejected was more than just good-because-creative-expression-is-noble. Some of it was plain old good, as in publishable. I’m always surprised by the sheer volume of publishable work that journals receive. People are writing astonishing and moving things that readers will never see. There’s an embarrassment of riches in the literary world, and rejections are not a strong indicator of whether one’s writing has worth. But editors are putting together a journal that reflects an aesthetic, and in which the entries harmonize and play off of each other. They’ve already accepted pieces that may not work well with a submission. They may have published something similar two issues ago, not that a writer should be expected to know this. Writing is art, but what editors do also approaches that standard; editors are creating something that they, too, want to hold up to readers’ scrutiny.
So it’s very easy to say no to the work that isn’t of highest merit, or the work that doesn’t fit in some way, or the work that is too long to merit the space it would require, or the work that has a format that would not be shown to good advantage in the journal’s own format. It takes less only a couple of minutes, usually, to make this determination, and then a couple more to inform the writer of the decision.
This leaves a small stack, real or virtual, of work that is harder to turn down—work that needs another set of eyes, or work that an editor knows she shouldn’t print (too similar, maybe, to what has come before) but loves and wants to anyway. I call it the maybe pile.
The maybe pile is where an editor spends most of her time. I’ve had days when I’ve done nothing but agonize over a handful of submissions in the maybe pile, weighing feedback, eyeballing options, rereading and rereading again.
Remember how I mentioned the instant yeses that an editor encounters? Well, for me, those were so rare that not every issue included them. Most yeses languish a bit in the maybe pile, where they stand a chance of finding an editor’s favor. It is in the maybe pile that we editors start relationships with writers—and maybe one-sided ones; there are a lot of writers out there who see a cordial rejection slip and don’t realize that I’m a fan of theirs and I’m pulling for them.
Incidentally, the maybe pile is also where those upper-tier rejections are pulled from. Things in the no pile tend to receive a standard rejection. The maybe pile yields more personalized rejections, with editors pointing out a particular title that came close or asking the writer to send again.

Editors have plenty of work. If they ask a writer to send again, they mean it. And if you think about it, a lot of good things in life start out as a maybe. Maybe I’ll take this job, marry that person, adopt this cat, move to this city. Maybes have massive potential—even if this time around they turn out to be a maybe not.


  1. I'm still working on that poem you gave a "maybe" eons ago. You gave very specific feedback; thank you for that.

    1. I'll bet I'd remember it if I saw it! I gave specific feedback so seldom that I must have really liked it. :)

    2. Thanks Karen. I still really like the poem and I still don't know what to do about that last line.

  2. You sent such memorable rejection when you were poetry editor of MAR! I find the personal notes come so seldom these days and have kept the best ones, along with the much fewer acceptance notes, over the years in a scrapbook for inspiration. The collective aesthetic of a journal is hard to define or understand for many submitters, I suspect. Maybe that might be the topic of a future blog!:)

    1. That's such a good point! An idea worth thinking about, for sure. And you're such a talented poet! I remember your work very well.

  3. Sadly, at this point, the only way to know if an editor actually wants you to submit again is if they say anything specific about the work you submitted. Many journals have started using what I call "standard submit again" rejections. A decade ago you could take a "send more work" or whatever seriously. Now, under the guise of "encouraging writers," many journals add a submit again to their standard rejection form letter. Examples include: Missouri Review, Ploughshares, Zymbol, StoryQuarterly, Fiction International, So to Speak, Slice, Cincinnati Review, Superstition Review, The Collagist, heck, the list goes on and on and gets longer every day. I find it frustrating and a bit shady that these standard submit agains also started up around the time many journals started charging submission fees... I'd submit again anyway, but I really dislike being mislead.

  4. I think your final point -- submit-again responses as possible fundraiser -- is very interesting, and I hadn't considered it in quite that way. Thanks for the input! I do know how I use send-again rejections (for free submissions), and it is to encourage people whose work showed promise. It's still less than a personal note, but my send-again template rejection is reserved for the stuff I'd really like to see in my queue again -- less than a tenth of all submitters receive it.

  5. I really wish all editors and journals still did it that way. There is always the question of how soon to submit again, and I still would to journals that sent standard rejections, but not as soon or as often as I would to places sending submit agains. I've edited journals too and know how much you want to see more work by people whose work you like, and how annoyed you get seeing the same person over and over again when you didn't really like their work that much. So I'd much prefer a standard rejection that was just that without a fake submit again because then I'd be less inclined to submit so often that editors start hating the very idea of me before they even read my submission.